The Thingness of Things
There is an apparent contradiction between Raymond Carver's working methods and his stylistic approach. Few writers talk more of redrafting; yet has there ever been another writer who gives such a strong impression of being too exhausted to look up the thesaurus? This, of course, doesn't make Carver a charlatan; no matter if he admits "writers are big liars" as he wonders whether Jack Kerouac really did write On the Road in one draft. It's more that he follows Hemingway's dictum that, in Carver's words, "prose is architecture and the baroque age is over". The redrafting would seem to be the process of finding something that can't quite be named. If it could be found in the thesaurus then the problem would be quickly solved. Carver's genius, however, is for finding not the Flaubertian mot juste. It isn't the most appropriate word in the most appropriate place, especially, more that the word chosen must be prosaic and yet mysterious.
This is partly why 'thing', 'something' and 'everything' turn up so often in his work, and why he usually uses 'said' rather than words like exclaim, announce, insisted or believed to carry dialogue exchanges. Where many a writer would search out the specifics of the something or thing, Carver appears to want such mundane, simple and basically imprecise words to carry a mysteriousness of feeling through the vagueness of what is described. In 'Gazebo', a heavy drinking couple, Duane and Holly, believe their luck has changed when taking over as managers of a motel. But the drinking continues and Duane starts an affair with a Mexican maid he describes as a "funny little thing". Later Holly says "something's died in me", adding "you've killed something, just like you'd took an axe to it. Everything is dirty now." Duane as narrator describes an affair as this "thing with Juanita", and later in the story notes that "there was this funny thing of anything could happen now that we realized everything had."
The sense of the thingness of things is also there in numerous other stories. 'In Why Don't You Dance?', the narrator says of two young characters "there was something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling." The central character is selling the items from his house out on his lawn. "Everything goes", he says. "Pick something". The girl picks "something", "anything". Four of the seventeen stories in the collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love have the word thing in the title.
There are a couple of elements worth pursuing here in relation to Carver's 'thingliness'. One is from Milan Kundera - a quote from whom prefaces the selected stories, Where I'm Calling From - and his notion of theme words. The other is Martin Heidegger's fascination with the thingness of things, clearly evident in the philosopher's belief that "everything that might interpose itself between the thing and us apprehending and talking about it must first be set aside. Only then do we yield ourselves to the undistorted presencing of the thing." Heidegger also adds that "the thing is the aistheton, that which is perceptible by sensations in the senses belonging to sensibility." ('The Origins of the Work of Art') We'll say more about this shortly.
Now in The Art of the Novel, Kundera mentions that "a theme is an existential inquiry" and believes that "such an inquiry is, finally, the examination of certain words, theme-words." In Carver's work there are other words that appear frequently, including, drink drunk, drinking and think, thought, thinking, all basically functioning quite similarly to the thing words, and creating a certain surplus of feeling around the vagueness of meaning. Kundera goes as far as to claim that not just his own but many novels are based on certain theme words, and has talked elsewhere about this problem when a writer like Kafka has been translated. In Testaments Betrayed he mentions that Kafka would use the same word several times, but the translators possessed what Kundera calls the "synonymizing reflex", that need to look in a thesaurus for alternatives in avoiding repetition and thus betraying Kafka's intentions in the process. Kundera's comments are not pedantic; he feels that the very heart of a novel is being removed by these alterations.
