Less and More

Adam Begley

  • Elephant, and Other Stories by Raymond Carver
    Collins Harvill, 124 pp, £9.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 00 271912 6
  • The Tidewater Tales by John Barth
    Methuen, 655 pp, £12.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 413 18770 5

Raymond Carver, acclaimed shot-story writer and poet, died on 2 August. A painstaking craftsman, he wrote most often about working-class Americans whose lives are, or have been, on the verge of collapse. Broken marriages, alcoholism, poverty, and acute, debilitating anxiety – these things rule the daily existence of his characters. Fashioned out of grim material, the stories are sometimes heartbreaking, occasionally funny, always disturbing.

Carver has often been called a minimalist, a term he disliked, but which nonetheless aptly describes his brief stories, and his tightly focused prose. Patterns of speech and incidental gestures dominate, along with an occasional highlighted object; setting as traditionally conceived is all but absent. A simple story called ‘Chef’s House’, in which a married couple who have been separated for some time decide to spend the summer together in their friend Chef’s seaside house, successfully conveys the feel of a happy house without describing the house at all. When the couple is forced to leave, the woman assures the man that they will find another place. ‘Not like this one,’ the man replies: ‘It wouldn’t be the same, anyway. This house has been a good house for us. This house has good memories to it.’ Amazingly, the reader knows that this is true.

Sparing with detail, Carver also dispenses what other writers might consider vital information in small, carefully measured doses. In an essay that might pass for his manifesto, ‘On Writing’, he explains the importance of judicious omission: ‘What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.’ This tactic Carver shares with Hemingway, who used it to great effect in stories like ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, in which the meticulous description of a fishing trip is charged with tension generated by the unmentioned fact of the fisherman’s recent traumatic experiences. In ‘The Cabin’, a very early Carver story replete with echoes of ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, a man goes on a fishing expedition without his wife. Mr Harrold cannot manage to explain why his wife is not with him; it seems there has been some rupture, or at least some undefinable shift in their relations. The central action of the story, a menacing encounter with a group of young hunters, is but a dramatic reaffirmation of the looming threat, implied by his wife’s absence, to Mr Harrold’s way of life.

What Carver does choose to present he depicts with a clarity born of a devotion to accuracy. Ezra Pound’s dictum, ‘Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,’ strikes him as hyperbole, and yet he adopts it as a guiding principle. The precision of his language shows most clearly in the remarkable voices that make up so much of his fiction. The monologue is his characteristic mode: men and women telling stories the meaning of which lie just beyond their ken, for the meaning very often resides in the intersection of the substance of the tale with the manner of the telling – that is, the particular pattern of the character’s speech. In those stories written in the third person, dialogue most often propels the narrative, provides the key to the story. As Carver says: ‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue, and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’

Carver’s accuracy is the source of his impressive authority. Because it seems so real, the fictional world he creates also seems inevitable, each action the necessary consequence of the situation at hand. Authority allows him to take risks, to write scenes that hover on the verge of melodrama, or that seem just barely probable. Elephant, and Other Stories, published in the month of his death, contains seven exquisitely crafted stories; all of them provide eloquent testimony to the authority of his prose.

The first six stories are monologues, of which two are among Carver’s most successful. ‘Boxes’ is the story of a man helplessly aware of his widowed mother’s crazy inability to stay put, to make a home for herself. Permanently dissatisfied, she wanders from town to town, settles briefly near her son, then prepares for another move. He himself is insecurely settled; divorced, he lives with a woman, Jill, who has been twice divorced. The mother sees Jill as an intruder, Jill finds the mother a nuisance, and the two compete for his attention. He is baffled and resigned: ‘They could tear me apart in no time at all.’ Not only is the man’s voice convincing and compelling, but framed within the monologue is the mother’s endless carping. Here she explains why she left her last temporary home:

There was an old alcoholic woman who lived next door to me. She drank from morning to night. The walls were so thin I could hear her munching ice cubes all day. She had to use a walker to get around, but that still didn’t stop her. I’d hear that walker scrape, scrape against the floor from morning to night. That and her icebox door closing ... I had to get out of there. Scrape, scrape. I couldn’t stand it. I just couldn’t live like that.

