ads without products

Archive for June 16th, 2010

carver’s, no lish’s endings and supermarket ethics

with 3 comments

Shamefully, though there’s a decent reason why, I’m just now getting to Raymond Carver. (The reason has something to do with my intensely anglo- and euro-slanted undergraduate and graduate education, except when it comes to poetry…) But I’m reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and was just about to write a post about the endings of the stories, which as you probably know if you’ve read Carver are bemusingly ambiguous and frustratingly curt. But then I happened upon this piece by Charles McGrath from the New York Times in 2007, which reveals that I would have mislabeled the post. I was really going to be talking about Gordon Lish’s endings, not Carver’s. Go look at the whole article, but here’s the most relevant part:

That Mr. Lish was an early and tireless champion of Mr. Carver is beyond doubt, and some of his editing, or what one knows of it, appears to be brilliant. (There are no published scholarly studies of Mr. Lish’s edited manuscripts, which are now owned by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, but Mr. Carver often published his stories in magazines and journals before turning them over to Mr. Lish for collection in hardcover, and by comparing the magazine and book versions it’s possible to infer a fair amount.) Mr. Lish was a macroeditor, ruthless and aggressive, and he sometimes seemed to sense what Mr. Carver was trying to say even more clearly than Mr. Carver. He transposed, he retitled and rewrote (the endings especially), and most of all, he cut, sometimes reducing a story by 50 percent or more to get at what he felt to be its essence.

Not all his changes were improvements, however, and some resulted in considerable distortion. The most famous instance is “A Small, Good Thing,” a story about a couple waiting for their child to wake from a coma that is now regarded as one of Mr. Carver’s masterpieces. The Lish version, retitled “The Bath,” is a third shorter and eliminates the original story’s key passage, a moment of redemptive hopefulness at the end; instead, the couple are left frozen in despair. Mr. Carver was so upset that he insisted the original version be used in “Where I’m Calling From,” a 1987 collection of new and selected stories that was not edited by Mr. Lish. But several others he left in their edited versions, even though years earlier he had written to Mr. Lish begging him to restore the stories to the way he had written them. “If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form,” he said in the letter, “I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.”

In fact it was “The Bath,” the Lish edited version of the story, that I was going to write about, along with a few others, and what I would call the 70/30 ambiguities that they leave us with. What do I mean with the fraction? Well, take “The Bath.” (Spoiler warning!) Basically it goes like this. A mom goes to order a birthday cake for her son, who at the same moment is walking to school. He gets hit by a car, stumbles home to mom, ends up in the hospital, and drops into a coma. The parents wait by his bedside, taking turns to go home and bathe. First the father goes home, where he takes annoying calls from the baker about the birthday cake that’s due to be picked up. Here’s the very end of the story as the mother has just driven home, leaving her husband at the bedside:

She got out of the car and went to the door. She turned on lights and put water on for tea. She opened a can and fed the dog. She sat down on the sofa with her tea.

The telephone rang.

“Yes!” she said. “Hello!” she said.

“Mrs Weiss,” a man’s voice said.

“Yes, she said. “This is Mrs Weiss. Is it about Scotty?” she said.

“Scotty,” the voice said. “It is about Scotty,” the voice said. “It has to do with Scotty, yes.”

What do I mean by 70/30? Well, probably, of course, this is the baker calling again – though of course, we can’t be sure. Maybe it’s more like an 85/15 in this case… As so much has gone into setting up the birthday cake angle of the story. In this case, the entire piece culminates on the pathos of the mother thinking that she’s getting a relevant, life-changing telephone call, when it’s really (probably) from a baker frustrated that he’s waiting around for payment and to get this cake off of his shelf. But then again… it could well be from the hospital… News good or bad, likely bad given the direction of things when she left. We’re left sharing some of her uncertainty as she waits for an answer that might, but probably won’t, arrive in a few seconds.

There’s a lot for me to say about this sort of tactic, Lish’s it seems in this case rather than Carver’s. And now I’m not sure who’s responsible for another 70/30 – the one at the end of “Why Don’t You Dance?” where we’re left half-wondering what it is that she wants to get “talked out.” (An issue like this one, not knowing what to call what, could either really put you off or really put you onto writing about Carver, depending upon what sort of scholarly type you are…) Anyway, I just for now want to say something quickly about the end of the original version of the story, before Lish got at it, and when it was titled not “The Bath” but “A Small, Good Thing.” It’s available in its entirety here. At the end of this one, after the boy actually dies and after taking repeated phone calls from the baker, the mother and father, driven by maddened despair, drive down to confront the baker:

They drove down to the shopping center. The sky was clear and stars were out. It was cold, and they ran the heater in the car. They parked in front of the bakery. All of the shops and stores were closed, but there were cars at the far end of the lot in front of the movie theater. The bakery windows were dark, but when they looked through the glass they could see a light in the back room and, now and then, a big man in an apron moving in and out of the white, even light. Through the glass, she could see the display cases and some little tables with chairs. She tried the door. She rapped on the glass. But if the baker heard them, he gave no sign. He didn’t look in their direction.

