Monday, September 13th, 2010

Footnotes of Mad Men: The Swimmer

FINDING NEMOWatching Don Draper emerge from chlorinated baptismal waters, gasping for breath in a cavernous public gym, brings to mind John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer," from 1964. "I've been a little out of sorts, lately," Don confesses to his date. Likewise Cheever's main character, Ned Merrill. Beginning at the public pool, Ned, in an attempt discover Bullet Park's hidden topography, decides to swim through the private and public schools of his Westchester neighborhood, creating an aquatic trail back to his home. Ned starts the expedition with great hope, as he enjoys the sensation of swimming: "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."

Things turn dark when he encounters the drained pool in the backyard of an emptied home of his neighbors. Ned can't remember where they had gone and feels a creeping despair: "Was his memory failing," Ned wonders as he plods barefoot through the overgrown lawn, "or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?" The more Ned swims, the more comes to light through the comments of his neighbors, some welcoming, others offering pitying condolences for all Ned's troubles at home. Here emerges a constant Cheever theme and one of the great paradoxes of greater New York: where the separation between city apartment buildings can be as narrow as a pencil, there is great anonymity, whereas in the seclusion of the suburbs, behind fences, we can find ourselves the most exposed.

It's in suburbia where Don faces his most punishing humiliations, like the remnants of his former life packed into musty boxes, piled on the sidewalk as his ex-wife's new husband plows the front yard, without a glance or a word as Don loads up his car to return to the city, further asserting the quiet cruelty of Ossining.

Here is the best passage from "The Swimmer" with some nice parallels:

The next pool on his list, the last but two, belonged to his old mistress, Shirley Adams. If he had suffered any injuries at the Biswangers' they would be cured here. Love-sexual roughhouse in fact-was the supreme elixir, the pain killer, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart. They had had an affair last week, last month, last year. He couldn't remember, It was he who had broken it off, his was the upper hand, and he stepped through the gate of the wall that surrounded her pool with nothing so considered as self-confidence. It seemed in a way to be his pool, as the lover, particularly the illicit lover, enjoys the possessions of his mistress with an authority unknown to holy matrimony. She was there, her hair the color of brass, but her figure, at the edge of the lighted, cerulean water, excited in him no profound memories. It had been, he thought, a lighthearted affair, although she had wept when he broke it off. She seemed confused to see him and he wondered if she was still wounded. Would she, God forbid, weep again?

I won't spoil the end for you, but like Don about swimming, "you get wrung out."

CHEEVER AND UPDIKE: SAY IT TEN TIMES FAST AND IT CAN COME OUT AS UPCHUCK AND BEAVER"That sad bastard," is how Francine's husband, the philanderer, describes Don Draper. The same could be said about Cheever and he would be the first one to tell you that. Like Don, he kept a journal. A collection of his journal entries were eventually published, to much chatter, given that the journals were remarkably dishy (turns out Cheever was a bisexual who thought his daughters chubby and his son a sissy) and soaked in pathos. Cheever was in constant despair about the doubleness of his life; the competing desires for comfort and tradition couple with an impulse to assail the conventions of wealth and family life.

Here's a passage where he describes his weary frustrations in his latter years while on vacation:

The redness of the marshes makes the blueness of the water seem to be a thrusting force, and the splendor of the landscape is emphatic; but I am an old, old man — and it was so different in my youth — who finds that the bounty and splendor of the world fail to cleanse the thoughts of his heart. My heart is in some motel room, howling at a consummate lewdness.

All this belongs to time that has already passed by Don Draper and his cohorts, though these are concerns of and preoccupations of the Great White Male in literature. David Foster Wallace argued that Cheever, like John Updike, Phillip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Frederick Exley were a league of extraordinary narcissists, whose erudite, philandering, self-pitying protagonists, Wallace claims, were actually stand-ins for the authors. Never attached to any cause, lover, or clan, the individualism of Cheever's characters, like Ned, may have at one time seemed heroic but are despicable today. They don't face the great horror: "the prospect of dying without ever having loved something more than yourself."

