Thursday, September 30, 2010
Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions is a bleakly comic postmodern reflection on literature and language. Vonnegut deliberately pays little attention to the plot, which involves science fiction writer Kilgore Trout (a Vonnegut avatar who appears in some of Vonnegut’s earlier novels) traveling to an art festival in Midland City, where he accidentally sends automobile dealer Dwayne Hoover into a maniacal, violent rampage when Dwayne is exposed to the idea, found in one of Trout’s novels, “that human beings are robots, are machines.” The novel is perhaps most well-known for its metafictional elements, its self-awareness of its status as a work of fiction. The author (named Philboyd Studge, but impossible to distinguish from Vonnegut himself) regularly intrudes into the narrative, undercutting any mimetic realism by pointing out that he created the characters and can freely change this fictional universe. The common metafictional portrayal of the author as God appears when the characters refer to the author as the “Creator of the Universe.” Late in the novel, the author, hiding behind his sunglasses, physically places himself in the same bar as his two main characters, remarking, “I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created: Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout.” Having crossed the already tenuous line dividing storyteller from story, the author suffers a broken toe when Dwayne physically assaults almost every major character in the book. All of this rather slight plot structure leads up to a final encounter between the author and Trout, creator and created. At the novel’s conclusion, the author reveals to Trout his status as a character, saying, “Mr. Trout . . . I am a novelist, and I created you for use in my books.” But the author seems to renounce his traditional authorial rights and responsibilities by announcing, “I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career,” and tells Trout directly to his face, “Mr. Trout, you are free, you are free.” This freedom, however, is marred by sadness, as the metafictional play is subjected to Vonnegut’s crushing depressiveness and his pessimistic view of society. Whatever Vonnegut’s strengths as a (black) humorist or inventor of imaginative scenarios, I think it would be hard to make a case for his skills as a craftsman of language. Extending its self-reflexivity to the question of language, Breakfast of Champions, however, perhaps offers a defense of Vonnegut’s rejection of traditional literary language, as well as traditional literary form. First, the novel makes clear the marginal status of literature and the dubious appeal of linear narrative. Trout, whose science fiction novels are transparent allegories “about a tragic failure to communicate,” decides to visit the Midland art festival in order to squash the midwesterners’ dreams of obtaining Culture. Trout’s stories primarily appear in pornographic magazines, so he has to visit an adult book store in Manhattan in order to obtain copies of his works. Completely disillusioned about the world of letters, Trout, who misanthropically believes “that humanity deserved to die horribly,” hopes “to show provincials, who were bent on exalting creativity, a would-be creator who had failed and failed.” Later on, the author (or author-character) heavily criticizes another, far more successful, novelist invited to the fair, Beatrice Keedsler, stating, “I thought [she] had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.” According to the author, this belief in the power of narrative is not innocuous. Americans “were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often. It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books. . . . Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All fact would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.” But the language needed to accomplish this project of “bring[ing] chaos to order,” of writing about life as it really is, is nearly indistinguishable from the corrupted language of commerce and conformity. For example, the novel’s title, a registered corporate trademark repeated by a bartender in the novel whenever a character orders a martini, indicates at the outset the degradation of language in contemporary American society. Brand names, such as those of Dwayne’s franchises, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Best Western, speckle the text, and words advertised on billboards and trucks appear as enigmatic symbols. Local culture, at least outside of racial minorities, offers no linguistic counterforce; the author reflects on the terse, inexpressive language of Midland City: “Most white people in Midland City were insecure when they spoke, so they kept their sentences short and their words simple, in order to keep embarrassing mistakes to a minimum. . . . This was because their English teachers would wince and cover their ears and give them flunking grades and so on whenever they failed to speak like English aristocrats before the First World War. Also: they were told that they were unworthy to speak or write their language if they couldn’t love or understand incomprehensible novels and poems and plays about people long ago and far away.” The author adds, “It didn’t matter much what most people in Midland City said out loud, except when they were talking about money or structures or travel or machinery – or other measurable things.” The conspicuous failure of language motivates the novel’s inclusion of rudimentary explanations and illustrations of common words. As if talking to an extraterrestrial, the author defines words such as “dinosaur” or “apple,” and uses amateurish line drawings to supplement those definitions with visual icons (underscoring the juvenile nature of this discourse, Vonnegut even includes a drawing of a human asshole). At its darkest moments, the novel recasts its metafictional play as mechanized determination, reducing author, characters, and language itself to the inflexible routines of the machine: “I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair.”
