John Cheever’s highly anthologized short story “The Enormous Radio” belongs to the genre of fiction known as Magic Realism in which the normality of everyday life is infused with the unexplained of the fabulous. With this in mind, the story commences from a point grounded in almost drably convention reality with a descriptive overview situating a couple named Jim and Irene comfortably in the relative blandness of the American upper middle class.
The element of magic which gives the literary genre its name intrudes upon their reality in the form of huge radio. A really big. So big that some might even term it…enormous. Turns out that size matters in this story not as a result of the largess of the receiver but as a result of the enormously fascinating gossipy conversations being unwitting transmitted from the homes of their neighbors.
Part of what has made “The Enormous Radio” so popular curators and anthologizers of modern American fiction is that the information that Irene becomes obsessed with tuning in to hear is really not particularly scandalous—no confessions of buried bodies in the backseat or communist sleeper cells contacting their Soviet overlords—but is instead the typical kind of suburban decadence likely to take place in any similar neighborhood.
Which is exactly what Cheever knew and intended. Because despite the appearance of the magic radio, it is not really the low-level examples of personal disgrace like truths spoken under the influence of alcohol or the revelation that seemingly perfect marriages may not necessary be so perfect that is the focus of his tale. Ultimately, it is the equally petty domestic scandals taking place inside Jim and Irene’s house that become the stimulation behind the writing of “The Enormous Radio.”
In order to fully grasp exactly why Cheever is trying to say by writing a story about one upper-class couple getting the chance to peek in the interesting—yet hardly mesmerizing—secret lives of ordinary people that goes on behind the doors they close to the outside world, you have to try to think of a medium for transmitting such information that could be bigger than a radio.