Cheever wrote about the stultification of affluence and comfort, his ambition to be recognized as a scribe of his generation and also of humiliating himself at garden parties because he was drunk, cheating on his wife, and disappointing his children. Until he died, John Cheever considered himself lonely.

Previously: Footnotes of Mad Men: The Promethean Woman, or, Our Dog in the Parthenon

You can always find more footnotes by Natasha Vargas-Cooper right here, or, you know, you can get a whole book of 'em.

43 Comments / Post A Comment

sailor (#396)

Points made about about Cheever, Updike, Mailer, Exley and the other "extraordinary narcissists," but I wouldn't lump Don Draper in with them for both obvious reasons and his direction through the water in the Mad Men narrative, which strikes me as forward as opposed to in reverse like Merrill.

Draper is actually trying to get to a new and different place through swimming, writing,"introspection" (although some find the latter amusing) and isolation. Those to be left behind are the young asshole creatives and their about-to-be extinct behavior with women in the workplace.

Rev. Alex Cline (#5,867)

Close your tags!

Also: "I can't wait until you're all in Vietnam next year"

innag (#7,189)

My favourite scene, by far. Brilliant.

There was a lot of meditation on liquid — the longing close-ups of drinks, the swimming. And perhaps no American writer has mediated on fluids — bodily or otherwise — than the Piscean Updike.

mathnet (#27)

And the Mountain Dew-dah(HA) cocktails!

sigerson (#179)

The inclusion of Frederick Exley on your list makes me happy. Great writer. I would note, however, that his work is all memoir and not fiction, so his work doesn't support DFW's point.

LondonLee (#922)

Supports it even more so I would have thought, Exley was only capable of writing about himself. Rather brilliantly of course, but 'A Fan's Notes' is one long self-pity party.

I'm still a big fan of the Great White Male canon. And don't even get me started on the English White Males, they're my favorites!

LondonLee (#922)

Call me

mathnet (#27)

Only have a second, so: Is the word POONTANG really that old?

deepomega (#1,720)

Was just going to write out an explanation and then evilfred does the job much more succinctly.

(As an aside, OED has etymology going back to french for whore, putain. The more you know!)

mathnet (#27)

Thank you awl!

csulpriz (#7,410)

As an avid swimmer, I was thrilled by this episode, and its definitely got 'The Swimmer' written all over it. Loved your analysis. Also wanted to share my recent blog post about the film "The Swimmer" starring Burt Lancaster for some more insights:

mathnet (#27)

Hey, do you think we were supposed to take from Gene's awkwardness that he (obviously) doesn't know Don at all, or that he's just being portrayed by a lame baby actor?

Who gave that prick a SAG card?

City_Dater (#2,500)

Freakin' toddlers. It's easier to act with dogs: a little peanut butter or bacon grease = relationship created!

mathnet (#27)

He, too, was conceived in a moment of desperation and born to a mess. Totes.

Jane Carrasco (#7,414)

he's so handsome.

bb (#295)

overall do we support having a voiceover by Don? I was a little like, hey I have known this guy for 5 years and now I get to hear his thoughts? That's kind of weird.

Go shit in the ocean.

mathnet (#27)

I'm willing to forgive them as long as it's a one-time, short-story-episode thing, but I hope they never do it again. And if they do, they had better also go shit in the ocean.

Also! What does "You're such a haircut" mean?

kat klags (#6,848)

I was thinking there was going to be some plot element as a reason he was writing a journal, like maybe he was in AA, or writing letters he wished he could send to Anna, or that he'll actually send to someone like Stephanie perhaps. But at the end of the episode there was no "explanation," so maybe it is just personal thoughts.