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Like Cameron Hawley’s corporate fictions, on which it is clearly modeled, Alexander Fullerton’s Chief Executive transforms the contradictions of corporate capitalism into narrative conflict. Fullerton’s novel is set within a world of executive conferences and board of directors meetings, and dramatizes the struggle for corporate control. Chief Executive describes Nicholas Morrell’s rise to the top of the managerial hierarchy of a shipbuilding corporation in the decades following WW II. Divided into three sections – “Forties,” “Fifties,” “Sixties” – the novel maps out the growth of American corporate capitalism during the postwar upturn, and pays particular attention to the increasingly international scope of the American economy. The narrative begins in the last years of the war, illustrating Morrell’s experiences as a lieutenant commander in the British Royal Navy, which foreshadow his later success in commanding the employees of a corporation. While having his ship repaired around New York City, Morrell meets Gil McLennan, a wealthy shipyard owner who, foreseeing America’s imminent rise to hegemony of the world economy, attempts to secure his economic position by making business contacts with important German prisoners-of-war. McLennan lectures Morrell: “This is the shape of industry in the future, Nick. International cooperation, big markets open to us all, bigger production, lower costs, bigger sales, bigger profits.” McLennan chose his last wife because her inheritance gave him the capital needed to take over the shipyard, and his next wife has a trust that is important for his later investment in overseas production (he refuses to distinguish fiancée from finance). Motivated by his impoverished childhood to seek money, Morrell, a British citizen, returns to America after the war with the hope of obtaining a management position in McLennan’s corporation. Morrell’s dream of moving straight into the gray-flannel-suit business class is quickly crushed by employment rejections, but he tenaciously gets his foot in the door by being assigned a job sweeping in the machine shop of the shipyards. Morrell notices that all of the machines have been Taylorized and automated, and therefore demand little of their operators: “Watching the movement of the operators, he was surprised to see that their jobs were really quite simple. The machines did the work they were set to do, and needed little more than to be fed and watched.” Morrell’s fatiguing job in waste disposal, however, has not been automated. He aims to change that, and in the process he redesigns the entire shop so that both production and disposal are taken care of by one cost-saving conveyor belt system. The novel makes it clear that Morrell’s plans exemplify not technical expertise (best left, as Morrell says, to the “engineers”) but entrepreneurial innovation, which is recognized by his immediate boss and becomes his “passport into management.” Leaping to the fifties and over Morrell’s quick movement up through middle management, the novel finds itself more comfortably set in the office towers and executive suites of the McLennan Corporation. Morrell, now a vice-president and member of “the hundred thousand a year class,” smartly sees the importance of moving “from single or small orders to mass production” for taking advantage of the enormous potential of new markets in the postwar era, and single-handedly guides a new pleasure boat division to success. At a certain point, Morrell can’t go any higher in the corporate hierarchy without taking the job of the president, McLennan, but he is eventually able to move up by moving overseas. When McLennan buys a large interest in a badly-run, largely government-owned, British shipyard, Morrell is shipped back to England as the executive vice-president, or “chief executive officer,” of the corporation that is formed from the merger, McLennan Ridgeway Limited. Cut to the sixties, and the narrative finds Morrell facing a conflict between individual vision and collective mediocrity straight from an Ayn Rand novel. When the decision was first made to take control of the shipyard, Morrell made it clear that complete control would be necessary: “We’d have to have a free hand to do whatever we damn well needed to get this concern looking something like a commercial enterprise instead of a benevolent trust.” But the final agreement leaves the ownership of the corporation’s stocks, and therefore control of the firm, split between the British government, McLennan, and a few other parties. As a result, the company’s board of directors consists mostly of incompetent members of the British aristocracy, who don’t appreciate the attention and recognition Morrell acquires as he transforms the business into a success. At one meeting, the president of the board of directors, Sir Charles Briscoe, admonishes Morrell: “We are a company, gentlemen, not an individual. We are McLennan Ridgeway Limited; we are not Nicholas Morrell Limited.” Morrell defends his contributions, responding: “I’ve taken this company off the scrap-heap and made it work. McLennan Ridgeway is a highly organized, expertly managed group with the finest equipment in the industry, a high return on capital investment and the longest order book in the business.” But the board of directors remains hostile, and its president, Briscoe, tries deceitfully to force Morrell to give up control of the corporation