They drove around behind the bakery and parked. They got out of the car. There was a lighted window too high up for them to see inside. A sign near the back door said THE PANTRY BAKERY, SPECIAL ORDERS. She could hear faintly a radio playing inside and something creak-an oven door as it was pulled down? She knocked on the door and waited. Then she knocked again, louder. The radio was turned down and there was a scraping sound now, the distinct sound of something, a drawer, being pulled open and then closed.

Someone unlocked the door and opened it. The baker stood in the light and peered out at them. “I’m closed for business,” he said. “What do you want at this hour? It’s midnight. Are you drunk or something?”

She stepped into the light that fell through the open door. He blinked his heavy eyelids as he recognized her. “It’s you, he said.

“It’s me,” she said. “Scotty’s mother. This is Scotty’s father. We’d like to come in.”

The baker said, “I’m busy now. I have work to do.”

She had stepped inside the doorway anyway. Howard came in behind her. The baker moved back. “It smells like
a bakery in here. Doesn’t it smell like a bakery in here, Howard?”

“What do you want?” the baker said. “Maybe you want your cake? That’s it, you decided you want your cake. You ordered a cake, didn’t you?”

“You’re pretty smart for a baker,” she said. “Howard, this is the man who’s been calling us.” She clenched her fists. She stared at him fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men.

“Just a minute here,” the baker said. “You want to pick up your three-day-old cake? That it? I don’t want to argue with you, lady. There it sits over there, getting stale. I’ll give it to you for half of what I quoted you. No. You want it? You can have it. It’s no good to me, no good to anyone now. It cost me time and money to make that cake. If you want it, okay, if you don’t, that’s okay, too. I have to get back to work.” He looked at them and rolled his tongue behind his teeth.

“More cakes,” she said. She knew she was in control of it, of what was increasing in her. She was calm.

“Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living,” the baker said. He wiped his hands on his apron. “I work night and day in here, trying to make ends meet.” A look crossed Ann’s face that made the baker move back and say, “No trouble, now.” He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand. “You want the cake or not? I have to get back to work. Bakers work at night,” he said again. His eyes were small, mean-looking, she thought, nearly lost in the bristly flesh around his cheeks. His neck was thick with fat.

“I know bakers work at night,” Ann said. “They make phone calls at night, too. You bastard,” she said.

The baker continued to tap the rolling pin against his hand. He glanced at Howard. “Careful, careful,” he said to Howard.

“My son’s dead,” she said with a cold, even finality. “He was hit by a car Monday morning. We’ve been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn’t be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can’t know everything-can they, Mr. Baker? But he’s dead. He’s dead, you bastard!” Just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders rocking back and forth. “It isn’t fair,” she said. “It isn’t, isn’t fair.”

Howard put his hand at the small of her back and looked at the baker. “Shame on you,” Howard said to him. “Shame.”

The baker put the rolling pin back on the counter. He undid his apron and threw it on the counter. He looked at them, and then he shook his head slowly. He pulled a chair out from under the card table that held papers and receipts, an adding machine, and a telephone directory. “Please sit down,” he said. “Let me get you a chair,” he said to Howard. “Sit down now, please.” The baker went into the front of the shop and returned with two little wrought-iron chairs. “Please sit down, you people.”

Ann wiped her eyes and looked at the baker. “I wanted to kill you,” she said. “I wanted you dead.”

The baker had cleared a space for them at the table. He shoved the adding machine to one side, along with the stacks of notepaper and receipts. He pushed the telephone directory onto the floor, where it landed with a thud. Howard and Ann sat down and pulled their chairs up to the table. The baker sat down, too.

“Let me say how sorry I am,” the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. “God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. But I’m not any longer, if I ever was. Now I’m just a baker. That don’t excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this,” the baker said. He spread his hands out on the table and turned them over to reveal his palms. “I don’t have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I’m sorry. Forgive me, if you can,” the baker said. “I’m not an evil man, I don’t think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don’t know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please,” the man said, “let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?”

It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.

“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said.

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. “It’s good to eat something,” he said, watching them. “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.”

They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.

“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

Must say – I vastly prefer Lish’s ending. But it occurs to me that there’s something interesting to say about this, in light of some of the other discussions “we’ve” been having on here. Basically, the end of this story is an inverted narrativization of the central logic of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech, which I wrote something about here. It is a fantasy of the alienated interpersonal relationships of the everyday, when we brustle angrily past each other in the supermarket, yell at telemarketers, and generally move around the world with guard up, getting restored to some sort of empathetic civility via the epiphanic realisation that someone, in fact, is having the worst day of their lives. Odd relationship, when you think of it: Wallace is often figured as the hero who overturned the chokehold of Carveresque minimalism upon the post-MFA set in America, but were it not for Lish, at least some of the time, their work comes off the interstate at the same exit.

(Forgive me if all of this is obvious to those of you who know something about Carver – it’s new to me, and so I notebook away on here….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 16, 2010 at 12:42 pm