A Final Word on John Cheever

In an ideal world, I would have written this post as a fond farewell to the BA that I submitted late April. However, writing that thesis involved sometimes literal blood, sweat, and tears, and by the time the deadline finally rolled around, I was more than happy to wash my hands of the thing for the rest of forever and never talk about John Cheever and the New Yorker ever again. Two months later, I still have no wish to really talk about what I wrote, but I spent an entire afternoon of my spring break thinking about one particular story that eventually did not make an appearance in the final product, even though I had written a nice footnote for it.

The story in question is “Men Mene Tekel Upharsin,” which Cheever published in the New Yorker in 1963. Like all the other stories in my thesis, its protagonist is a traveler; more specifically, he is an American expatriate who has returned to New York from Paris. While he is in transit, he begins reading graffiti scrawled across the train station walls and bathrooms. And here’s where things get weird. Three of the four scribbles quote from real-life, and at times, literary works. The longest piece of “graffiti,” which spans the length of a magazine page, is an imitation of a gothic Victorian novel. Although the unnamed protagonist does not recognize the allusions of these passages, he is fascinated by it all. He shares his discoveries with his intellectual friends, only to be ridiculed. They conclude that he “had been away too long; [he] was out of touch with decency and common sense.”

At the surface, “Mene Mene” seems pretty cut-and-dry: American returns home and discovers that he does not belong. But as several academics have pointed out, Cheever was quite the experimental writer, especially given the fact that he published in the New Yorker, which was not interested in what Harold Ross called “overly impressionistic.” Impressionistic might not be quite the right word to describe why this short story is so strange. In the likely event that you never read it, here’s a short list of my observations:

  • The title is an allusion to a story from the Book of Daniel. Daniel is called upon to interpret this phrase and concludes that the Babylonian kingdom is on its way out. Indeed, that very night, the king is killed.
  • The first piece of writing comes from “Spartacus to the Gladiators,” written by Elijah Kellog for a oratory competition. You can read the speech reprinted in a local newspaper here.
  • Based on some extensive Google searching, the longest excerpt is Cheever’s creation, but it harkens to Adam and Eve and the fall of man.
  • The third passage comes from an essay written by Leigh Hunt in his paper, London Journal. Hunt was a Romantic writer who did a little bit of everything-poetry, literary criticism, being friends with Keats and Shelley, being destitute, etc.
  • The narrator ends by seeing a quote from John Keats’s “Bright Star.”
  • The narrator has a surprising amount of geological knowledge. When he describes the walls of the train station, he notes, “The marble was a light brown–it might have been a giallo antico, but then I noticed Paleozoic fossils beneath the high polish and guessed that the stone was a madrepore.” In the men’s bathroom, he also comments, “The wall agains were marble. This was common limestone–a silicate of calcium and magnesium, grained with some metalliferous gray ore.”
  • Generally, the narrator might be kind of crazy. He’s erudite, but prone to over-interpretation. He’s shocked by trashy paperback books. He describes the train’s warning bells “like a coronary thrombosis.” He wears yellow pointed shoes, which I’ll leave up to your imagination.

What does this all mean? And why did it get published? I’m half-convinced that John Cheever and/or the editors of the New Yorker were playing a joke on their middlebrow audience. There’s nothing quite like the irony of having a seemingly scholarly and cosmopolitan character being bewildered by bathroom grafitti that actually quotes from works that were all the rage back in the nineteenth century. Also, just as interesting as all this is that the story suggests that John Cheever knew a lot of stuff. Most of his biographies are more interested in his turbulent personal life, from his fraught relationship with his brother to his alcoholism to his sexuality, but here is a glimpse of another version of him. I wonder what I could find on his bookshelf.

Ultimately, I cut any mention of this piece because it deserved time and attention that I neither had the time nor energy to give. More importantly, I felt myself sliding into referential mania, more interested in unpacking allusions and tracking down clues rather than doing the type of in-depth literary analysis that gets you places when you’re writing an English paper. As Cheever wisely said in his Paris Review interview, “The easiest way to parse the world is through mythology…It seems to be a superficial parsing.” I will say that having this background knowledge must help though (and not to mention kind of fun), but I’ll leave it to the academics of the world to connect the dots (which may be a while because not a lot of stuff has been written about Cheever in comparison to other authors). Anyway, at the end of the day, I’m glad I bumped into “Mene Mene.” It’s a nice reminder of everything that is interesting about Cheever.

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2 thoughts on “A Final Word on John Cheever”

  1. A (possible) hint that the narrator of “Mene Mene…” is unbalanced and hallucinating can be found near the beginning of the lengthy Victorian pastiche on the bathroom wall: “…roaming there with a slingshot and a sack for transporting my geological specimens.” This odd and irrelevant detail, combined with the narrator’s weird expertise in metamorphic rock, suggests that he may be projecting his own (nostalgic) daydreams onto his new surroundings, maybe as a result of traveler’s culture shock.

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