The Enormous Radio by John Cheever, 1947
The magic trick:
Dropping one piece of science fiction into an otherwise realistic setting
We open Science Fiction Week at SSMT with an unlikely author. John Cheever was the master of a certain kind of New York fiction; a world of the white, white-collar slaves to normalcy. “The Enormous Radio” allows Cheever to stay true to his roots while also branching out into the realm of, yes, science fiction.
It’s a very clever trick. The magic radio allows his white, white-collar married couple to listen in on their New York apartment neighbors. Cheever uses elements of humor in some of what they overhear, though it’s always a thin veil obscuring a great sadness.
Cheever stresses early in the story how much the couple has built its life together on the notion that blending in to the Middle Class is the best way toward happiness. So when we see how the radio reveals the couple to be desperately unhappy, it isn’t simply a comment about one doomed marriage; rather it is a condemnation of America’s entire Middle Class.
It might not be the stuff of robots and spaceships, but the science fiction element in “The Enormous Radio” makes for some heavy-duty social commentary. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
The Westcotts were going out for dinner that night, and when Jim came home, Irene was dressing. She seemed sad and vague, and he brought her a drink. They were dining with friends in the neighborhood, and they walked to where they were going. The sky was broad and filled with light. It was one of those splendid spring evenings that excite memory and desire, and the air that touched their hands and faces felt very soft. A Salvation Army band was on the corner playing “Jesus Is Sweeter” Irene drew on her husband’s arm and held him there for a minute, to hear the music. “They’re really such nice people, aren’t they?” she said. “They have such nice faces. Actually, they’re so much nicer than a lot of the people we know.” She took a bill from her purse and walked over and dropped it into the tambourine. There was in her face, when she returned to her husband, a look of radiant melancholy that he was not familiar with.