Luck, Trust, and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (Full Documentary)

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William T. Vollmann, Profiled at Newsweek, Suggests “We’re a culture of prostitutes”

Newsweek has published a profile/interview of William T. Vollmann by Alexander Nazaryan. It’s a vivid, engaging read. The first two paragraphs of the profile:

If William T. Vollmann ever wins the Nobel Prize in Literature – as many speculate he will – he knows exactly what he will do with the $1.1 million pot the Swedes attach to the award. “It will be fun to give some to prostitutes,” he says, sitting on his futon, chuckling, a half-empty bottle of pretty good bourbon between us.

He is neither flippant nor drunk, though more booze awaits us out there in the temperate Sacramento twilight. Vollmann became famous for fiction that treated the sex worker as muse – especially the street stalker of those days in the Tenderloin of San Francisco when AIDS was just coming to haunt the national psyche and the yuppie invasion was a nightmare not yet hatched. His so-called prostitution trilogy – Whores for GloriaButterfly Stories, and The Royal Family – is overflowing with life and empathy, nothing like the backcountry machismo of Raymond Carver or fruitless experimentation of Donald Barthelme, both oh-so-popular with young writers when Vollmann first came on the scene after graduating from Cornell in 1981. He approached the prostitute like an anthropologist, yet did so without condescension, writing in Whores for Gloria, “The unpleasantnesses of her profession are largely caused by the criminal ambiance in which the prostitute must conduct it.”

Read the rest of it.

The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway’s Tale of Doomed Polyamory

In general, I dislike reviews that frontload context—get to the book, right? So here’s a short review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: it is stranger than most of what Hemingway wrote, by turns pleasant, uncomfortable, bewildering, and beautiful. And readable. It’s very, very readable. Young people (or older folks; let’s not be prejudiced) working their way through Hemingway shouldn’t put The Garden of Eden on the back-burner in favor of his more famous works, and anyone who might have written off Hemingway as unreflective macho bravado should take a look at some of the strange gender games this novel has to offer. So, that’s a recommendation, okay?

Now on to that context, which I think is important here. See, The Garden of Eden is one of those unfinished novels that get published posthumously, put together by editors and publishers and other book folk, who play a larger role than we like to admit in the finished books we get from living authors anyway. For various reasons, cultural, historical, etc., we seem to favor the idea of the Singular Artistic Genius who sculpts beauty and truth out of raw Platonic forms that only he or she can access (poor tortured soul). The reality of how our books get to us is a much messier affair, and editors and publishers and even literary studies departments in universities have a large hand in this process, one we tend to ignore in favor of the charms of a Singular Artistic Genius. There’s a fascinating process there, but also a troubling one. Editing issues complicate our ideals of (quite literally) stable authority—is this what the author intended?, we ask (New Critics be damned!). David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley . . . not to mention Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, The Bible, Homer, etc. etc. etc. But you’re here to read about The Garden of Eden, right gentle reader? Mea culpa. I’ve been blathering away. Let me turn the reins over to the estimable talents of E.L. Doctorow, who offers the following context in his 1986 review of the book in The New York Times

Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, his estate and his publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, have been catching up to him, issuing the work which, for one reason or another, he did not publish during his lifetime. He held back ”A Moveable Feast” out of concern for the feelings of the people in it who might still be alive. But for the novel ”Islands in the Stream” he seems to have had editorial misgivings. Even more deeply in this category is ”The Garden of Eden,” which he began in 1946 and worked on intermittently in the last 15 years of his life and left unfinished. It is a highly readable story, if not possibly the book he envisioned. As published it is composed of 30 short chapters running to about 70,000 words. A publisher’s note advises that ”some cuts” have been made in the manuscript, but according to Mr. Baker’s biography, at one point a revised manuscript of the work ran to 48 chapters and 200,000 words, so the publisher’s note is disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last December, a Scribners editor admitted to taking out a subplot in rough draft that he felt had not been integrated into the ”main body” of the text, but this cut reduced the book’s length by two-thirds.

