Previously in Crosscurrents:
"Missing Links" (December 21, 2000)
From C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures" to Alan Sokal's hoax, taking stock of the fault lines between the arts and sciences. By Harvey Blume
"Faith and Cyberspace" (October 18, 2000)
The Talmud and the Internet, a memoir by Jonathan Rosen, and Blue, an experimental novel by Benjamin Zucker, offer strikingly different perspectives on religion and new media, piety and public life. By Harvey Blume
"Master of Reveries" (September 7, 2000)
Why Proust? And why now? Puzzling out the current vogue and the counterintuitive appeal of In Search of Lost Time. By Sven Birkerts
"The Rest Is Silence" (August 16, 2000)
Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, Frank Kermode's Shakespeare, and the Prince of Denmark in the age of digital reproduction. By Wen Stephenson
More Crosscurrents in Atlantic Unbound.
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Information on the life and work of Raymond Carver (1938-1988).
Atlantic Unbound | January 24, 2001
Raymond Carver's reputation as an American master of short fiction is as good as etched in stone. But his hardbitten prose style has had its day
by Sven Birkerts
ust when we thought there was nothing more left in the barrel marked "Carver," that magical midden that seemed to produce unpublished stories and poems by a kind of posthumous spontaneous generation, another cache—from drawers and boxes opened by his widow, the writer Tess Gallagher—has been discovered. The latest find has yielded enough, with the addition of various previously gathered bits of occasional prose, to warrant, in someone's estimate, another collection, this one entitled Call If You Need Me.
The workmanship in the book's five hitherto uncollected stories (two from the early 1980s, the others of uncertain provenance) is fine—solid, middling Carver. The stories may not rank with the author's very best, but they still repay reading, and the real aficionados will be glad. I confess I always wonder at the wisdom of digging into works of the second tier. It seldom helps the reputation, and generally only unearths the evidence of mere craft that most writers are ultimately trying to suppress. But the deed has been done, and the grounds for complaints are finally few. Lifting the gaze for a moment from the words on the page, however, I am struck by the thought that Call If You Need Me, while serving as a new ornamental detail on the master's headstone, may also be regarded from another angle—as the expiring gasp of a once-dominant mode of writing. I mean the famous "Carver style," and much that was comprehended in that phrase.
Raymond Carver came into his own as a writer in the mid 1970s, emerging into the public eye from a now-legendary life of hard knocks and alcoholism. Helped along by the then-celebrated editor Gordon Lish (just how much help remains controversially unclear), he gained wide acclaim for his signature style of flinty understatement on the strength of the short-story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), and Cathedral (1983). By the time of his death in 1988, at the age of fifty, Carver had established himself as the new torchbearer for what had formerly been celebrated as the Hemingway ethos, forging a scenically simple, dialogue-driven idiom that conveyed powerfully not just the undercurrents of rage and longing in his characters, but also suggested the palpable blockages and blind-spots that kept these forces moving with destructive momentum. The difference between Carver and Hemingway is that Hemingway's sharply angled reticence somehow implicated the whole larger world—as if the corrosions of civilization, a world gone wrong, were to blame—whereas in Carver's world the problem was merely human, there in the very clay. Better: the ordinary clay, in the working people who were almost unfailingly warped by their hard lot and who handed down the misery of their foreshortened lives to their children. Somewhere along the way he got called a minimalist and the label lopsidedly stuck.
We get a reminder of the mode in Carver's previously unpublished story "Kindling," which in its delivery, its use of a kind of numbed-out, limited-option narration, can be seen as fairly representative.
Myers called his wife, but she hung up on him. She wouldn't even talk to him, let alone have him anywhere near the house. She had a lawyer and a restraining order. So he took a few things, boarded a bus, and went to live near the ocean in a room in a house owned by a man named Sol who had run an ad in the paper.
