Thursday, January 14, 2010

Raymond Carver Revisited

I: A Different Kind of Story

In this wonderful season of holiday breaks and seniors away on projects, I've been reading like crazy, working my way through some Christmas presents: The Brothers Karamazov and the Library of America edition of Raymond Carver's collected stories.

I first encountered Carver's fiction in an English class I took during the first semester of my senior year of high school. We read a bunch of stories from Where I'm Calling From, a new and selected collection published shortly before Carver's death in 1988. On the Christmas break after that semester, I read most of the other stories in that collection. Then in my sophomore year of college, I took a contemporary American fiction class in which we studied Cathedral, Carver's 1983 collection.

This time around, I started by reading stories from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver's first collection—the stories, that is, that I hadn't already read in Where I'm Calling From. Then I went ahead and re-read those, too.

In the back matter of the book, the editors include a little note that Carver wrote for a 1973 anthology in which his story "Neighbors" (from WYPBQP) was included. In that note, Carver expresses some equivocal feelings about the story:

I think the story is, more or less, an artistic success. My only fear is that it is too thin, too elliptical and subtle, too inhuman. I hope this is not so, but in truth I do not see it as the kind of story that one loves unreservedly and gives up everything to; a story that is ultimately remembered for its sweep, for the breadth and depth and lifelike sentiment of its characters. No, this is a different kind of story—not better, maybe, and I surely hope no worse, different in any case—and the internal and external values in the story do not have much to do, I'm afraid, with character, or some of the other virtues held dear in short fiction.

A number of the stories in WYPBQP have this elliptical, even inhuman quality. Few of them are told in the first person; we tend to stand outside the characters, coldly watching them in their pathetic and venal moments.

Not all of the stories are this way—especially not "Nobody Said Anything," one of Carver's greatest stories, about a kid who cuts school one day and goes fishing. But besides that one, I don't know that any of these early stories are remarkable for their sweep, breadth, or depth.

II: Carver vs. Lish

This Library of America collection has drawn a lot of attention (for example) because it includes Beginners, the manuscript that Carver's editor Gordon Lish drastically cut, basically against Carver's wishes, and published as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver's second trade-press collection of stories.

During his lifetime, Carver eventually made clear the differences between his and Lish's visions by re-publishing a story called "A Small, Good Thing" in his third major collection, Cathedral; the story had been published in a truncated and much bleaker form in WWTA as "The Bath."

I had already been familiar with these two versions of the same story, along with the differing versions of the title story, published in the New Yorker a while back. Now, though, having read the first three stories as Carver submitted them, alongside the first three stories as published in WWTA, I find that I much prefer Carver's versions in these cases as well.

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Lish does streamline the first story "Why Don't You Dance?" effectively, but he tampers with the overall mood of the story, which I would describe as a tempered sweetness. In this story, a young couple buys some household furnishings from an alcoholic man who has set them up on his lawn. Lish makes the man nameless, a good editorial choice for this story about a random moment of connection between strangers. But he adds a darkness to the story that is at odds with what Carver's up to.

In the original version the alcoholic man is charmed by the couple's negotiation over the price of the items:

In the lamplight, there was something about the expression on their faces. For a minute this expression seemed conspiratorial, and then it became tender—there was no other word for it.

But Lish makes the moment much more ominous:

He looked at them as they sat at the table. In the lamplight, there was something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling.

In Carver's original it was never nasty.

Lish adds a nasty element to the conclusion of the story as well, as the girl re-tells the story of what happened that day:

We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don't laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?

Her crudeness and mockery sharply contrast with the tenderness in the original version:

We got drunk and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don't laugh. He played records. Look at this phonograph. He gave it to us. These old records, too. Jack and I went to sleep in his bed. Jack was hungover and had to rent a trailer in the morning. To move all the guy's stuff. Once I woke up. He was covering us with a blanket, the guy was. This blanket. Feel it.

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The next story, "Viewfinder," is a very short one in both versions. In it, a man with hooks for hands offers to take pictures of another man's house for a small amount of money. But again Lish darkens the ending, severely warping its implications.

In the original, the man, whose wife and children have recently left him, seems to gain a new perspective on his situation when he climbs up to have his picture taken on the roof. He finds a pile of rocks that kids have thrown up there, and in the process of chucking them off his roof he seems to feel that he is cleaning house metaphorically as well as literally.