So, yeah. The version we have of The Garden of Eden is heavily cut, and also likely heavily arranged. But that’s what editors do, and this is the book we have (for now, anyway—it seems like on the year of its 25th anniversary of publication, and the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death that Scribner should work toward putting out an unedited scholarly edition) — so I’ll talk about that book a bit.

The Garden of Eden tells the story of a few months in the lives of a young newlywed couple, David Bourne, an emerging novelist, and his wife Catherine, a trust fund baby flitting about Europe. The novel is set primarily on the French Riviera, in the thin sliver of high years between the two big wars. David and Catherine spend most of their days in this Edenic setting eating fine food and making love and swimming and riding bikes and fishing. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. It all sounds quite beautiful—h0w about a taste?

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s. He remembered that easily and he he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

Hemingway’s technique throughout the novel is to present the phenomenological contours of a heady world. It’s lovely to ride along with David and Catherine, rich and free and beautiful.

Their new life together is hardly charmed, however. See, Catherine gets a haircut—

Her hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. It was cut with no compromises. It was brushed back, heavy as always, but the sides were cut short and the ears that grew close to her head were clear and the tawny line of her hair was cropped close to her head and smooth and sweeping back. She turned her head and lifted her breasts and said, “Kiss me please.” . . .

“You see, she said. “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.”

“Sit here by me,” he said. “What do you want, brother.”

David’s playful response—calling his wife “brother”—covers up some of his shock and fear, but it also points to his underlying curiosity and gender confusion. And indeed, Catherine’s new haircut licenses her to “do anything and anything and anything” — beginning with some strange bed games that night—

He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him and her breasts pressing against him and her lips on his. He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”

“No.”

“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful, lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”

David, partial stand-in for Hemingway, transforms into a girl who feels “something” during sex with Catherine (or, ahem, Peter)—note that that “something” has no clear referent. As their gender inverting games continue (much to David’s horror), Hemingway’s usually concrete language retreats to vague proforms without referents, “it”s without antecedents; his usually precise diction dissolves in these scenes, much as the Bournes’ marriage dissolves each time Catherine escalates the gender inversion. David gives her the nickname “Devil,” as if she were both Eve and Serpent in their Garden. Catherine’s transformations continue as she cuts her hair back even more, and sunbathes all the time so that she can be as dark as possible. She dyes her hair a silver blonde and makes David get his hair cut and dyed the same.

The bizarre behavior (shades of Scott and Zelda?) culminates in Catherine introducing another woman into the marriage. Marita falls in love with both David and Catherine, but her lesbian sex with Catherine only accelerates the latter’s encroaching insanity. David is initially radically ambivalent to the ménage à trois proposed by his wife; he has the good sense to see that a three-way marriage is ultimately untenable and that his wife is going crazy. He vacillates between hostility and love for the two women, but eventually finds a support system in Marita as it becomes increasingly apparent (to all three) that Catherine is depressed and mentally unstable, enraged that David has ceased to write about the pair’s honeymoon adventures on the Riviera. Catherine has been bankrolling David; jealous of good reviews from his last novel, she insists that he write only their story, but David would rather write “the hardest story” he knows—the story of his childhood in East Africa with his father, a big game hunter.