The Carver approach—giving a first- or third-person voice-track to a wounded protagonist, playing the spare plainspokenness of demotic idioms ("So he took a few things, boarded a bus ...") against our suspicion of deeper grief, trusting implication to build a kind of backdraft behind the seemingly solid presentation—was for a time very influential, showing up in writers like Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane, Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, Rick Bass, Russell Banks, John Casey, Andre Dubus, and Robert Stone. Chiefly males, though a possibly kindred stylistic restraint could be seen in Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Amy Hempel, and others. This is not to argue that any of these writers were taking their cues right from Carver. Not at all. It was more that Carver manifested most purely and obviously a feeling about character and disillusionment that was at large in the culture. This was, historically, the aftermath of Vietnam, the period of counterculture in collapse, governed by a sense of moral bankruptcy of the kind Fitzgerald pointed to in the wake of the twenties. Many of our best writers were doing the barometric thing that artists do. And the prose style that came into favor—though there were notable exceptions—was one at which Carver excelled, a style of lyric suppression.
Sol was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt when he opened the door. It was about ten o'clock at night and Myers had just gotten out of a cab. Under the porch light Myers could see that Sol's right arm was shorter than his other arm, and the hand and fingers were withered. He didn't offer either his good left hand or his withered hand for Myers to shake, and this was fine with Myers. Myers felt plenty rattled as it was.
Reading through Call If You Need Me, though, and thinking about the state of prose fiction in our very different moment, we cannot but remark the sea-change. That style of heart-struck understatement, of laden economies, appears to have been shouldered aside by a very different sort of expression, one that is complex, jumped-up, hypertrophied. The prose I am talking about —much of it—posits a kind of sentence that might be defined as the opposite of Carveresque: the sentence not as vehicle and gauge for cauterized affect, but rather as a sluice for ideas and neural discharge in overflow. Young writers like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Aleksandar Hemon, Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Powers, Donald Antrim, Michael Chabon, Helen DeWitt, David Eggers, and Nicholson Baker are shivering the timbers of the old declarative construction. They are, yes, to some extent following the lead of their seniors—stylists of surplus like Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, William Gaddis, Saul Bellow, Paul West, Annie Proulx, John Barth, Maureen Howard, Cynthia Ozick, among others—but this prose feels less like homage to the past than the announcement of something new. Where the old maximalists tended to open the gates of their prose to the myriad nouns and verbs of prodigal creation—to things and the complex procedures of the world—their younger counterparts are using the resources of their syntax just a bit more abstractly to address the phenomenon of a world in transformation.
o be sure, skirts get shorter, then longer, then shorter again. The great wheel turns, brings reaction and counter-reaction. Yet if we think of prose style not as an adornment but as a kind of ethics-cum-aesthetics, then the passing of the restrained, noun-centered mode can be seen to map a broader, more encompassing shift in the Zeitgeist. The world set forth with such tense solidity in Carver's stories—and the work of his many kindred—was a bricks-and-mortar world, an ancient order governed by ancient laws. If not exactly geographically stable, it was at least geographically self-contained—itself, marked off from all elsewheres. In that world people loved, worked, failed, suffered, and sought redemption as they always have. What made it not just identifiable but distinct was its particularly American stoicism, a blue-collar code of laconic reserve verging on denial that tracks its lineage back through the post-World War II era to the Depression and arguably back into the grain of our pioneer origins. We know these voices, these tonalities.
But we know them less as time goes on. For more and more people that regional solidity, that concrete centrality of place, has vaporized, and been transformed into a great transparency. There is a sense, via screen and wire, that the entire world is now a space traversed by signals, more a climate of pure possibility than a geographical elsewhere, and that it envelops us wherever we are, whatever we are doing. And that doing, our heritage of hands-on labor, of making our way among foursquare nouns, that too has changed in a seeming eyeblink. Our employments have increasingly to do with abstract operations—procedures feeding the inchoate processes of a world become significantly impulse and signal. In this scheme, Carver's tormented plainfolk would stagger about uncomprehendingly.
Moreover, the core ethos, the dominant acting script, has slowly morphed from one of restraint to one of emotional volubility. We talk, confide, confess, process, and vent with an ease that our elders cannot fathom. Therapy culture on the one hand and the idea (not unrelated) that we are all entitled to our say on the other have changed our expressive expectations considerably. The public manifestation of this—unhappily served by a proliferation of channels—is a grotesque saturnalia of televised chatter, from political pundits, faith healers, and fitness experts, to the hordes of the aggrieved (many of whom would have been Carver folk in former times) who make their way to the microphone on the sets of Leeza, Oprah, Jessie, Maury, and others.