through blackmail. Although the novel proudly but rather clumsily shows off its tolerance towards Jews (unlike other executives, Morrell does not exclude Jewish managers from social outings), it unfortunately takes a homophobic turn when it figures the collective sameness of the board of directors and the socialist-leaning British government by turning the president of the board into a homosexual who has a personal relationship with an important government bureaucrat, and using the fact of that relationship as the basis of Morrell’s revenge. As the narrative progresses, Morrell’s personal identity becomes inseparable from the corporation. When asked why he continues to fight for the company, despite his wealth and options, he states: “McLennan Ridgeway hasn’t only been mine, its been me.” But as a British citizen working for an American firm operating in England, this complicated corporate identity reflects the increasing ability of capital to detach itself from its geographic roots and flow across national boundaries. When facing British criticism of American interference in England, Morrell praises America for the opportunities it has given him and expresses his contempt for what he considers the general mediocrity of English society, revealing perhaps a libertarian hatred of socialism. But he also faces criticisms from America when he steals military contracts from McLennan’s American-based shipyard. Even though they are “closely associated companies,” he refuses to restrain his company when in competition against the American firm. By the novel’s conclusion, Morrell has become a nationless subject, an embodiment of capital in an era of globalization, committed to pursuing profit wherever and however he can.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
James Wood’s How Fiction Works asks “questions about the art of fiction” with the aim of revealing to general readers the techniques that make fiction work. He justifies the existence of his book by arguing that academic literary criticism has not adequately served this task (though he does admit a fondness for formalist critics such as Barthes and Shklovsky). This is a rather dubious claim, especially since Wayne Booth’s classic The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) deals with most of the same aesthetic and narratological issues and discusses many of the same literary examples. Besides a brief mention of Milan Kundera’s books on writing fiction, Wood also omits any reference to the numerous manuals that offer would-be writers clichéd advice on how to construct a good novel. Wood refuses to ground his analysis of the art of fiction in either a political program or a systematic aesthetic theory, so he winds up offering a rather idiosyncratic and incomplete appreciation of good fiction’s dedication to “truth” and “lifeness.” How Fiction Works starts out well with a chapter on narrating that demonstrates Wood’s sensitivity and sophistication as a reader. He claims that, with some exceptions, almost all stories are told in the third person or in the first person. But he questions the “common idea . . . that there is a contrast between reliable narration (third-person omniscience) and unreliable narration (the unreliable first-person narrator, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does).” He finds this contrast to be a “caricature,” and claims, “first-person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person ‘omniscient’ narration is generally more partial than omniscient.” Because authors flag the unreliability of their first-person narrators, readers learn how to read that unreliability. “Unreliable unreliable narration is very rare, actually – about as rare as a genuinely mysterious, truly bottomless character.” Turning to third-person omniscience, Wood argues, “authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected.” He explains, “So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style.’” Wood proceeds to offer one of the best explanations of free indirect discourse you’re likely to find anywhere. He rewrites the same third-person sentence multiple times, slowly transforming it into an example of free indirect discourse. In free indirect discourse, language seems to hover between being the property of the novelist and of a character. “Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge – which is free indirect style itself - between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.” Wood is at his best in the book in the following discussion of literary examples that exploit this tension in free indirect discourse. When he identifies a single word in a Henry James sentence that pushes the text into free indirect discourse, Wood comes close to justifying his dismissal of the theoretical sledgehammers academic critics usually apply to literary works. Unfortunately, the rest of Wood’s book does not maintain this level of insight, and Wood is unable to keep many of his later claims from resembling aesthetic commonplaces. In the next chapter, he turns to Flaubert, who of course is the foundation of modern narrative and literary realism. Flaubert’s mastery of details that seem at once trivial and important leads into a discussion of the function of detail in fiction. Wood admits he is ambivalent about the “post-Flaubertian” fetishizing of the detail, which often leads to “surplus detail” in the text. Roland Barthes’ essay “The Reality Effect” argues that irrelevant, excess detail