Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos

Zeugma Mural

Even the mountains seem to shift in the space of night

So help me God, it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome -– up two steps and down three –- one entered the library, where all the books were in order, the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience…

by John Cheever (May 27, 1912 – June 18, 1982)
from The Death of Justina
included in The stories of John Cheever (1978)
also in Tales of psychology: short stories to make you wise (2002)
with observations by commentary by Alma Halbert Bond Ph.D.
image – Kıvanç Niş

Pacing versus Intensity?

Breathless? You are not alone.

This is just the opening salvo of The Death of Justina. If the whole story went on like that, would I start to glaze over? If it didn’t, would I be disappointed?

How in the world could an author keep up this intensity? Luckily – for both writer and reader – it’s a short story.

Eleven pages of Justina are a manageable slice of intensity. Reading Cheever can be like going in for a scoop of double chocolate ripple and ending up in a waking dream, breathing hard, digging with both hands into the meaning of life and dirt in an altered reality. Just when expectations retain their cohesion, there will be another statement that invites a new look at the big “why.”

How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?

If I had written the opening lines of Justina, I’d be tempted to slice them up into easily digested poems, or at least more manageable sentences. I’m glad I didn’t have that honor. De-clawed cats don’t do well in the wild. The possibility of lightening that could go BOOM is part a big storm’s majesty.

About here is where I googled for more information. First, a side-trip: searching for “the death of Justine” brings up a lot of pages about other dead Justines, especially the pregnant maid who is killed by the monster in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Coincidence? Doctor Frankenstein is unhinged and has an adversarial relationship with death, to say the least. Cheever’s protagonist is a little nuts, but his Justina is elderly and dies peacefully, nodding off on the couch after a social nip of brandy. On the other hand, though their Justinas are opposites, both protagonists have surreal experiences because of un-burried corpses. Perhaps there was a wink in Cheever’s eye when he chose the name Justina.

Searching for “Cheever” gave more specific results. I learned that Justina was included in the collection The Stories of John Cheever, a book that won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I looked for anthologies that contain The Death of Justina and found Tales of psychology: short stories to make you wise (2002), with interesting commentary by a Dr. Alma Halbert Bond. It looks to be a well-chosen group of short stories touching on madness and breakthroughs – but that first section was missing today’s quote, my favorite juicy piece. There is a missing chunk of words, from “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos” to just before “Just let me give you one example of chaos.” Did Dr. Bond or her editors succumb to the temptation of declawing Cheever’s chaos, just a little bit? Or was it an oversight of a fact checker? I don’t know… but it makes me smile that a beautiful “chaos” was omitted in a “Tales of psychology.”

Sometimes it pays to go looking for the original, and that’s why I’m here.

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