One may wonder how many writers share a translator's synonymizing reflex, and subsequently arrive at a certain concreteness of description to the detriment of the sort of metaphysical mystery that surrounds Carver's s work. When for example James Kelman was told by interviewer Duncan MacLean in Edinburgh Review that Anthony Burgess believed Joyce was the greatest master of English prose ever, and Kelman says there were "things Kafka was doing that Joyce was just not capable of doing", then one can understand the problem Kundera might have with a translator turning Kafka into someone with the extensive vocabulary and genius for description so many admire in Joyce. Their approach was fundamentally different
This leads us to return to Heidegger and the thingness the philosopher mentions. If the thing is that which is perceptible by sensations in the senses belonging to sensibility, then is one way of approaching the thing to push beyond its objectness to its thingness? But how to do this without arriving at useless vagueness, rather than metaphysical precision? Joyce is obviously a marvellous writer of the specific as he describes in vivid detail; but Kafka is more interesting still from the notion of a sensibility that permeates the object with a sense of surplus meaning. When Kelman wonders whether Joyce was really the great modern writer Burgess implies, it appears to lie in Burgess's idea that art resides in ready and descriptive mastery. Kelman suggests it lies somewhere else again, and maybe not in mastery, nor of course in non-mastery, but in acknowledging the difficulty of nailing the thingness of the art; that which makes it different from craft, from technique, from readily definable qualities of creation that we can simply admire. While the sense of admiration of what a writer is capable of creates a vis-a-vis relationship with the art work and the artist (the great creator and the work produced; the humble receiver who comes and admires) maybe a better way of looking at this relationship is that we come not to admire, but to share, to be transformed by the art gift. "A work, by being a work," Heidegger says, "makes space for that spaciousness." Carver always said what he wanted the reader to do was no more than pause for a minute after reading one of his stories: nothing more and nothing less, as if allowing space for the spaciousness the story created.
Yet for all our references to Heidegger, Kundera, Kafka and Kelman, Carver is also resolutely a realist writer, often labelled minimalist, new realist or Dirty Realist; a writer who came after the so-called metafictionists, like John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and others, all of whom played up the fact that we were reading works of fiction. The metafictional never interested Carver, yet part of the realism that we find in the writer's work could be seen as mannerist and self-conscious from another point of view. Indeed in an article in The Guardian on Carver, Blake Morrison comments on how completely editor Gordon Lish altered Carver's collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. "Literary references are removed", Morrison observes, "on the grounds that the lowlife characters wouldn't be sufficiently educated to read." "Out goes Italo Svevo from one story and Ivanhoe from another. Similes and metaphors are deleted too." Realism it appeared couldn't incorporate references to an Italian modernist and a Scottish storyteller. Yet though there may have been an inverse snobbery at play, in Carver's work there is a sense not especially that people wouldn't have the intellectual wherewithal to read Svevo and others; more the time and peace of mind to do so. It is here the resolute realist can meet the bigger problem of the ineffable, of nailing down the un-nameable.
In the work of a writer like Joyce, or for that matter Nabokov, Bellow or any other acknowledged master stylist, the genius often resides more in the capacity to name than the creation of space where the mystery of the ineffable is contained. The awe in such writers' work often resides in the sentence, not hovering over it. There is a passage from the Nabokov story 'Time and Ebb' that captures beautifully this type of precision prose as he talks of "gaudy automatic machines upon the musical constipation of which the insertion of a small coin used to act as a miraculous laxative", and a Bellow description like this one from Herzog does likewise. "The superjet carried him to Chicago in ninety minutes, due west, keeping up with the rotation of the planet and giving him an extension of afternoon sunlight."
This is prose where mystery doesn't surround the sentence; the awe lies right at the heart of it, in the manner in which the writer describes respectively a jukebox and a flight. When at the end of Carver's 'Fat' the waitress narrating the story says that she thinks her luck is about to change, we are left to muse over why that may be so, and the ambiguity is absolutely consistent with the manner in which she has attempted to talk about an enormously fat man she served in the diner in which she works. Carver builds the story not out of linguistic brilliance, but out of a consistent inexpressibility where the characters wants to nail something but can't find the wherewithal, the language or the company in which to do it. When the waitress relates to her friend Rita that she said "I don't believe I've seen you before", Rita snickers saying, "he's not the kind of person you'd forget" At another moment when the waitress is back at home with her partner, with whom she works at the diner, our first person narrator observes: "some fatty, Rudy says, stretching like he does when he's tired. Then he just laughs and goes back to watching the TV." Near the end of the story as she gets into bed the narrator notes "But here is the thing. When he [Rudy] gets on top of me, I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all." Then at the very end of the story she says "My life is going to change. I feel it."