is a code for the real: it makes the text say, “I am real.” Wood adds that no detail in a novel is really insignificant, though some may be “significantly insignificant,” that is, they function precisely through their lack of clear significance. But lacking Barthes’ interest in semiotic systems, Wood explains this claim by making a problematic comparison of literature and life, arguing that irrelevant detail in literature demonstrates “the irrelevance of reality itself,” the presence of surplus detail and a “margin of the gratuitous” in everyday experience. Turning from detail to character, Wood objects to E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between flat and round characters. Wood notes that many of the great characters of literature are surprisingly flat, mere outlines that are never fully fleshed in. At this point, Wood enters into a rather unnecessary polemic against postmodern, metafictional writers who deny the existence of characters (William Gass is the direct target). Here as elsewhere, Wood comes across as being rather traditional and conservative in his literary values, values that he ultimately can only prescribe without justification. He writes, “My own taste tends toward the sketchier fictional personage, whose lacunae and omissions tease us, provoke us to wade in their deep shallows.” But more generally, “novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level.” “It is subtlety that matters – subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure – and for subtlety a very small point of entry will do.” Some rather brief and fragmentary chapters on sympathy, language, and dialogue follow, so that the book increasingly seems like a collection of random thoughts rather than a systematic account of how fiction works. When he finally reaches the question of the value of literature itself, Wood offers an answer that could have come straight from Lionel Trilling: “the novel does not provide philosophical answers . . . it gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric.” This response leads him to more directly confront the issue of literature’s relation to reality. He acknowledges that literary realism has largely become what he terms “commercial realism,” a degraded genre that relies on a set of conventions to depict reality. But rather than agree with the postmodernists who, denying language’s referentiality, claim that commercial realism illustrates the artificiality and arbitrariness of all realism’s codes, Wood wants to preserve a stronger link between literature and the real. He proposes to “replace the always problematic word ‘realism’ with the much more problematic word ‘truth.’” “Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.”
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
In Liquid Times, Bauman adopts a popular, nonacademic style that, I assume, saps his argument of some of its originality and complexity. Especially in the later chapters, he veers into what are now familiar claims about inequality in the neoliberal city, the inadequacy of local and even national powers to solve global problems, and the decline of utopian thought. Bauman is famous for his distinction between “solid” and “liquid” modernity, a distinction that would seem to contradict Marshall Berman’s Marx-derived claim that in modernity “all that is solid melts into air.” For Bauman, the first wave of modernity did dissolve “community or corporation knots,” the “natural” bonds that held society together and provided individuals protection. However, solid modernity wove a new “network of protection from scratch,” replacing “belonging” with “solidarity.” During solid modernity, the “social state” provided “collective insurance against individual misfortune” through welfare institutions and other provisions. The Fordist compact also stabilized labor conditions and reduced individual uncertainty, offering workers the “shelter” of a career. However, during liquid modernity, which dates from the 1970s to the present, the social state and the Fordist compact, as well as the protection they offered, have been increasingly dismantled (Bauman makes only a passing reference to the literature on neoliberalism and post-Fordism, perhaps a symptom of his refusal to ultimately ground his sociological description in political economy). In liquid modernity, social forms change too continually and quickly for individuals to adapt effectively. “Forms, whether already present or only adumbrated, are unlikely to be given enough time to solidify, and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life strategies because of their short life expectations.” The result, as Richard Sennett has also pointed out, is an inability to make long-term plans and interpret change as more than lateral drift or a series of brief episodes. And the new virtue is “flexibility: a readiness to change tactics and style at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret – and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability, rather than following one’s own established preferences.” In addition to this “mood of precariousness,” liquid modernity produces a general feeling of existential insecurity and fear. “Fear is there, saturating daily human existence as deregulation reaches deep into its foundations and the defensive bastions of civil society fall apart.” Unable to eliminate the actual causes of such existential fear, largely because “global forces [seem] beyond the reach of