_ Family fortunes
Like father like son? Sue Wilson talks to Benjamin Cheever. son ofthe US literary giant. about his strikingly lifelike first noveL
The offspring of famous authors
1 book themselves a rough passage : when they. too. embark on a writing
career. Interest in their parents
, inevitablyattracts keenerattention
than most novice scribes can expect.
with critics quick to draw
unfavourable comparisons. but also to attack at any hint that Junior is resting on Mum or Dad‘s laurels. Benjamin Cheever. son of the late multi-award-winning American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever. carries with his surname a bigger literary shadow than most. but far from attempting to deny its existence. he has chosen to meet the unavoidable curiosity about his father head on. Having worked for eleven years as an editor at the Readers‘ Digest. he has written his first novel — about a renowned
writer's son who works at a conservative American precis magazine.
The Plagiarist is more, however. than a thinly-veiled autobiography. or a roundabout way of telling the world about life with his father, though many of Cheever‘s experiences have been transcribed onto its pages. ‘It‘s not all that the book‘s about, but ifl had written a novel about rabbits or something and not talked to anyone about my father, that would have been very tiresome. and dishonest.‘ he says. ‘If it heightens people‘s enjoyment to assume that this is exactly my life, that‘s fine. But clearly it isn‘t — it‘s a story. and lives aren‘t stories; lives are much more random than a narrative structure allows.‘
Anyone seeking in The Plagiarist a reproduction ofwhat Cheever calls his father‘s ‘gorgeous. haunting prose‘ risks missing the novel‘s very different. but nonetheless substantial pleasures. A comic but quietly poignant cautionary tale of families. identity. conscience and corruption. it reveals how the unconsidered pursuit ofordinary goals can insidiously become a form ofcollusion with some very ugly forces. Arthur Prentice. debt-ridden and somewhat desperate. takes a job at the American Reader— a wonderful satirical version of the Digest which could, at the same time. be almost any large corporation. Going with the flow, as he sees it. ofthe institution‘s idiosyncratic rules wins Arthur
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repeated promotion until he is. to his bewilderment. unofficially appointed the bosses‘ ratfink and right—hand man. expected to inform and generally do the dirty on his colleagues.
‘The devil never comes along and says. “here‘s a big bag ofgold".‘ says Cheever. ‘lt‘s not like that at all -— you buy a house. get a mortgage. maybe your wife gets sick and suddenly your boss tells you to fire your best friend. and unless you‘ve fortified your position you have to do it.‘ Arthur‘s painful attempts to negotiate a peaceable modus vivcndi with his mercurial. awkward father Icarus and his unhappy wife Faith
Benjamin Cheever: ugly forces
also expose how having to simulate belief in your work corrodes not only your own sense of self but your relationships with those close to you. ‘I see work and love as more similar than they‘re often made out to be.‘ says Cheever. ‘I think many people love their jobs more than they love their wives. in the sense that love is a kind of defining thing — you define yourself by who you love. but also by what you do. And the fact is most of us don't do what we want to. many of us don‘t even do what we think we should do.‘ The I ’lagiarisl is published by Hamish Hamilton (1119.99.
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The List 1; December 1992 — 14 January 1993 87