My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A character in this iconic collection’s final story thinks of her daughter’s truancy as “another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies.” “Low-rent tragedies” could be the subtitle of this 1981 book, which perhaps more than any other made its author’s name as a figurehead of minimalist fiction. In content, it tells stories of working-class and lower-middle-class white American life, usually in the west or northwest. It is about men and women struggling with work and poverty, adultery and domestic violence, divorce and alcoholism. Anyone who ever experienced or witnessed any of what’s described in these stories—and alcoholic desperation in the 1980s was the background, though happily not the foreground, to some of my own earliest memories—will be able smell the stale cigarette smoke molecularly bonded to the pages.
A writer can use several authorial strategies to save such subject matter from exploitation or artless severity. Carver himself tended to prefer what we might call the Chekhovian tactic of sympathetic amplitude: giving us his characters from the inside, allowing them, even in the third person, their own voice and language and sensibility with which to tell their own stories. Carver’s later fiction, his work of the mid-to-late ’80s before his death in 1988, exhibits such a classic style of story-writing.
The fiction in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, though, reflects a different aesthetic: that of its highly interventionist editor, Gordon Lish. For Lish, as I understand it, fiction was less about the mimesis of consciousness than it was about intensive semiosis. If Carver descended from Chekhov’s humanism, Lish comes down from that other and much different instituter of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, with his almost mathematical philosophies of composition and his proto-camp treatment of sentimental subjects. Lish was a reader of Shklovsky, Barthes, and Kristeva; he was a friend and companion of DeLillo. He believed literature was the arrangement of sentences for maximal effect rather than the expression in language of some pre-linguistic essence popularly called the self.
Lish’s approach to Carver, then, was to delete anything that might seem extraneous, often paring down Carver’s stories by 30% or even 50%. He excised over-explanation and lopped off discursive conclusions, favoring rather the stark dialogue, the incised image, and the abrupt ending.
A classic example is the story “The Bath” (appearing in What We Talk About) in contrast to its earlier/later iteration, “A Small, Good Thing” (appearing in Cathedral). Lish’s version is a brief and benumbed account of a couple’s grief and terror after their son is struck by a car on his birthday. Carver’s text, by contrast, lets the emotions find utterance rather than evoking them by their verbal absence. Lish, faithful to writers like Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Connor, tries to induce readers to feel by withholding all feeling from the story’s own tone:
The father gazed at his son, the small chest inflating and deflating under the covers. He felt more fear now. He began shaking his head. He talked to himself like this. The child is fine. Instead of sleeping at home, he’s doing it here. Sleep is the same wherever you do it.
But there is a problem of means and ends here: Joyce wanted to show his fellow citizens the ugly reality of their political and cultural paralysis, Hemingway was trying to craft and communicate a stoic ethic that could replace modernity’s vanished traditions, and O’Connor attempted to make us recognize the necessity of the divine by presenting us with its absence. Their story-writing styles of what Joyce called “scrupulous meanness” had serious political, ethical, and religious purposes. They contrasted their cold forms with their hot contents for a reason, and their intended effect on the reader was more than a sensational one.
What purpose did Lish bring to Carver when he killed his darlings? Carver wanted to tell the stories of the world he knew in a language that was not over-stylized but rather naturalistic and discursive. Lish, by contrast, wanted those stories to be objects he could find aesthetically interesting according to his own theories. This disjunction leads, in my experience, to the curdling of modernist irony into postmodern sarcasm. Lish turns Carver’s stories into near-cartoons of curtailed emotion, as if to mock the idea of feeling at all. In his hands, Carver’s fictions end with anti-epiphanies, shock tactics, as in “Tell the Women We’re Going,” with its calmly-stated last-paragraph double-murder (which Carver had developed into a full-fledged suspenseful scene in his earlier draft):
He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.
I derive much of my information about Carver’s drafts and Lish’s interventions from Brian Evenson’s recent book-length appreciation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Evenson, though better known nowadays as a fiction writer, was one of the first scholars to study the Carver/Lish issue, precisely because as a college student he had fallen in love with Lish-phase Carver, and particularly with this collection.
Evenson admits that Lish’s dealings with Carver verge upon, or even cross into the territory of, the unethical. Added to that is the political question of the high-powered editor’s not allowing stories from the provinces into circulation until he’d shorn them of all that the jaded metropolitan would regard as overly sincere or sentimental. Yet Evenson wants to defend What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a cohesive collection that communicates an authentic nihilism. On this reading, we might say that Carver was trying for Chekhov but reaching only Sherwood Anderson, so Lish was right to use a few deft excisions to turn him into Kafka instead.
Kafka is Evenson’s own comparison: “So when I got to Carver, I had Beckett and Kafka as models for what literature could do. Which probably made me see Carver in a very eccentric light.” Despite the self-mockery in the word “eccentric,” Evenson is, I believe, trying to rescue Carver from his own reputation by making us re-evaluate his style. Later in the book, Evenson notes that his older classmates, hipper to the literary journal scene in the ’80s, were able to place Carver among the other minimalists and dirty realists of the time: “people like Richard Ford or Bobbie Ann Mason or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolff.”
To put it somewhat unkindly, though, readers who don’t have MFAs do not necessarily care for these “crafty” short story writers who tend to feel as mannered and formulaic as “genre fiction” is supposed to be. This increasingly common observation is in fact one source, beyond his obvious gifts, of Evenson’s own success as a writer who works in the mode of the weird. There has been in this century a turn in literary fiction away from artisanal realism to artisanal fabulism, which does indeed descend, among other writers, from Kafka.
Evenson’s slyly polemical originality is to offer us the Carver of What We Talk About as an inhabitant of this fantastical lineage rather than the realist one, of seeing him as the companion less of the dirty realists than the magical realists: the explorer of a slightly different type of bloody chamber, but a bloody chamber nonetheless. The Carver of Lish’s invention, no less than Lish himself, is a child of Poe, not Chekhov.
All of the above is literary sociology, but what about literary criticism? Are these stories, taken at face value, worth reading? Read all at once, What We Talk About is too much of a good thing (which sounds like a be-Lished Carver title). As I read them, I could only admire their compression and concision and the often brutal punchlines these artistic priorities allow. But this is a limited aesthetic, and the effect of reading one story after another in this mode is slapstick. The less up-to-date, less polished instrument of Carver’s own style, though it can do less with a single page, can probably accomplish more in a story or a book. I hardly remember a character from these stories, because they come as vivid images but don’t stay long enough to impress, still less to ramify. What I remember is a tone, an unforgettable one.
The title story is justly famous for its non-communicative dialogue and darkening mood. “The Calm” is a surprising study in homoeroticism, “After the Denim” an almost sweet and definitely scary paean to marriage under the stresses of illness and age. “I Could See the Smallest Things” has a loopy, Lynchian slug-killing suburban surrealism. My favorite is “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a true affront, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d quote from it, but you need to read the whole thing; I doubt Andrea Dworkin herself ever wrote with such cosmic pessimism about men, women, and sex.
Such a story validates Evenson’s claim that Carver, under Lish’s influence, attains true originality: he gives us, or they give us, lower-class American life seen under the blacklight of a meaningless eternity. They offer a chortling, bleak poetry preferable to the second-rate humanism of Chekhov’s mere imitators.
“Our moods do not believe each other,” said Emerson; in one mood, I want Lish’s Carver, and in another mood I want Carver unLished. Which Carver is better? I leave it to you, but if you want to see what Poe or Kafka might have written in the 1980s about my aunts and uncles and my parents’ friends, then you should read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.