Raymond Carver, autofiction, and the afflicted plain.
“Realism is the ideology which each brandishes against his neighbor, the quality which each believes he possesses for himself alone” - “From Realism to Reality” in For a New Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Reading the short stories of Raymond Carver, the model par excellence for the contemporary American short story writer, I am filled with dread. The night is coming, fall too, and the bright sun through the window cuts out abruptly at 7:09 PM. The angles are against me and against everyone like me, those who lounge voluptuously on the world at the edge of day. Inspiration is in short supply; my body is tired, so I finish the Carver collection called Cathedral. I hope that by bringing the book to completion, I may find some release by following that restless human desire to see things in the end so that we, at least, may not be completely to blame for the sense of absence that lingers.
The uneasiness remains. Carver, who wrote in a style called, ridiculously, “Dirty Realism,” presents frayed scenes where unhappy postmodern Americans clinging to middle class fade into and out of frame. Stylistically, it’s impeccable, if boring. Conceptually it feels like an anthropology written to make the cosmopolite feel better about themselves (oh these poor bastards) while still letting them relate and feel human, a critique rightly made of Ben Lerner by Jessa Crispin in The Baffler. Carver’s prose is incredibly specific while still being generalizable and stylized enough to be “literature,” presents a vision of the crumbling culture of the parking lot and trailer park, and has a wild-life photographer’s commitment to uninterrupted externalities—that much lauded realism. Its best moments are infused with a touch of the mystic in a series of subsumptions into sensual experience in stories like “Cathedral” and “The Compartment” which save it from the cringey transcendent egoism of some of the worst autofiction of today. But still, the pit in my stomach remains. I glut on wine and salty things. I luxuriate in the sun; I make a point to laugh to shake the feeling that’s climbed over me. A lack that tastes of fullness. Fullness of my own life! But it’s not memory, and it’s not reflection. It’s something else.
The world of Cathedral is a dead one. In it, I see, like a photograph of some mulleted family member of mine, a crusty world still reeling from modernity that pretends towards some chthonic American culture. This pretending is the great project of the American realist. And like some act of negative theology, the acolytes of Bukowski and Yates trace what it is to be American through pure negation. Yes, boys and girls, we are bad bad bad bad! But that’s what makes us so good. The plain folks on the plain are diseased, simply, but the scales are in order through which to test them. Taste. Someone outside of my window guzzles a whole Fanta, staring at me the whole time.
Of course, there’s instructional value in ordering up a slice of time. After all, the individual was an instrument of moral instruction before it existed incarnate. But do we really need to read Carver—or for that matter, people like Ben Lerner—in order to learn about white, American culture and the feeling it provides? Sure, the interested Iraqi may want to understand the banalities and myopicness from which the destruction of their world sprang, and I won’t disabuse anyone of that notion... The fact remains that the stories are familiar and mostly terrible in content, filled with a culture decayed at birth and characters driven insane by alcohol, television, and all the other usual suspects—without really suggesting that the characters have any deep thoughts about these processes at all! I guess that’s the point; we’ve all been there, and when the main character of “Careful” convinces himself that champagne does not count as booze and uses this slippery slope to fall into a cascade of excuses towards turpitude, I nearly throw the book across the room out of a rush of identification. Maybe this book is and should be food for the more well-adjusted. Maybe I shouldn’t identify with it. But we are human and we trace our existence over the earth by series of identification; if anyone tells you they don’t, run. Shouldn’t we aim for something higher?
I finish the book, and I say out loud, “what is wrong with me?”
An afflicted plain is running along the edge of my consciousness. Unlike other plains it is full of flavour and it does not stretch out long, under the sun, where the people farm and moan in their cottages. It is a coat given when a mask was requested. It is my childhood sold back to me by the vulture in the back of the mind. It is obscurity pulsing, known, in the fabric phantom of the flag. Goodness gracious, look at the time!
Now, Carver is universally beloved and realism is strong in the USA. We live in a realm where the bomb went off and human nature is a free fall of photographs trailing off into the void, clogging it. A certainty about the self creeps in with the plastic frontiers. The deaths of millions are shuttled out into eternity by the narcotic tenor of the newscaster’s voice. The world is reduced to representation.
The photographic nature of Carver’s stories has more to do with our culture than do the people in them and the insights and vignettes that drip from the work into the arms of the creative writing programs. You really see the scenes, like in film, and can only slightly hear the hissing leak of subjectivity in the background like a forgotten tire on Channa’s chariot.
A hundred years ago, the theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote of photographs: “ They do not make visible the knowledge of the original but rather the spatial configuration of a moment; it is not the person who appears in his or her photograph, but the sum of what can be deducted from him or her. It annihilates the person by portraying him or her, and were person and portrayal to converge, the person would cease to exist.”
Kracauer was hesitant to accept documentary photography because of its holism, in contradiction to the more full, subjective time of memory. Kracauer was using such an illustration to talk about the writing of history as the writing of a whole account, visible from the surface, in which the grand events paint the picture of the progress of men and women over the face of the earth in a fresco-like abomination on the arcs of our minds. Photography was breaking down the symbol into nature devoid of meaning as a “secretion of the capitalist mode of production.”
Of course, the capitalist catalogue, some aspects of social media, the posters of criminals that Genet loved all revolve around this familiarity, which, too be honest does not get even close to enough attention as a theoretical thing, like “weird” and “uncanny” do, and even when something is familiar they just call it too familiar and slide it over like a poker chip into the uncanny. Nonsense.