political control”, individuals seek out “substitute targets.” So in the place of existential security “rest[ing] on collective foundations,” the state promises “to protect its citizens against dangers to personal safety,” and singles out for demonization beggars, terrorists, and illegal immigrants. Whereas the unemployed once formed a “reserve army of labour,” a temporarily unproductive body, today there is a growing number of what Bauman terms “redundant humans,” permanently excluded individuals who will never be reintegrated into society and the economy and who therefore pose a pressing “human waste disposal” problem. “Rather than being a condition of being ‘un-employed’ (the term implying a departure from the norm which is ‘to be employed’, a temporary affliction that can and shall be cured), being out of a job feels increasingly like a state of ‘redundancy’ – being rejected, branded as superfluous, useless, unemployable and doomed to remain ‘economically inactive’. Being out of a job implies being disposable, perhaps even disposed of already and once and for all, assigned to the waste of ‘economic progress.’”
Friday, September 10, 2010
Raymond Carver’s first collection of short stories doesn’t fully exhibit the stern, reductive, stylistic purity of his second collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? also steers clear of the sentimentality occasionally found in his third collection, Cathedral. It is tempting to see that sentimental turn as a reaction to the excessive editorial purges of his second collection. A better approach might consider how the stylistic, even syntactical, neutralization of affect, Carver’s mastery of terse, expressive inexpressivity, which was accomplished in his second collection, cleared a field for the later reintroduction of relatively direct expressions of feeling. Economic distress and broken marriages are persistent issues in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and many of the stories open with blunt statements about unemployment and empty households. As usual, Carver painfully illustrates his characters’ efforts to reverse their slow decline. For example, in “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” the protagonist, Al, “was drifting, and he knew he was drifting, and where it was all going to end he could not guess at. But he was beginning to feel he was losing control over everything. Everything.” So he makes a decision to take action: “He had to start someplace – setting things in order, sorting all this out. It was time to do something, time for some straight thinking for a change.” He later walks around muttering to himself, “Order, order,” but his plans cruelly involve getting rid of the family dog by dropping it off in a strange neighborhood, hardly a solution to his problems. In “Collectors,” the effort to establish personal order is figured as a fight against subjective entropy. A man who is separated from his wife finds his home invaded one day by a vacuum cleaner salesman, who tells the man, “Every day, every night of our lives, we’re leaving little bits of ourselves, flakes of this and that, behind. Where do they go, these bits and pieces of ourselves? Right through the sheets and into the mattress, that’s where!” The salesman proceeds to clean the man’s home, introducing a burst of ordering energy into the man’s decaying domestic system. “What Is It?” is unique in focusing on a case of over-consumption, and illustrates how Carver’s characters (and perhaps Carver himself) are able to think about economics only on a personal, moral, level. The story focuses on a couple that has over-indulged in luxuries, leading to impending bankruptcy: “They buy what they want. If they can’t pay, they charge. They sign up.” When asked to sell their car before it is reclaimed in foreclosure, the wife cheats on the husband with a car salesman who tells her, “personally he’d rather be classified a robber or a rapist than a bankrupt.” She apparently internalizes this moral argument about money, and responds to her husband’s fury over her affair by repeatedly yelling at him what she considers a label of individual worthlessness: “Bankrupt!” A number of these stories involve characters who are or desire to be writers, leading to a high degree of reflexivity about the writing process that edges the works toward metafiction (On Carver and the writing program, see Mark McGurl’s The Program Era). The protagonist of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” is a teacher who talks with his wife while using his red pen on a stack of student papers. The repetition of “Please” in the story’s title emphasizes the man’s feelings of emotional desperation, but also resembles the linguistic circularity and play one might find in a Barth or Barthelme story. Although it doesn’t focus on the act of writing, “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” foregrounds what Bernhard Siegert calls literature’s “postal a priori” by taking as its narrator a postman who observes a young Beatnik couple that has moved into his rural, working class town and whose relationship hinges on letters the postman drops off in their mailbox. More than any of the other stories, “Put Yourself in My Shoes” takes writing as its explicit focus and indulges in a dizzying foray into self-reflexivity. During the Christmas season, a writer and his wife visit an older couple from whom they once rented a house. Each of their hosts tells a (melo)dramatic