Near the end of the story the narrator mentions in passing that his father was an habitual drunk, and a small part of the mother’s insane compulsion comes into focus.

In ‘Elephant’, one of Carver’s funnier stories, a man who supports an entire absent family, sending cheque after cheque through the mail, sinking gradually into debt, bemoans the weight of his burden – and at the same time, half consciously, reveals the reasons for his perplexing willingness to assume it. As in ‘Boxes’, the narrator’s monologue frames a chorus of other voices. The scattered family pleads for funds: the brother explains, ‘I’ve gone belly up,’ the mother, who hasn’t received her money, announces, ‘I made the mailman go back and check inside his truck, to see if your letter might have fallen down behind the seat,’ the daughter protests, ‘I’m not a victim ... I’m just a young woman with two kids and a son-of-a-bitch bum who lives with me,’ the son vows to ‘deal drugs or rob a bank’ unless his father sends cash. And there are alimony payments to his former wife. So he writes more cheques, his only protest a reiterated threat – he will quit his job and move to Australia. But he knows better:

all of a sudden, I could imagine how it must have sounded to my family when I’d threatened them with a move to Australia. They would have been shocked at first, and even a little scared. Then, because they knew me, they’d probably started laughing. Now, thinking about their laughter, I had to laugh, too. Ha, ha, ha. That was exactly the sound I made there at the table – Ha, ha, ha – as if I’d read somewhere how to laugh.

The family knows what the reader learns only gradually, that he is driven by complimentary urges: he dreams of stability and harmony, tries in vain to provide them, and wants to atone for his sins, to repair the violence done in earlier, drunken years. The story ends with a classic American image, here provided with an appropriate twist: the narrator and a friend, on a quick joy-ride, ‘heading straight for the mountains ... We streaked down that road in his big unpaid-for car.’

The final story included in the collection, ‘Errand’, an account, part fact, part fiction of Anton Chekhov’ s death, is quite unlike any other Carver story. The subject-matter alone signals a new departure – so, also, does the abundant detail, and the cool, detached narrative voice:

On June 13, less than three weeks before he died, Chekhov wrote a letter to his mother in which he told her his health was on the mend. In it he said, ‘It’s likely that I’ll be completely cured in a week.’ Who knows why he said this? What could he have been thinking? He was a doctor himself, and he knew better. He was dying, it was as simple and as unavoidable as that.

Carver depicts Chekhov’s last moments, the very stuff of melodrama, with the same dignity and reserve. At the end of the story, however, an emotionally charged scene transforms an elegant historical anecdote into a potent Carver story. Olga, Chekhov’s wife, addresses a young and bewildered hotel porter who has offered to bring breakfast on a tray:

No breakfast, the woman said. Not yet at any rate. Breakfast wasn’t the important thing this morning. She required something else. She needed him to go out and bring back a mortician. Did he understand her? Herr Chekhov was dead, you see. Comprenez-vous? Young man? Anton Chekhov was dead.

The porter’s inability to grasp the substance, let alone the significance, of Olga’s fantastically detailed explanation of the errand she has in mind (she goes so far as to describe a hypothetical mortician) provides a dramatic recapitulation of Chekhov’s own unwillingness to face death.

Great writers, Carver once said, leave their ‘particular and unmistakable signature’ on everything they write. In ‘Errand’ he demonstrates that his signature is neither brevity nor the bleak realities of damaged working-class lives, but rather the accuracy and authority of his prose.

If Raymond Carver ranks among the great American short-story writers, John Barth is a master of the out-sized Post-Modern novel. They belong at opposite poles of the American literary spectrum. In ‘On Writing’, Carver mentions an essay by Barth in which the latter regrets the lack of interest his students express in ‘formal innovation’ and ‘experimentation’. Notes Carver: ‘I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of sombre discussions about “formal innovation” in fiction writing.’ While he admires ‘real experiment’, he argues that experimentation is too often ‘a license to be careless, silly or imitative’. And he hates tricks. ‘At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover ... Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks ... At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand there and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.’ Barth, whose eight previous works of fiction are all chock-full of tricks (very few of them cheap, many of them extravagantly elaborate), would seem to have as little use for the minimalist as Carver has for the trickster.