In some of the most extraordinary passages of The Garden of Eden, David writes himself into his boyhood existence, trailing a bull elephant with his father through a jungle trek. David has spotted the elephant by moonlight, prompting his father and his father’s fellow tracker and gun bearer Juma to hunt the old beast. As they trail the animal, David begins to realize how horrible the hunt is, how cruel it is to kill the animal for sport. The passages are somewhat perplexing given Hemingway’s reputation as a hunter. Indeed, this is one of the major features of The Garden of Eden: it repeatedly confounds or complicates our ideas about Hemingway the man’s man, Hemingway the writer, Hemingway the hunter. David describes the wounded, dying elephant—

They found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer move. He had crashed through the heavy cover where he had been feeding and crossed a path of open forest and David and his father had run along the heavily splashed blood trail. Then the elephant had gone on into thick forest and David had seen him ahead standing gray and huge against the trunk of a tree. David could only see his stern and then his father moved ahead of him and he followed and they came alongside the elephant as though he was a ship and David saw the blood coming from his flanks and running down his sides and then his father raised his rifle and fired and the elephant turned his head with the great tusks moving heavy and slow and looked at them and when his father fired the second barrel the elephant seemed to sway like a felled tree and came smashing down toward them. But he was not dead. He had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen.

David succeeds in writing this “hard” story, and the passages are remarkable in their authenticity—David’s story is a good story, the highlight of the book perhaps; it’s not just Hemingway telling us that David wrote a great story, we actually get to experience the story itself as well as the grueling process by which it was made. Hemingway and his surrogate David show us—make us experience—how difficult writing really is, and then share the fruit of that labor with us. These scenes raise the stakes of The Garden of Eden, revealing how serious David is when he remarks (repeatedly) that the writing is the most important thing—that it outweighs love, it surpasses his marriage. These realizations freight the climax of the novel all the more heavily, but I will avoid anymore spoilers.

The Garden of Eden has some obvious flaws. Marita is underdeveloped at best for such an important character, and her love for David and Catherine remains unexplored, and in fact barely remarked upon. The biggest problem with the book is its conclusion, which feels too pat, too obvious for such a strange, amorphous book. It is here that the presence of an editorial hand seems clearest, to the extent that I wonder if the short little chapter that concludes the novel wasn’t cobbled together from a few stray sentences throughout the manuscript. But The Garden of Eden, despite some shortcomings, is a book well worth reading. The novel complicates not just Hemingway’s reputation, but also our sense of Hemingway’s sense of himself. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in August of 2011]

Six (More) Stoner Novels (And a Bonus Short Story)

A few years ago, to celebrate 4/20, Sam Munson at the Daily Beast wrote an article praising “The Best Stoner Novels.” Not a bad list—Wonder Boys, sure, Invisible Man, a bit of a stretch, The Savage Detectives, a very big stretch, but sure, why not. Anyway, six more stoner novels (not that we advocate the smoking of the weed)—

Junkie, William Burroughs

Burroughs’s (surprisingly lucid) early novel Junkie may take its name from heroin, but it’s full of weed smoking. Lesson: weed smoking leads to heroin. And the inevitable search for yage.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Doc Sportello, the wonky PI at the off-center of Pynchon’s California noir, is always in the process of lighting another joint, if not burning his fingers on the edges of a roach. A fuzzy mystery with smoky corners.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Hal Incandenza, protagonist of Wallace’s opus, spends much of his time hiding in the tunnels of Enfield Tennis Academy, feeding his bizarre marijuana addiction, which is, in many ways, more of an addiction to a secret ritual than to a substance. Hal’s hardly the only character in IJ who likes his Mary Jane; there’s a difficult section near the novel’s beginning that features a minor character preparing to go on a major weed binge. His pre-smoking anxiety works as a challenge to any reader seeking to enter the world of Infinite Jest.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m pretty sure “pipe-weed” isn’t tobacco.

Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem

I kind of hated Chronic City, a novel where characters seem to light up joints on every other page. It seems to have been written in an ambling, rambling fog, absent of any sense of immediacy, urgency, or, uh, plot. Bloodless stuff, but, again, very smoky.

Stoner, John Williams

Okay. Stoner has nothing to do with marijuana. But, hey, it’s called Stoner, right?

Bonus short story: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Carver’s classic story features a myopic narrator who comes up against his own shortcomings when he meets an old friend of his wife, a blind man who ironically sees deeper than he does. After drinking too much booze, they spark up, share a doob, and take in a documentary about European cathedrals. Great stuff.