story, assuming it will be of use as “raw material” for the budding author. When the writer laughs at them, the older man says, “The real story is here, Mr. Myers,” and proceeds to recount how the younger couple were bad tenants who broke the rules of their lease. “That’s the real story that is waiting to be written. . . . It doesn’t need Tolstoy.” Yet the shifter “here” is more complicated than the man realizes. While he uses it to shift his story’s frame to include their present scene, in which the two couples face off, he doesn’t go far enough, he doesn’t realize there is still another frame above this story. He fails to realize that he is a character in a story himself, that the story “that is waiting to be written” has already been written, and that the word “here” is printed in a material book present in front of the reader’s eyes. But as “Put Yourself in My Shoes” ends with the younger couple making a quick exit from the house, Carver offers up a prototypically metafictional last line: “He was at the very end of a story.”
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
In his third collection of short stories, Raymond Carver occasionally lessens the severity of his minimalist aesthetic, letting a few of the stories continue on to ambiguously warm conclusions, which are the closest thing to a “happy ending” in Carver country. But just as often, the stories present security and stability as ephemeral illusions and end with Carver’s typical images of lives out of control. For example, in “Feathers,” a husband and wife gain self-confidence when they visit friends in the countryside and observe the minute class and social distinctions that set the two couples apart. Their friends vulgarly allow a pet peacock to live in the house and have what the narrator simply names the “ugly baby.” But the husband and wife’s sense of superiority and distinction is quickly erased when the story’s conclusion indicates, without explanation, a transformation: “The change came later – and when it came, it was like something that happened to other people, not something that could have happened to us.” In “Chef’s House,” the narrator’s husband, a recovering alcoholic, literally has a short lease on happiness, as the titular house where he sets his life back in order is reclaimed by its owner at an unexpectedly early point. Describing a teacher whose life briefly comes together when he finds a nanny/maid to take care of his children, “Fever” mirrors “Chef’s House,” though with a slightly more optimistic ending. In “The Bridle,” an unemployed farmer and his family move to an apartment complex in Arizona. Despite the poolside community they join, they fail at their service jobs and move on, leaving behind a horse’s “bridle,” a symbol of their failure to gain control over their lives (pulling on the bridle, “You’d know you were going somewhere.”). “Where I’m Calling From” reveals a great deal about the fragile subjectivity and communication-at-a-distance of Carver’s characters throughout the volume. The titular location is an alcohol recovery center, from which the damaged narrator contemplates connecting to his absent wife through a telephone call. Taking place on a train crossing Europe, “The Compartment” is a rare shift of scene for Carver that demonstrates how easily his minimalist fiction can slip into the Mobius Strip models of metafiction. The desire of the narrator not to interact with the outside world, and particularly with the estranged son he is on his way to visit, his attempt to solipsistically seal off his psyche, is figured by the titular train car. Although the man desires to stay locked in comfortable isolation, an intruder enters the car and steals from him, and the man’s response ironically leads him to get trapped outside in a crowded second-class car. Two stories most clearly distinguish this collection from Carver’s earlier ones. “The Bath,” previously included in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, reappears in a revised and extended form in Cathedral as “A Small, Good Thing.” The earlier version, fitting with the dark tone of the rest of that collection, ends with a brutal moment of misunderstanding, a baker calling and coldly demanding payment for a birthday cake that was never picked up because the family’s son was killed in a hit-and-run. The newer version, however, allows the misunderstanding to be cleared up, and the final reconciliation of the baker and the parents edges too far towards a form of sentimentality that, while perhaps responsible for the popularity of the story, seems at odds with Carver’s emotionally-constricted writing program. The concluding story, “Cathedral,” also takes a dip into sentimental waters. As with many of Carver’s stories, “Cathedral” reflects on the limits of and the desire for communication by including different mediated interactions. The narrator insecurely and anxiously awaits the arrival at his house of a blind man, a ham radio enthusiast who has exchanged audio tapes through the mail with the narrator’s wife over the years. The awkward encounter between the narrator and the blind man seems to take a turn for the worse when the narrator’s wife falls asleep watching television, leaving the two men alone to converse. But when the blind man asks the narrator to show him what the cathedral seen on television looks like by drawing it with him, Carver reveals the goal of all his fiction: to elevate the mundane to the level of the sacred.
