I didn't like "Manhattan." I mention this because I am reasonably sure that people who liked that movies will like Susan Cheever's novel quite a lot, and that those who didn't like "Manhattan" will feel at best lukewarm about "Looking for Work."
The similarity between the two works transcends their setting, which is, in fact, the same. Salley Gardens, the heroine of "Looking for Work," is a habitue of the New York literary-artistic scene: she must at some time have rubbed leather-patched elbows with Woody Allen's hero, if not with the auteur himself. The daughter of a famous Columbia University English professor, Salley is to the mannered born; she seals her faith with marriage to the scion of an even more aggressively intellectual clan.
But Jason Gardens, an editor for, among other places, the Saturday Review, is a weak-willed fellow, unworthy of adoration, unable to satisfy Salley with a diet of tepid sex, pallid emotion and dinners at Elaine's. The marriage drags itself neurasthenically to a halt, a paradigm of there-must-be-more-to-life divorces, and Salley embarks on a search for Meaning. She falls in and out of love with a virile sculptor who lives in California; she flits delicately into and out of bed with several sundrily creative types. Throughout, tentatively, Salley looks for a job that will fill days now spent reading 19th-century novels, lunching with friends and yawning.
Like "Manhattan," "Looking for Work" is stylistically impressive. The novel's structure is disciplined; there is no flab. Cheever writes at all times clearly and with control. Often her intricate descriptions are masterful sentences-as-short-stories: "each one of his books, as I noted when I made a special trip to the library to look them over, was dedicated to a different woman." At other times, the minimalist quality of Cheever's prose makes one wish for less adherence to the principle that less is more: "We never talked about ourselves, but once or twice he said things that seemed to mean I was something special for him." If one of Cheever's strengths is her camera-like eye, a weakness is the too-frequent focus on short-hand labels -- Chivas Scotch, Gucci loafers, resturant menus and names. For some readers the liberal sprinkling of real people through the book may exaggerate pleasurably the roman a clef quality of the novel, or add to the verisimilitude: "I hope you'll call me,' Phil [roth] said, 'I have someone who cooks dinner now." "I found it distracting.
Without question, there is more craft in "Looking for Work" than in a score of average first novels. But at base Cheever's book, with its fineness of style, strikes one as all dressed up with no place to go. Salley and Jason and all of their peers are studies in anomie, people who find life empty, unsatisfying, pretty much a bore. A dissection of that state of mind is not without appeal, but it's hard to stay interested in bored characters. Nor is Salley Garden's dilemma gripping -- a bright young woman dissatisfied with wifedom, discovering that men are not the answer in a job. We've been here before (beginning iwth the still unsurpassed "Diary of a Mad Housewife"); our guide this time is talented enough to make the return visit not unworthwhile. But "Looking for Work" fails to succeed as more than the work of a skillful miniaturist who has chosen a dated theme. Presumably Susan Cheever will look elsewhere for her next work; one suspects it will be a triumph.