Now obviously there is a long history of art coming out of a delayed reaction to an event, so that the emotional release comes through a withheld emotional effect, from Aristotle's notion of catharsis to Eliot's belief in the objective correlative: in the chain of events that will, when concluded, release the required emotion. Are we saying no more than that Carver is interested in releasing the requisite emotion, and doesn't want any fancy words to get in the way of that catharsis?
One thinks not, which is why the battery of references to Kundera, Heidegger, Kafka and Kelman to try and comprehend Carver's thingness. Many writers may forgo wordplay under the assumption it makes the reader too aware of the linguistic surface of the text, just as there are others writers (and amongst them the metafictionists for whom the text is a text), who want to emphasise the fact that the story is composed, and dazzle us with how well-written theirs happens to be. Indeed many a writer settles for its combination, as James Wood astutely notes when writing of a certain type of style that is literary and yet invisible. In How Fiction Works, he talks of this "artful-but-natural 'realism'', and utilises a passage which typifies it. "The professor turned away from the window. The glass was smeared, he noticed, with the faint tattoo of someone's dirty fingers. It made him think of a prisoner's hands, pushed up helplessly against the window of a van, in Beirut perhaps or some dingy suburb in Baghdad."
Why wouldn't Carver write such a passage, just as we can say he wouldn't write like Bellow or Nabokov? Neither approach would offer the necessary thingness: the gap that resides between the feeling and the object. Note how the passage in Wood's example allows for a certain mastery: the faint tattoo of someone's dirty fingers, indicative of the literary touch (wouldn't 'mark' suffice?), the certitude that there is a dingy Baghdad suburb. The thoughts and observations do not create the space for that hesitancy which Carver searches out. The passage seems indicative of someone who has eyes to see but sees what everyone else notices, however well. Carver's stories have the hesitancy of a blind man always wondering whether what he is touching can confidently be named: that our relationship with the world based on what we see can only be partial one; so we should describe this partial world with an awareness of that partiality.
Perhaps this is why Carver thought one of his finest stories was the late work, 'Cathedral', a tale of a blind man who comes to stay with the narrator and his wife, a long-term friend of the latter. Carver sets the husband up as someone encased in his own perspective: a place where the idea of a blind man visiting makes him feel uncomfortable, where blacks are called 'colored' and where when anyone visits it seems like a violation. As the wife says, "you don't have any friends." How will the perspective of the blind man impact on the narrator, we're left to wonder, as this seems to be the Carver story exemplified: narrativising of the theme that covers much of his work; the partiality of the object and the tentativeness of the feeling that leads to often conclusive yet strangely indeterminate conclusions? Just as 'Fat' ends with the waitress saying her life is going to change, so 'Cathedral' concludes with the main character's eyes closed as the blind man guides him with his hands. At the end of the story the sceptical narrator, so unwilling to have a blind man in his house, admits, as he's been drawing, "It's really something".
'Cathedral''s narrator may initially be coming from a position very different from the narrator in 'Fat', but the principle remains the same. Where the waitress is searching out some aspect of the fat man that she can't quite express, so the narrator in 'Cathedral' takes it for granted there is nothing a blind man can teach him. In each instance the characters are searching for or finding that thingness, an aspect of existence that cannot be found through ready articulacy, and thus needs a style that is more open to the possibilities in the gaps than the certitude of great prose.
This is why at the beginning of the essay we talked of the Carver paradox: the apparent indifference to language that allows the same word to appear again and again, but also the need constantly to refine the work. Yet there are of course many ways in which one may refine the prose: there is the sort of Flaubertian insistence that a word cannot be used twice on the same page, the Nabokovian desire to get a passage so just right that he claims a sentence on Lolita, about the Kasbeam barber, "cost him a month of work". Sometimes though it requires a different sort of patience, the type Carver invokes when mentioning in the essay/poetry collection, Fires, Henry James, and what James' called "weak specification": the need to avoid lazy and weak description. Yet Carver in his own way does offer weak specification, though this doesn't at all result in imprecise or inaccurate writing, but it does quite deliberately lead to blurred detailing because it is more concerned with the sensibility than the description. In its conventional sense, weak specification takes many forms, and even great writers can, from a certain point of view, offer it. Indeed it is a criticism Nabokov throws at James, reckoning when James describes a cigar with a red tip he wasn't looking hard enough: cigars don't have red tips.