Friday, September 3, 2010
Raymond Carver’s second major collection of stories pushes his minimalism to the threshold - without every crossing it - where economical realism might disintegrate into fragmented, experimental play. The guiding (de)compositional principle here - largely attributable to Gordon Lish’s editorial hand - is to cut as much and as early as possible without undermining the coherence of the fundamental scene. This reductive aesthetic produces an exceptionally bleak tone for Carver, as his characters - sometimes described as simply “the man” or “the girl” - are often frozen at the story’s end in a pose of emotional tension or despair. The decision to abruptly, even prematurely, end each story formally redoubles the inability of Carver’s characters to weave the events of their lives into some kind of overarching narrative. In fact, many of his characters are self-conscious about their lack of “plans”; dealing with alcoholism, crumbling marriages, and/or bouts of unemployment, they are all too aware that their lives lack any form of long-term consistency. For example, in “Gazebo,” one character nostalgically notes, “Everything was fine for the first year. I was holding down another job nights, and we were getting ahead. We had plans. Then one morning, I don’t know.” As Mark McGurl has recently argued in The Program Era, Carver’s stories aestheticize lower-middle class suffering, “beautifying shame” without explaining it. This exposure of private shame to the public’s eyes is thematized within many of the stories. For example, in “Why Don’t You Dance?” a man separated from his wife places all of his household furniture out on his front lawn, exposing his domestic problems to strangers passing by. In “Viewfinder,” the narrator is fascinated by the idea of having a photographer take photos of him inside and on top of his house. Communicational dysfunction is an omnipresent problem for the stories’ couples and friends, who are cognizant of their inability to express themselves. In “Gazebo,” one character admits, “I don’t have anything to say. I feel all out of words inside.” But moments of non-verbal communion provide much needed relief. In “The Bath,” a husband tries to comfort his wife after their child is injured in a hit-and-run: “The husband sat in the chair beside her. He wanted to say something else. But there was no saying what it should be. He took her hand and put it in his lap. This made him feel better. It made him feel he was saying something.” More mystically, the titular conversation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” ends in a powerful moment of silence (with unintentional echoes of John Cage): “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” Yet Carver’s stories just as often stage scenes of storytelling, confessing to the problematic pleasures of narrative making that his minimalism would seem to repress. So whereas in “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off” a son is subjected to his father’s account of cheating on his mother, in “The Calm” the narrator overhears a hunting story while sitting in a barbershop. As McGurl notes, Carver’s characters appear apolitical (when not explicitly conservative) and cut off from any involvement in the currents of History. Outside of household appliances and color televisions, his characters even seem left behind by the latest wave of modernization. No doubt the long downturn of the U.S. economy since the beginning of the 1970s played a constitutive role in the stories’ sense of economic (and therefore individual) stagnation. Carver’s association with the house style of creative writing programs might lead some readers to be suspicious of the level of calculated craft involved in these stories, but, at times, Carver’s infamously simple syntax achieves a singularly powerful affective impact.