The photographer snaps a shot and looks at how it's turned out, injecting a positive feeling into the final moments of the story:

"By God, it's okay." He looked at it. He held it up. "You know," he said, "it's good."

"Once more," I called. I picked up another rock. I grinned. I felt I could lift off. Fly.

"Now!" I called.

The photographer has offered the man some empathy (his wife and kids left him too), and helped him by his own example. This story seems like a precursor to Carver's famous story "Cathedral," in which a blind man leads another man to a similar epiphany.

But Lish would have none of it. In the Lish version, the photographer never says the photo turns out okay, and the man on the roof seems to throw the rocks only out of increasingly hysterical anger. The story ends this way:

I laid back on my arm and I hollered, "Now!" I threw that son of a bitch as far as I could throw it.

"I don't know," I heard him shout. "I don't do motion shots."

"Again!" I screamed, and took up another rock.

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Most startling, though, are the changes Lish made to the third story in Carver's manuscript, which Carver titled "Where is Everyone?" This story of addiction and recovery seems a clear precursor to "Where I'm Calling From," from Carver's next collection, a story that John Updike chose as one of the Best American Short Stories of the Century. Indeed, at one point in the story, the exact phrase "where I'm calling from" is used twice.

The story is sprawling, a bit lurid in its details of alcoholic dysfunction. Yet, told in the first person, it's quite affecting; we inhabit the narrator's voice and come to like him. Carver's story is some 11 pages long. Lish, changing the title to "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," cut it by 78%, according to the editors of the Library of America volume, in which the WWTA version is only three pages long. In this case, Lish doesn't alter the overall implications of the story, but he makes it a very different experience, a jolt of espresso instead of a rich, full-bodied cup of coffee with even a little milk and sugar.

In his review of this volume, James Campbell notes that, later, Carver learned "to curb his characters' tendency to become prolix and sentimental." Perhaps he's thinking of this passage, part of the 78% cut from "Where is Everyone?", in which the alcoholic narrator and his alcoholic wife talk about their marriage:

"When I was pregnant with Mike you carried me to the bathroom when I was so sick and pregnant I couldn't get out of bed. You carried me. No one else will ever do that, no one else could ever love me in that way, that much. We have that, no matter what. We've loved each other like nobody else could or ever will love the other again."

Sentimental? Well, drunks tend toward sentimentality at times, don't they? And, on the other hand, this is rather beautiful, isn't it, and true? It's human, and lifelike, to use the terms Carver used when discussing what was absent from "Neighbors."

And Carver is well aware, too, of the limitations of such sentiment. As the wife says this and they hold hands, the narrator begins to think of something else:

I remembered the half-pint of whiskey or vodka or gin or scotch or tequila that I had hidden under the very sofa cushion we were sitting on (oh, happy days!) and I began to hope she might soon have to get up and move around—go to the kitchen, the bathroom, out to clean the garage.

What Lish has done with this story is taken a messy but lifelike and affecting story about alcoholism (of which Carver had nearly died not long before) and re-tooled it into a sleek, arch piece of hipness, something closer to the type of story in Carver's first book (which Lish had also spent time "cutting and fixing," as Carver puts it in a thank-you note to his editor).

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In any case, it's been fascinating to read these very different versions of the stories, and I'm looking forward to continuing.

Some have suggested that the whole Carver-Lish affair leaves us wondering what's left of Carver as a writer, but I find myself feeling even more respect for Carver and his vision, along with some sadness that he found that vision stymied by an editor with more professional clout and, perhaps, mental stability at the time.

3 comments: said...

This is a wonderful post about Carver and Lish. You've drawn out the great elements of Carver's writing, and the choices editors make.

framiko said...

Gee, thanks! I hope to write a follow-up once I finish reading Beginners and What We Talk About in their entirety.

Liz said...

i'm looking forward to the follow-up. i really loved wwta but only read the lish version. when i read your comparisons, it seems quite clear that the pre-lish would appeal even more to me. however, what i remember reading, long ago, about lish's influence, other than drastic cuts, was his emphasis on chilling endings. i think these endings are one of the aspects i love most about carver stories. i have just started the recent carver bio and am anxious to read the lish years, though am 20 years away from it.