Yet where one notices constantly the pedant in Nabokov; Carver is the sort of writer who couldn't readily correct another's mistake, because the error is not so much one of fact as of sensibility - and another's sensibility chiefly resides in his or her own obligation towards oneself. In Fires, Carver talks about other writers and says, "I have friends who have told me they have to hurry a book because they needed the money...I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven's sake go do something else." In failing to say what they had wanted to say, and failing because of superficial, social rather than creative reasons, Carver would advise them to make money elsewhere: "There have to be easier and more honest ways to try and earn a living", he insists. Carver's perspective here though seems less to be about writing perfect sentences that are left imperfect due to outside pressures, than the sensibility being compromised by external demands.
Carver's work is of course in some ways very much about that problem: the problem of characters who can't quite find the time, energy and often sobriety to feel more deeply their own and others' existence. Whether it is in 'Gazebo', 'Fat', or 'Cathedral', there is another life hovering over the one we live. Yet it is also there in numerous other stories and the ones that we will conclude on: in 'Why Don't You Dance?', 'What We Talk about When We Talk About Love' and 'Everything Stuck to Him'. 'At the end of 'Why Don't You Dance?', the narrator concludes the story with the young woman talking dismissively of a moment where herself and her boyfriend went to buy some things from someone's garden sale, and how she ended up dancing with her boyfriend on the lawn to music played on the record player the man was selling. It is a Carveresque moment of inexplicable meaningfulness, but it is as though retrospectively she couldn't quite live with the inexplicability, and the narrator says that she told people that they went round and danced, got drunk, and that the man had a pile of crappy records. "She kept talking, She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying." For so taciturn a writer, Carver's characters do consistently try and talk.
In 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love', the first person narrator is sitting with his wife and a cardiologist and his spouse. They're getting drunk, and they start talking about love. Terri, the surgeon's wife, mentions an ex she had who she believed really loved her, eventually killing himself when he knew he couldn't get her back. The heart surgeon doesn't accept this is love, and the story unravels like a laid-back Platonic dialogue, but of course one based not on eradicating false arguments towards a safe assumption; more allowing for different takes on love to be channeled through the characters' own experiences and values. As the cardiologist talks of how they lived in fear of the jealous ex, Terri explains that she went to see him in the hospital after he shot himself in the face. "I was in the room when he died." The story ends with the narrator saying "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." What is this organ that allows us to live and allows us to love, Carver might be saying, and where on occasion the heart's desire outweighs life's? It is as though a thing is always a thing because no word quite encompasses its purpose, with Carver here exploring the ambiguities in the heart, aware, like that famous theologian Pascal, that the heart has reasons that reason does not know.
'Everything Stuck to Him' opens with a father and daughter in Milan, and the daughter asking her father to tell her a story of when she was a kid. The story the father tells is of his intention to go out early in the morning to hunt. His baby's recently been born, seems sick, and his wife doesn't want him to leave. "I don't think you should, she said. I don't want to be left alone with her like this." He ends up staying, and the story concludes with him looking out of the window in Milan, but thinking back - "they had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come". Carver achieves again an indeterminacy that can nevertheless lead to a strong emotional reaction. We have no idea if he is still with the same woman; we only know he is with his daughter in Milan. Yet it doesn't matter, as Carver shows less interest in the laying out of the facts towards a cathartic response than in, yet again, getting a very low-key cathartic reaction partly out of the sketchiness of the details. Carver may have been perceived as a realist, but few writers of realism were so parsimonious with the specifics, and yet in the process managed to get at the thingness of things. It is if Carver's weak descriptive specification releases devastating emotional possibilities. As Carver once said, "It's possible in a poem or short story to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language and to endow those things - a chair, a window curtain, a stone, a woman's earring - with immense, even startling power."
© Tony McKibbin