It would be hard for me to choose a favorite, or even a favorite six, among the stories of John Cheever. Maligned though he may have occasionally been for grounding his tales of inner abstraction and desperation in the white upper-middle New York suburbs, it was what he did with his setting that really counted: the imaginative leaps, the shocks, the lines of articulated despair, falling into crisp, less-polluted air. It was this Cheeverishness that drew me to ‘Mad Men’ first, and held my attention; the sense that Matthew Weiner was not only trying to teach his viewers about the evil 1960s but also trying to transport them into Cheever’s universe gave me great admiration for the show. My admiration was not consistent, which I view as a sign of mental health, but the Cheeverishness was. Matt Zoller Seitz and Nelson Carvajal do noble and smart work in tracing the links between Cheever’s immortal story, ‘The Swimmer," Frank Perry’s film of same, and ‘Mad Men’ in this video essay for Vulture and RogerEbert.com. In the film adaptation, Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a suburban gentleman (possibly) who swims across his municipality by leapfrogging from pool to pool, a journey that takes him through various substrata of his particular layer of culture, a journey that, ultimately, leads him to an enigmatically empty destination: his own home, windows darkened, doors locked. What better progenitor for ‘Mad Men’? After all, doesn’t Don Draper take this journey every day, a long, winding trip through entitlement and intrigue and interpersonal slaughter, at the end of which all he has to look at is his own deceptively blank face? Carvajal, known in some quarters as the "Sultan of Splice," is in fine form here, snipping and sampling and matching clips with admirable adroitness; Seitz brings his near-encyclopedic knowledge of, and obsession with, the show, as well as his profound understanding of Cheever’s work, to bear in his analysis. This is a good watch, and a good encouragement to go out and buy Cheever’s Collected Stories. It’s a red paperback, big enough to fit in your pocket, and just large enough to shape your mind for the rest of your life.
Watch: How ‘Mad Men’ Is A Close Cousin to ‘The Swimmer’