Sunday, April 5, 2020

This is not about Raymond Carver

Please don't read this post with any expectation that the various elements will somehow weave themselves into a pleasingly whole. That is unlikely.  

Raymond Carver was an American short story writer and poet. He is often considered one of the country's greatest writers. Here is a Carver poem.


The people who were better than us were comfortable.
They lived in painted houses with flush toilets;
Drove cars whose year and make were recognizable. 
The ones worse off were sorry and didn't work. 
Their strange cars sat on blocks in dusty yards. 
The years go by and everything and everyone 
gets replaced. But this much is still true -
I never liked work. My goal was always 
to be shiftless. I saw the merit in that. 
I liked the idea of sitting in a chair
in front of your house for hours, doing nothing
but wearing a hat and drinking cola. 
What's wrong with that?
Drawing on a cigarette from time to time. 
Spitting. Making things out of wood with a knife.
Where's the harm there? Now and then calling 
the dogs to hunt rabbits. Try it sometime. 
Once in a while hailing a fat, blond kid like me 
and saying, "Don't I know you?"
Not, "What are you going to be when you grow up?"

I chose this poem not because it is my favorite, but because it is short and as good an example as any of Carver's characteristic style. Carver died in 1988.

For context, that is one hundred years after Paul Guaguin arrived in the sleepy French city of Arles to visit Vincient Van Gogh. Guaguin, married with five children, had grown successful enough as a painter to quit his job as a stockbroker. He took to carousing, drinking, and eventually contracted syphilis from not his wife. Under these circumstances he spent several weeks with Van Gogh. The trip ended over a heated argument about the color yellow (as can happen), Van Gogh pulled a straight razor (perfectly appropriate) and Guaguin traveled briskly back to Paris to plot his escape from familial responsibilities  He would eventually move to Tahiti and sleep with teenage girls while also sometimes painting them. 

After Guaguin's departure, Van Gogh used that straight razor to cut off his own ear. This led to him being institutionalized (or as contemporary artists' might say, he was invited to a forced residency) at which point he painted his masterpiece Starry Night. And guess what, he used the yellow he preferred right out of the tube so fuck that asshole Guaguin anyway. 

For more context, (just play along like this is making sense) the year Carver died I was a high school student. But unlike most juniors, I was already living on my own. My mother, bless her heart, had packed and moved while I was in class. When I turned knob and walked in I found a mostly empty apartment and a note. As messed up as that sounds, it was much more messed up than I'd care to write here. But also, it was very liberating. After spending a good chunk of my life in a fairly caustic situation, I was suddenly shed of the largest source of my stress. Of course, it was immediately replaced by a new source of different stress: how and where to live, how to graduate, apply and pay for college, and how to keep my nose clean long enough to age out of a possible stay in the foster care system. Long story short, I managed. I got into college where I was a double major in art and literature. That is where and when I stumbled across Raymond Carver, where I read everything he'd ever published, as well as the collections that were published posthumously. About that time I also had my first short story and first poem published. 

Let's jump ahead. I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts, my Master of Arts, and after some living and some teaching and some arting I was accepted into a Master of Fine Arts program at the prestigious Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago. In grad school it's good to pick a lane. I chose to write original fiction to incorporate into every project I worked on. That is when I wrote the first version of Versus. It appeared as black vinyl letters on a gallery wall as part of an installation about US policy in Iraq under the George W Bush administration. Without spelling out every detail, the point of the inclusion of the narrative was to draw a comparison between reactionary, knee-jerk foreign policy and the violent tendencies of two little boys playing at war. 

