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John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and the Sorrow of the Internet

Like Cheever’s swimmer, we are left watching the disintegration of our reality

In the wake of recent events, and the swelling of other not-so-recent events, John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” came to mind.

“The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.”

If readers are not familiar, “The Swimmer” is about Neddy Merrill’s midsummer journey from a hot midsummer party at a friend’s house back to his home, a distance of eight miles, solely by swimming from pool to pool.

Cheever masterfully hides a heart of darkness in this affluent and buoyant journey. Merrill is a man with whom many F. Scott Fitzgerald readers will be familiar: a lothario with a suntanned shallowness matched only by the depth of his denial and repression. Here is how Cheever introduces us to Neddy in the opening of the 1966 story:

“He was a slender man—he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth—and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room…He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It all seemed to flow into his chest. His own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water.”

Merrill calls this swimming pool river, the “Lucinda River” after his wife, who is at the party with him. Still, he decides to leave her for this Narcissian journey, which, as Cheever explains, he considers as a totally original idea and a rather cheeky and daring way to passionately hold onto a beautiful day.

“His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.”

In the early parts of Merrill’s quest, he is correct. He does find friends along the river – both the Graham house, the nearest pool, and the Bunkers, who are themselves reveling amid a lavish party, welcome the man with open arms. However, shortly after leaving, around halfway home, the sky darkens, and it begins to storm.

Soon, the exhilaration leaves Neddy and he is standing half naked looking to cross heavy traffic in midday as he is being jeered by passing cars. Then, as he gets to one of the oldest pools in the county, the wife and husband outside cleaning, the old wife of the ancient pool says mythologically: “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.”

For readers, it is the moment when the windy plains of the Suburban cocktail circuit turn into the desolate heath in King Lear. Soon, the path is even more hostile. At the next house, he is called a “gatecrasher” and a scorned woman, a possible mistress, chides:

“What do you want?” she asked.
“I’m swimming across the county.”
“Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”

To fast forward, as Merrill arrives at his home, he finds it abandoned and locked. Cheever has deftly turned summer into fall before our eyes. Many readers simply wonder what happened, this Gatsby-like yarn ends in vague confusion with Ned pulling at the doors of an abandoned house.

It seems as if the promise of our digital age has also traveled downward into an endless maze. Over the weekend, YouTube, and weeks earlier, Facebook, were mired in challenging content moderation scandals. For YouTube, it was about permitting the hate speech and racism of alt-right commentators and seemingly setting up a Byzantine series of rules thereafter. By the way, YouTube, if hate speech and racism truly don’t violate your rules of conduct, maybe you should consider having actually useful rules in place. Similarly, Facebook faced backlash over leaving up the drunken Nancy Pelosi video.

While these two videos are blips in a larger problem – like recent reports on YouTube showing that the site’s algorithm seemed to lead users to sexualized videos of children, and The New York Times running a front-page story about how a young man was radicalized by right-wing videos on the site – that what he consider the rules of the internet and, to allude to Carver, what we talk about when we talk about the internet is changing. Or, better yet, the idea of the platform is changing.

The semantics of the word are in play. As Facebook sees itself as an advertising and all-encompassing play for our time – in Mary Meeker’s recent internet trends report she basically determines that we are online all the time now – but the original definition was a place where one could express themselves and be free. However, under recent pressure, Facebook and Google both appear to have created platforms they can’t quite solve, and, similar to Cheever’s Merrill, unable to understand the flow of time.

“The internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, and former State Department staffer Jared Cohen, would write in The New Digital Age. This was the beginning of their Lucinda River trip. Cyberspace was an individualistic, anarchistic and narcissist swim that has not materialized, but instead the storm has gathered over us as these pools have turned into surveillance machines. And like Cheever’s swimmer, we are left watching the disintegration of our reality and the organizing principles that once bound us.

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