I'm really, really hoping that it was just a one-time thing. Also really, really hoping that the little girl he takes out once every 3 months is done. I had to fast forward through the back seat part only to hit play to hear him say something like, "all those girls touching themselves to sleep." Bleh.

mathnet (#27)

Yeah, "touching themselves to sleep" was totally gross.

melis (#1,854)

Is it like calling someone a suit?

mathnet (#27)

Hmm, maybe.

mathnet (#27)

Anybody know what the restaurant was in the Village, where Don took Dr. Miller for their date?

kat klags (#6,848)

Did my eyes trick me, or was that Duck in the pool swimming next to Don? If so, what does it mean? That even Don's attempt at putting himself back together is just a cliche? (If so, his going out with Dr. Faye might mean he's not going to let that aspect of his pride stop him this time, since she was the one who could reduce him to a type instantly.) Or is it that Duck still thinks he and Don are in some kind of competition, for Peggy, or work, or just in general?

Also, does Betty really think Don is "living the life" and just pretending to be sad? If so, she really is deluded and lost in her own head.

I liked the episode, there was a lot to think about.

Will Messmer (#6,377)

I don't it went beyond illustrating Don's male competitiveness in a competition with a younger, Duck-like man (and showing his progress physically).

joshc (#442)

It wasn't Joey?

mathnet (#27)

No, it was just some random younger dude.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

YES BUT WHAT ABOUT PEGGY?? I hope I wasn't the only one who applauded when she fired the temp.

mathnet (#27)

Yes! But then Joan was totally right. Great moment(s).

innag (#7,189)

Joan gets my vote. Here's someone who makes her point and allows the offender to watch himself get reduced to nothing upon realizing that she's right. Brilliant. Peggy's confused. She's trying too hard to be equal. I love her strength, but sometimes I find it a little cold.

mrschem (#1,757)

Peggy gets to be Don now.

chris vivion (#7,423)


- Didn't Ned start swimming at the Westerhazys?
- Is the alt tag for the top photo really Finding Nemo. Cracking me up.

He realizes it as the Westerhazy's but then starts the actual trek and the public pool, though I could have misread.

Yes, but you missed the key difference between between these two stories: The Swimmer is a story of decline, but The Summer Man is one of (tentative) redemption.

John Cheever said of writing The Swimmer (I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the quote), "The challenge was getting the Southern Cross into the summer sky." See, Neddy is an autumnal character, and his are the winter constellations. You could think of him as The Winter Man.

Weiner et. al. wrote The Swimmer in reverse. Instead of immersing himself in a liquid landscape, Don is "wringing" himself dry. In the process, he extricates himself from the unequal relationships with prostitutes and much younger women that invite misogyny and abuse. He (hopefully) starts a relationship with an equal, based on respect. And he swallows his pride and makes what connection he can with his infant son. In short, we see him retreating from the solipsism that Cheever and others warned against.

michael miller (#7,316)

I think you've got this exactly right, Brendan. At the close of the episode I wondered if Draper's retreat will be as temporary as many of his fleeting breaks from pathology. Draper's inconsistency is my favorite device that Weiner deploys to simultaneously evokes my disapproval of and empathy with Draper.

It also keeps me watching…

Kate Steinberg (#7,329)

But why is Updike the focus of the photo, and not Cheever? (to nitpick, as I like to do)

Mindless Ones (#7,652)

I'm going to defend Peggy.

The fact is that while Joan accurately describes the immediate consequences of Peggy's action, she fails to grasp the important point that equality in the workplace can never be achieved simply by the thoughtful application of interpersonal skills. The problem is cultural (both in the micro, the workplace, and macro, America, sense), and cultural problems require a range of remedies that include real sanctions. By exercising power in the workplace Peggy isn't simply feeding a patriarchal narrative, she's helping to create a context where woman can start to fashion their own narratives. That Joan is turned off by Peggy's use of power says at least as much about some of Joan's (frequently old-fashioned) values as it does about Peggy's gaucheness.

freetzy (#7,018)

Would Joan have spoken so disarmingly meanly to Peggy if she weren't upset about her husband leaving for his certain death in the jungle?

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