In The Tidewater Tales, Berth’s new novel, the minimalist is gently mocked. The hero, Peter Sagamore, has gone from writing long, realistic novels, to ‘slim novellas’, to ‘briefer and briefer fictions’ – at last his ‘prolific minimalism attained a purity beyond intelligibility. The saying Brevity is the soul of wit he found five-sixths too garrulous.’ Peter has become convinced that ‘less is more’; however, his readers (and these include the majority of the characters in the novel) deplore this trend. In fact, the novel is in part about Peter’s struggle to produce copious fiction.

The Tidewater Tales is the logical successor, if not the actual sequel, to its predecessor, Sabbatical, which appeared six years ago. Both novels are narrated in the first-person plural, set on and around Chesapeake Bay, and based on the stories a married couple hear and tell while cruising aboard a small sailboat. The earlier novel ends on 15 June 1980, the same day the later novel begins. As always, Barth plays innumerable tricks: a subordinate character in The Tidewater Tales once tried to write a fictional treatment of events portrayed as real in both novels – the abandoned project is the novel Sabbatical. Typically, Barth pushes his fiction into the liminal area between art and life.

The Tidewater Tales is about the lives of Peter Sagamore and his wife, Katherine, a librarian who specialises in oral literature and is the founder of the ‘American Society for the Preservation of Storytelling’. Peter’s ‘prolific minimalism’ has been stalled by a complex writer’s block not unrelated to the fact that his wife is hugely pregnant with twins. They have decided to have children late in life despite their grim view of the future – they are haunted by the possibility of nuclear holocaust and the threat to the environment made manifest by the pollution of the Chesapeake. And they are somewhat paranoid as a result of recent brushes with the CIA (Katherine wonders ‘whether God is a postmodernist or a CIA spook’).

In order to reassure herself and to dissipate her husband’s block, Katherine insists that they go sailing and, as they sail, tell ‘their story’. Their cruise turns into ‘a narrative scavenger hunt’ (everyone they meet has a story to tell), with the predictable result that Peter is soon bursting with the urge to write down what has been told. But he and Katherine have agreed that he is not to produce written stories until she has produced the babies.

The tidewater tales Peter and Katherine alternately produce and gather are anything but minimalist: there are, for example, longwinded, fantastic postscripts to the Odyssey, Don Quixote and the Arabian Nights, as well as intricate revelations of CIA chicanery. In between tales, there is the exuberance of Barth’s prose, fuelled by his evident delight in describing the mechanics of sailing. Both the tales and the abundantly detailed chronicle of the Sagamore’s cruise serve to affirm the creative power of narrative, and thereby offer hope for the future of Peter’s art. The endresult of all this telling is the novel itself, as much a collaborative, husband-and-wife effort as the twins Katherine will soon deliver. And both the novel and the birth of the children generate possibilities for further narratives: very possibly, Barth’s next novel will continue the series, taking up exactly where this one leaves off.

Many of the tidewater tales are clever and funny, the stories about the CIA, and Mafia involvement in illegal toxic waste disposal, suitably hair-raising. But the close quarters aboard the Sagamore’s small boat eventually seem restrictive. Peter and Katherine congratulate each other almost ceaselessly on their respective virtues and on the perfection of their menaced life. Occasionally they pause to consider that other lives, also menaced, are less than perfect – the result, wrapped in Barth’s ironic prose, is hard to endure:

Does our man have tears or tidewater in his eyes?

  Both. Because when it’s sweet, life is so sweet, and it is so miserable for so many so most of the time.

Moreover, the cloying language in which Peter and Katherine express their intimacy begins to grate: after a while, the reader wants to get off the boat. When at last they argue, four hundred and fifty pages into the novel, it comes as a relief.

Barth’s literary hocus-pocus adds up to an affirmation, tinged with irony, of the vitality of fiction in a threatened, uncertain world; after all, The Tidewater Tales is a prodigiously long novel. Convinced, like his characters, that less is a bore, he offers up more and more, forgetting that, in the end, more, too, can be a bore.