Doubtless there are many other forces in play, but the upshot is the same. The ground, the cultural soil—that element that our writers represent and from which they draw—has been completely spaded up and turned since Carver's day. The writer who now picks up his pen—or, as is more likely, turns on his laptop—tunes in to a very different frequency. Understatement, once very nearly reflexive, sounds suddenly wrong. The held-back sentence looks almost funny on the page; there is a perceptible pressure to open out, annex, pull some of that overwhelming ambient complexity into the circuitry of the sentence. And if this is an exaggeration, it is nonetheless true enough to warrant our attention.
Short sentences are—structurally—all alike. Every complicated sentence is complicated in its own way. Even a glance at some of the touted prose of recent years will confirm the new expressive plenitude—or chaos. The small anthology I have compiled will instantly suggest something of the range of possibility.
Our friendship had itself, after twenty years, come to resemble one of the towns in a Van Zorn story: a structure erected, all unknowingly, on a very thin membrane of reality, beneath which lay an enormous slumbering Thing with one yellow eye already open and peering right up at us.
restrain myself only with difficulty. But I think the point has been made. The aesthetic of choice these days is the aesthetic of exploratory excess. It sets before the reader a world featured as a swirl of competing energies and stimuli; it searches patterns, connections, instances of psychological complexity. The old gestural muteness won't play in these halls.
Michael Chabon, The Wonder Boys (1995)
Explorers would move through a literal forest of numbers, strolling through their woody representations and singling out by sight or sound or smell the significant trees, the hidden arbors.
Richard Powers, Plowing in the Dark (2000)
But today, this day of infamy, as the modern Hex completes this circular tour of his childhood, as he completes his prolonged series of delays by sitting on his old narrow cot, with his refusal to face what is in front of him, sleep, unfortunately, is no option.
Rick Moody, Purple America (1997)
Were an angel of God to offer me the definitive description of the properties of light (for it was on them and their paradoxical duality, both wave- and particle-like, that my singularity of promise had once largely been focused) I doubt that I'd even hear the cherub out.
Deborah Goldstein, Properties of Light (2000)
Or was it conceivable that I only imagined this scenario (the scenario and my perception of it), because I had actually perceived—in ways that I did not understand and could not account for, that evening over pancakes, bacon, and a salad—that Manuel, our Kleinian across the table, was already sleeping with my wife.
Donald Antrim, The Verificationist (1999)
The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality type I've come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)
His fault was not a lack of skill: it is the faultlessness of his skill which makes the paintings embarrassing to watch, so bare do they strip the mind of their creator.
Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (2000)
To some degree, of course, this is a necessary and healthy compensation—fiction suddenly feels enfranchised again. With a new tolerance for ramified expression come new subjects, new perspectives. The dense fabric of contemporary life—its changed ways of doing things, of interacting—is brought more clearly into view. The evolving cultures of science and technology become available, as do more of the vagaries of our destabilized modes of living. Carver's tamped-down narration, guiding us from streetlamp to barstool to sparsely furnished apartment, could never hope to take in the burgeoning culture of virtual simulation (Powers), the domains of science (Goldstein), the endlessly branching nuances of psychological self-awareness (Antrim, Foster Wallace, Eggers), or indeed, scarcely anything of the noun-deprived and process-worshipping way we now conduct our lives.
What is sacrificed, perhaps, is a certain emotional force. Thrilling and dark and expansive as so many of these new expressions are, they have a hard time generating a strong emotional charge. The language, mental and nuanced—like the prose structure itself—often serves a bemusedly ironic sensibility; life is more spectated than suffered. When tragedy does occur, it is more often than not given a black-comedic inflection—as in works by Wallace, Antrim, Eggers, and their ilk—not because the authors can't do powerful conflict and emotion, necessarily, but because the hyperconscious self-reflexiveness of their style is hard to turn off.
The seductive cerebral-ironic style, which allows so much, doesn't seem to permit the shift to a full frontal seriousness.
Which should, in a way, leave the back door open for Carver and his confederates. If his stories can seem limited and vocally plodding from the new perspective, the best of them can also deliver a shudder, a sense of being struck deep beneath the waterline, that the world of the more voluble young cannot quite manage. The trade-off is strange, perhaps telling: to get a visceral connection, it seems, a reader needs to get out of the mode of the now, back into what is likely to feel like the former world.
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