Translation of “The Enormous Radio”
By John Cheever
I’m interacting with a memory of a RADIO that was never mine. The RADIO is only real in the sense that an author spelled out the word RADIO1, and placed the thing that was the word inside the living room of a particular married couple. They really cared a lot about listening to Schubert and the narrator suggests that they seem to think they had a beautiful life together. In the story, the living room is inside an apartment. The wife spent most of her time reupholstering when she wasn’t wearing, shopping, or thinking about mink. Objects and adjectives are placed inside that room, in order to give the reader a sense of their character traits and to establish space. I’m talking about inner space. What’s outside is what comes in through the transmission of the RADIO. In the diorama that is their living room the author inserts sound. The sound emanates from the RADIO: violins, pianos, Schubert, concertos, etc. I imagine the husband and wife revolved around the RADIO in the way that they did for a number of reasons, some of which are listed below.
- Schubert is enjoyable.
- Silence is difficult for people.
- The maid was taking care of the children so they had no one else to listen to.
- If the maid had overslept the wife could place her daughter between her knees and braid her hair mid-opus.
- They thought that if their children were continuously exposed to classical music it would improve their mathematical abilities, later allowing them full scholarships to Ivy League institutions. This would reflect highly on the strength of their combined gene pools and their parental abilities as evidenced by their successes in co-creating motivated, prestigious offspring. The children could then become doctors, who would prioritize and take personal responsibility for the lives of their parents, lessening the likelihood that a disease would go unnoticed or untreated, therefore postponing their inevitable deaths. This would also save them money on tuition and later medical billings, thus allowing the wife to buy more mink.
- It made them feel like they were sophisticated.
- They were sophisticated.
- The wife had a fetish for dead composers and couldn’t get off without one in the room.
- The husband felt in control when he adjusted the dials and witnessed the sound immediately responding to his touch.
- The RADIO was there.
None of this is on the page but it is in the page. Personal revelation can be compromised by the interference of involved musical patterns that are being emitted through a speaker. This is true when the speaker is another person or when it is a speaker that is connected to a RADIO. No one can be alone or wholly with another person when Schubert is in the room. It’s like you are trying to fuck and feel close to your partner and establish some form of intimacy that feels real and then there he is, Schubert, wedged in between your skins, his solemn grey head tied on with an outdated black necktie. Schubert never opened his mouth to smile in portraits, so I doubt his ghost would open it up to suck on a nipple, but even dead men have been known to surprise me. There is no fucking in this story. I mean, there is, but in the text the author withholds the sex from the page. There are the aforementioned children so the reader knows that the couple has definitely done it before, and we are told they are a couple, still married even, so it is highly likely they’ll do it again, although possible they won’t if they’ve grown tired of themselves or of one another. We never see inside the bedroom but given the given nature of their relationship I wouldn’t be surprised if they tend to do it on or next to the RADIO.
The RADIO is about to die. The cadence of the violin is building up just as the song is cut by a surprise static, and the sound blanks out for two bars, that sonata goes black, is replaced by the electronic CsZ-Zssshsh/h-zsz that stuns both the husband and wife into a standstill, like two blind moles waiting be smashed by the brights of an oncoming Buick. They can’t see the car but they are paused in awe, slave to the bright heat, paralyzed by the prolonged flash that bulbs behind the skins of their eyelids, before the violin re-enters the room just moments ahead of where it was last heard, unaware of the pause, the white urgency of the headlights diminish back into the subtle curves of the road, the return of sound suctions the heat out from behind their sockets…and now they’re back in the room and paying real attention. Their ears engage with the waves of the frequencies as the RADIO volume unexpectedly wavers up and down. It finally settles. If one listens closely, as the wife and husband are, one can almost hear the sound of dead fingers gently tapping the strings against the fingerboard through the gentle veiled buzz of the old speaker. Now, the fugue comes back, confident hands curve around that hollow rosewood belly, tickle the notes along the spine that links the C-shape of blasé sadness to the
tailbone of bottomless sorrow. The efflorescent voice of the violin underpinned only by the solidarity of the pianos arpeggios, those understated minor chords that make the ground, mark space to make air so the sheep-gut strings have place to fly. The violins insistence slides towards peak before it eases back into a composed collapse, tension relaxes, together the couple recognizes this movement as recapitulation, and the soft strings whine, woody, against the bridge, the notes testing the water before they- what?- the violin slopes and goes under, slowly toys with the idea of drowning, before it reemerges from the water on a new clean note. The couple has been tricked by way of false recapitulation, which works every time and so they are smiling at one another, thinking how silly of them to fall for old Shubert yet again. They are submissive now, they are his, belong to the song, and so it gets stronger and the pianissimo goes forte, the movement gets harder, the movement is persisting in forte, the sound getting pushed out with more abandon, a less controlled grip on control, the strings are getting pulled by the bow with real force as the keys are struck by more muscle before the RADIO cuts out and a CSszh/zssh-ZsHhh replaces the money note. The husband mole and the wife mole gape, bound to the light of the silence, until sound inserts itself back into the room for the slow and final run of the skimming bow, there was a twist, Schubert that trickster did it once again, the sonata still isn’t ready to absolve. A stubborn note whines on like a suspended cry. Their muscles tense in anticipation of the finale as the cry inserts itself across the breadth of the living room when the sound goes black. Like a wire pressed through a soft piece of cheese, the silence cuts from ear to ear. Their faces still look the same, but Schubert is missing from the room. He’s just gone! AWOL. The husband looks at the wife like what are we going to do now. The wife looks into the husband as if to say exactly what his face is saying to hers. They break contact. The husband hits the RADIO a lot of times and determines the RADIO is now dead because this is how husbands verify death when they do not see themselves as competent repairmen.
In the end, the husband buys his wife a new RADIO because he’s an old fashioned guy in fiction who thinks his wife’s happiness depends on listening to Schubert on the RADIO. The story is not about this RADIO, though. It is about the one that replaces it.
1. The word Radio can also be replaced with the word MOON, NEIGHBOR, or CROW