8 years ago I read my first Raymond Carver story, Neighbours. I thought it was pretty good so I read all the others. So Much Water So Close to Home is one. A group of men go on a fishing trip out into the wilds and find a dead woman naked in the water. They want to fish, not go home and report the death, so they tether her foot to a tree and leave her floating there. They stay for a few days, drink beer, play cards, have their holiday. They report the death when they finally go home. The story is told from the point of view of one of the men’s wives after they’re home again. She’s angry and frustrated that they could do such a thing. She thinks of the dead woman and the family of the dead woman.
It’s tempting to explain that story. It could be about incomprehensibility, because the wife seems not to understand how her husband could do such a thing. The men have been complicit with the death of a woman; a woman no doubt killed by a man. The wife is a woman. She empathises with the woman. No doubt we all truly understand, on some level, selfishly, that our own lives (a holiday!) trump the lives of others (social duty!). But we also know that the mark of a civilised person is to help others.
So it’s about morality. We wonder if the story has gone too far. Do those men really exist? In Carver’s world they do exist! We know that the story is true is some important way, but it’s one of those truths that rarely break the surface in decent society. And once we’ve got that far, we know that the wife understands too, because she knows her husband. Surely she knows her husband! Or does she? Does she comprehend? Does she not want to know? Is she willing herself not to understand, or does she really not understand? Does not wanting to know amount to the same thing as not understanding? No, it doesn’t! Or does it? Maybe. Who knows?! It’s her story because she’s telling it. But does she know what she’s talking about? Is she trying and failing to tell the man’s story? Yep, probably! But it’s also Carver’s story, because he wrote it. He probably knew what he was doing!
Stories have a habit of raising dilemmas and questions. They can put you in uncomfortable positions. But they’re ‘just’ stories too. They normally tell a particular ‘truth’. But really, they tell a story. It’s up to the reader to make generalisations and draw conclusions. And generalisations are obviously wrong in a fundamental way, because they impose an order upon the story. My attempt to explain why I find the Carver story compelling, for example, is so obviously me as much as it is the story. It tells you what I find interesting about that story. If I’m generous, which I’m not, I could try and guess what you might find in that story, and then I might try and second guess what you’d like. If I was brave, which I’m not, I might try to empathise with the men who left the body, or the man who killed the woman. To my knowledge, the only literary critic to be that brave is Norman Mailer (R.I.P. Norman).
No time for Norman here! Sorry.
Randall Jarrell handled short story theory with care. I first read his essay Stories a couple of years after I read my first Carver story. I have been brought to tears pretty much every time I read Stories. It’s an essay about short stories! To cry over an essay? But yes! I think it’s a perfect essay. I can’t imagine writing anything half so good. It’s perfect because it’s written by someone who is vulnerable, and who has found stories to be essential to life. It’s childlike in its structure, in that it ends up listing Jarrell’s favourite stories in a manner of incomprehension. It basically turns into a reading list, recommending story after story. It’s childish too, in that he quotes whole passages from his favourite stories, as if to say ‘I can’t explain this well enough’ You…. Ah! Just read it yourself!’ To be childish is to be true to stories in some fundamental way. That becomes obvious when you read Jarrell. He’s wise too, by the way. Don’t let me give you the impression that you can’t be childish and wise at the same time. But you knew that anyway.
And the stories he quotes from! They are the best little stories and excerpts I have ever read. Jarrell let me know how little I knew. That’s quite something really. Not that I know or don’t know a lot. But to let me know of these great bits and bobs of stories! It’s an act of generosity, because he knows a lot more than I do. The grandmother’s tale from Wozzeck:
Once upon a time there was a poor little girl who had no father and mother because everyone was dead and there was no one left in the whole world. Everyone was dead, and she kept looking for someone night and day. And since there was no one on earth, she thought she’d go to heaven. The moon looked at her so friendly, but when she finally got to it, it was just a piece of rotted wood. So she went on to the sun, and when she got there, it was just a dried-up sunflower. And when she got to the stars, they were just little gold flies stuck up there as if they’d been caught in a spider web. And when she thought she’d go back to earth, it was just an upside-down pot. And she was all alone. And so she sat down and cried. And she’s still sitting there, all alone.