by Brandon Graham

I yank my hand away in shock. My fingers clench around the pain. I stare at the blunt end of my fist, the place where the knuckles press like teeth buds, the map work of criss-cross lines and pinhole pores, and the shaft of wood. The spot where it pierces my flesh is hidden in the ball of my hand, distorted by welling blood. A line of red runs the length of my forearm and drips off the point of my elbow, forming a puddle in the waiting palm of my other hand. 
In second grade my best friend was Bobby Henion. We were neighbors. We had the same teacher, Mrs. Raymore. We rode the same bus. On the way to school and on the way home we played a game called versus.
We’d face one another with a notebook laid flat between us. I’d scrawl out a group of symbols on a piece of blue-lined paper, arranged in a pattern like bowling pins. Sometimes I’d use an X or an O. Maybe a swastika or a star. Bobby would pick an emblem to arrange in opposition. One of us would start by placing a sharp pencil point on the page. Then with the other hand, flick the point right at the opposing army, watch it rip across the field of white and slash through one or more of the assembled troops. If a symbol was marked out, it meant a soldier had been killed. We would take turns at killing one another’s army of marks. Eventually an army was decimated and we’d start over. 
One ride home I won three games in a row. We doodled armies for a fourth battle. I was feeling pretty cocky so I told Bobby to go first, even though it was my turn. He took out a green knob of plastic, inserted his pencil in the sharpener, and turned it over and over while staring me down. He shaved off thin curls of wood until his pencil was ready for battle. He meant business. I smiled at him, unconcerned. He returned the sharpener to his pack and zipped it safely away. 
Ready?” he asked.
“Go for it.”
He drew the pencil back, reached over and stabbed me in the web of flesh between my thumb and index finger. I saw what he intended, watched it happen, stayed put like a bystander. The point pierced straight through, a spike driven through a railroad tie. There was a popping sensation. A long while after the damage was done I pulled my hand away quick. The pencil came with it, lodged in my flesh. I sucked in enough air to scream. I shook my hand. Blood rained in heavy droplets that pounded the field of battle. 
My fingers curled around the wound like a dying spider. I stopped shrieking and stared for a long moment; stunned, uncertain. The bus pulled over and stopped. I gripped the eraser end of the pencil and pulled it out, cast it away, and listened as it rolled down the center aisle. I cradled the painful place in my lap, bent over it and rocked it like an inconsolable infant.
“It was an accident,” Bobby said when the bus driver came. 
I didn’t say any different. 

Later that narrative was re-written as the text for a collaborative artists' book distributed in JAB 46

As happens in an MFA program, after the exhibition in which Versus was initially displayed, all the participants gathered for critique. The instructor asked, "Are you still in touch with Bobby Henion?" I was confused by the question. Didn't quite hear it, or wasn't processing it quickly because I hadn't expected it. So the instructor clarified, "You were best friends and he stabbed you. So I wondered if you were still in touch? What he says about the incident? Have you talked to him about it?"
     "No. There is no Bobby Henion. I mean there is a Bobby Henion. I knew him when I was in sixth grade. But he never stabbed me. It's fiction. You know. I made it up, to make a point." The other artists from the exhibition snickered or commented that they wondered if the story was true or not. The instructor was taken off guard, took a second to regroup, started again with a different tone.
     "So why is it important to lie to your audience?"
      I don't remember exactly what happened. I was fairly capable in a critique and was able to answer the question without letting on that I felt a bit unfairly attacked. But it did get me thinking about the use of the first person voice, about the way it feels confessional or biographical, the way that a few personal facts peppered in can really confuse the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I leaned in to that hard.

Recently I read an unpublished manuscript by a published novelist. It was written in first person POV. He's an incredibly accomplished writer, the manuscript was clean, nearly flawless. The plot was tight and smart. the dialog was good, it moved, it ended strong. At one point it felt like it might take a predictable course, but it didn't. Honestly I wish I'd written. I told him so in the written critique. But here's the thing, I found myself thinking the protagonist and the author were one and the same. Or at least, I noted the ways the lines seemed to blur due to the POV. It made me wonder about my writer friend, about his background.
     I remember once in a writers' circle someone passed around a story in second person point of view. It read a little like this: You reach into the shower and let the water run while you take off your makeup. It went on, the female protagonist touching her body, sometimes pragmatically, sometimes while thinking of her lover. And then: You feel a lump in the side of your breast. I felt very uncomfortable. Not with the content, but with my lack of choice. I was on this ride. It wasn't happening to someone else. It was my female body and my lump in my breast. And wasn't ready to have that experience from that angle. Honestly, I know now, I knew then, that putting me in that position was part of the point.

What does all this mean? Well, because I'm locked down like 90 percent of the country, I had a little time to kill in my home. I grabbed an old collection of Carver poems and started reading. I saw the way he used first person, the way he used his real history, or moments that felt like actual reminiscence to fill his poems with an easy honesty, a lived authenticity, and a convincing artifice. Because ultimately all art is a framing exercise: You choose where to point the view finder, where to direct the gaze of the viewer, or the attention of the reader. Really what I realized is how deeply those poems and stories I devoured one after the other over the course of a couple weeks my Freshman year of college had latched themselves to my endoskeleton to seep back out fifteen years later when I started writing under pressure and an in earnest. I learned I lie to my readers about as much as it takes to make my point, about the same amount as Raymond Carver. Or as I like to think of it, just enough and no more.

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This is not about Raymond Carver

Please don't read this post with any expectation that the various elements will somehow weave themselves into a pleasingly whole. That ...