“The Swimmer” a short story by American author John Cheever, was originally published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and then in the 1964 short story collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. Originally conceived as a novel and pared down from over 150 pages of notes, it is probably Cheever’s most famous and frequently anthologized story. At one point Cheever wanted to parallel the tale of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who died while staring at his own reflection in a pool of water, which Cheever dismissed as too restrictive. As published, the story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, the thematic exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness, as well as his use of myth and symbolism.
In 1968, “The Swimmer” was adapted into a film with the same name, starring Burt Lancaster.
The story begins with Neddy Merrill and his wife lounging at a friend’s pool on a mid-summer’s day. On a whim, Neddy decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in the county, and starts off enthusiastically and full of youthful energy. In the early stops on his journey, he is enthusiastically greeted by friends, who welcome him with drinks. It is readily apparent that he is well-regarded and from an upper-class social standing.
Midway through his journey, things gradually take on a darker and ultimately surreal tone. Despite everything taking place over just one afternoon, it becomes unclear how much time has passed. At the beginning of the story, it was clearly mid-summer, but by the end all natural signs point to the season being autumn. Different people Neddy encounters mention misfortune and money troubles he doesn’t remember, and he is outright unwelcome at several houses which should’ve certainly been beneath him. His earlier, youthful energy leaves him, and it becomes increasingly painful and difficult for him to swim on. Finally, he staggers back home, only to find his house decrepit, empty, and abandoned.
Opening from J.G.Ballards 1977 short story, ‘The Intensive Care Unit’.
Within a few minutes the next attack will begin. Now that I am surrounded for the first time by all the members of my family it seems only fitting that a complete record should be made of this unique event. As I lie here – barely able to breathe, my mouth filled with blood and every tremor of my hands reflected in the attentive eye of the camera six feet away – I realize that there are many who will think my choice of subject a curious one. In all senses, this film will be the ultimate homemovie, and I only hope that whoever watches it will gain some idea of the immense affection I feel for my wife, and for my son and daughter, and of the affection that they, in their unique way, feel for me.
It is now half an hour since the explosion, and everything in this once elegant sitting room is silent. I am lying on the floor by the settee, looking at the camera mounted safely out of reach on the ceiling above my head. In this uneasy stillness, broken only by my wife’s faint breathing and the irregular movement of my son across the carpet, I can see that almost everything I have assembled so lovingly during the past years has been destroyed. My Svres lies in a thousand fragments in the fireplace, the Hokusai scrolls are punctured in a dozen places. Yet despite the extensive damage this is still recognizably the scene of a family reunion, though of a rather special kind.