Though, it is probably unfair to talk about the photographic familiarity of Carver in the same way that Kracauer used the deadening effects of photography to talk about the lifeless strains of historicism that had reduced all history to direct, causal geneses. Carver does focus on little details that, in a less saturated time like Kracauer’s, would have probably been considered refreshing in their minuteness and banality. Carver’s work is a bit like an archive of an isomorphic past, like a photo album on a Facebook page that has ladled up bits and pieces, dripping, from the ‘80s, and appeared in the present. Walter Benjamin suggested that photography and film shows us parts of ourselves and of society that we would rather not see; but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know about it.
Sure, some of the reticence and self confidence of the Carver characters reminds me of my Grandpa—and I’m sure that this must be a primary motor in American letters: the novel-becoming-my-grandpa and as such becoming-I. But let’s not forsake all the grandpas! Caught up on the beach in the fit of bourgeoisie soul sickness Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach, flatulating hero of Death in Venice, who, lounging on the beach over a luxurious, leisurely stay at a Venice hotel, watches the young boy with whom he has invested the end of his thought, the culmination of his eminently aesthetic life.
“Has it not been written that the sun beguiles our attention from things of the intellect to fix it on things of the sense? The sun, they say, dazzles; so bewitching reason and memory that the soul for very pleasure forgets its actual state, to cling with doting on the loveliest of all the objects she shines on. Yes, and then it is only through the medium of some corporeal being that it can raise itself again to contemplation of higher things. Amore, in sooth, is like the mathematician who in order to give children a knowledge of pure form must do so in the language of pictures; so, too, the god, in order to make visible the spirit, avails himself of the forms and colors of human youth, gliding it with all imaginable beauty that it may serve memory as a tool, the very sight of which then sets us afire with pain and longing.”
Already the decay of individualism was laid out for us, but it could not escape the SUN through a shuttling of identification. A decayed bourgeoisie has been painted by artists of modernity and beyond over and over again. Georg Lukács thought that expressionism and abstract art was a symptom of a disengaged and cruel bourgeoisie, though he loved Thomas Mann, and he’s probably right, though, like all things this observation was a result of the times and not the forms. All expressionism now seems too-historical, and I realize that many of the writers and painters were simply trying to take a photograph of the mind! They were approaching from the wrong direction. As for Lukács, his theories and the revelatory incision of Marxism seems real enough to me; why the does all prose need to dwell in this? Should not all political projects seek to fill ease turbulent mind with something like grace but redefined to meet our utter weirdness? Familiarity, grace, light: odd words indeed when stripped from the mouths of the proselytizers.
The epigraph above by Robbe-Grillet suggests that the nature of the real is always shifting. But this explanation seeks to flee into the vagaries of “literature” instead of standing up to the blinding light of the SUN that is not the light of reason but the obscuring protagonist of the universe that revels in sense and the absurd purposefulness of evolution. It is at once the source of the real and the end of it. It makes the photograph possible while signaling to another extremity.
Alphonse de Lamartine, a French poet, who believed photography to be a plagiarism of reality, a trick for the masses, changed his mind after seeing Adam-Salomon’s work: “We no longer say photography is a craft; it is an art; it is better than an art, it is a solar phenomenon in which the artist collaborates with the sun.”
In Carver’s story “Bridle”—a tale about the loss of the savoir faire of the cowboy and the middling decadence of the desert motel–two of the characters sit tanning. They don’t speak and are described as jerky-like. Occasionally one lifts up the sunglasses. They are baking in their excess but we can only see the crispy exterior.
If the revelation of the sun as the operative aspect changed de Lamartine’s mind, could a similar conclusion be reached about literature that considers itself realist? Is it language or the mind that acts as the sun does, giving light, threatening oblivion? Are the dead mouths of our ancestors something to bask in as our language echoes down through our genetic spreading? Does this realization offer the potential to get us out of the sick, self-reflective feedback loop of oohs and ahhs that characterizes our identifications that circle back, like ingrown hairs, on the body of our forsaken polity?
What’s for sure is that the ability to read at all is hedged in impossibility. The surface of the mind and the surface of the sun form together an unruly metaphor for sources that sustain and give without answering.
At the very least, that the sun illuminates and “dances” with matter so that we may see is absurd and wonderful; it generates unexplainable time, as the the world generated the bones of ancient men and women that have been ground to dust and forgotten. But is there any question that they were more than their fossils?
The sun guarantees the excess of the real and its complementarity. Our language guarantees the same, and so I want more. I want to feel this reverberating dance. I know all about decay, but what’s more dull than a glum recapitulation of a familiar illness?
That all goes to say that the tanning people in the Carver stories probably have it right; they are not reading literature at all! They are going straight to the source—no middle man, no realism. Just the obscuring opulence of the sun metastasizing the cells. This should be the realism: one that bubbles and pops like the cells dancing under the sun. The freak carnival of certain birds. The unexplainable ranting of the masses, each a different tone, each a canyon, deep and welled up with visions and screams and pleasures unimaginable. Exaltation.
Perhaps there is a way to overload our realism. The come at it from all sides. In this way the too real to handle, the painfully real can be come tooreal in the manner of the sun. Every plain of being, every ideology, reality, intersecting at once.
More on photography and the SUN to come…