“Radio. Live transmission.” So begins a perfect pop masterpiece crafted by the Manchester band Joy Division that went on to become New Order following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. (Watch Control or, even better, 24 Hour Party People to see this story played out on film.) The radio is a invention of the transmission of ideas and often offers glimpses into the private lives of those whom we know only by reputation. In a way, a very real way, a work of fiction is analogous to these radio transmissions. The radio is something that both transmits information and acts for people to receive transmission. The best fiction accomplishes this as well. Perhaps the finest understanding of the relationship between the two mediums lies in John Cheever’s much anthologized short story “The Enormous Radio.”
“The Enormous Radio” is an example of a genre known as Magic Realism. The story starts out realistically enough as Cheever describes an upper middle class couple, Jim and Irene Westcott. If he’d been writing thirty years later, we would recognize this a prototypical Yuppie couple, obsessed with success and somewhat less than obsessed with their the lives of their own two children.
John Cheever suddenly introduces into their lives the titular enormous radio, which allows the Westcotts to listen in on the private conversations of their neighbors. Irene Westcott’s obsession with money switches to an obsession with eavesdropping on these conversations which reveal marital spats, arguments between parents and children, revelations of criminal behavior, etc. Gradually, Irene is portrayed as a woman desperately trying to convince herself that she and Jim are the only ones who are free from this kind of decadent behavior. Theirs, after all, is a model marriage.
Irene’s need for confirmation that they are different finally leads Jim to explode and scream at her. As Irene listens to Jim’s complaints that he is tired, overworked and feels older than he is, Irene recognizes his tone as being no different from those loud arguments she’s been eavesdropping on. It gets worse as Jim turns his attack on Irene, accusing her fiscal extravagance and no sense for managing money. He goes on to make accusations that she has stolen from her dead mother, cheated her sister and, worst of all, had an abortion.
The story ends with Irene by the radio, still in utter denial, desperately hoping for kind words from her husband and fearing that perhaps the radio is broadcasting their sordid secrets to someone else with a similar radio. Meanwhile, Jim is outside the door, still yelling. The reader is left with the impression that these secrets are being exposed somehow. If not through the radio, they have certainly been exposed through the story we have just read. In a way, then, the story itself is also an enormous radio, revealing secrets of characters to those who begin to judge their own life based on expectations and confirmations of the reality of the lives of others.