A Short Riff on Those Horrid, Wonderful Vintage Contemporaries Paperbacks of the 1980s

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I’ve been a fan of Vintage Contemporaries for years. I’m pretty sure the first one I ever picked up was Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. I recall being vaguely dismayed about the cover and trying to find another used edition, but thrift won out. This was in the early or mid nineties, and book design was trending toward a more minimal, conceptual style.

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In contrast to a tasteful, minimalist cover, the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Cathedral is garishly literal. Ditto the cover for Denis Johnson’s Angels: sure, there’s a symbolic touch in those storm clouds, and a surreal tweak in the laser lights, but there’s something ghastly about the whole design.

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Even the cover for Jerzy Kosinski’s twisted horrorshow-in-vignettes Steps is remarkably literal—sure, the image seems surreal, but it’s straight out of Kosinski’s text. (It’s also one of my favorite covers in the line).

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Anyway, in the past few years I’ve kept an eye out for certain titles from the Vintage Contemporaries line, even if I already own the book in another edition—DeLillo, for instance, or Cormac McCarthy. I was thrilled to find this edition of Suttree earlier this year. (And I’d love to get another copy of Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows; I gave mine away to a friend).

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I’d been wanting to write about the Vintage Contemporaries series for a while now, and had even gone so far as to write to a few artists and designers I know to see if they could put me in touch with a source of info. A few weeks ago, Mahendra Singh was kind enough to point out a thorough, in-depth essay on Vintage Contemporaries over at Talking Covers. Plenty of history, photos, and even interviews. It’s the mother-lode, the post I wished I could’ve mustered. (And if I seem a bit jealous, I can console myself in the knowledge that they used my first pic of Suttree. So there’s that). I encourage you to check it out.

Six (More) Stoner Novels (And a Bonus Short Story)

A few years ago, to celebrate 4/20, Sam Munson at the Daily Beast wrote an article praising “The Best Stoner Novels.” Not a bad list—Wonder Boys, sure, Invisible Man, a bit of a stretch, The Savage Detectives, a very big stretch, but sure, why not. Anyway, six more stoner novels (not that we advocate the smoking of the weed)—

Junkie, William Burroughs

Burroughs’s (surprisingly lucid) early novel Junkie may take its name from heroin, but it’s full of weed smoking. Lesson: weed smoking leads to heroin. And the inevitable search for yage.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Doc Sportello, the wonky PI at the off-center of Pynchon’s California noir, is always in the process of lighting another joint, if not burning his fingers on the edges of a roach. A fuzzy mystery with smoky corners.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Hal Incandenza, protagonist of Wallace’s opus, spends much of his time hiding in the tunnels of Enfield Tennis Academy, feeding his bizarre marijuana addiction, which is, in many ways, more of an addiction to a secret ritual than to a substance. Hal’s hardly the only character in IJ who likes his Mary Jane; there’s a difficult section near the novel’s beginning that features a minor character preparing to go on a major weed binge. His pre-smoking anxiety works as a challenge to any reader seeking to enter the world of Infinite Jest.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m pretty sure “pipe-weed” isn’t tobacco.

Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem

I kind of hated Chronic City, a novel where characters seem to light up joints on every other page. It seems to have been written in an ambling, rambling fog, absent of any sense of immediacy, urgency, or, uh, plot. Bloodless stuff, but, again, very smoky.

Stoner, John Williams

Okay. Stoner has nothing to do with marijuana. But, hey, it’s called Stoner, right?

Bonus short story: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Carver’s classic story features a myopic narrator who comes up against his own shortcomings when he meets an old friend of his wife, a blind man who ironically sees deeper than he does. After drinking too much booze, they spark up, share a doob, and take in a documentary about European cathedrals. Great stuff.


Book Shelves #13, 3.25.2012

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Book shelves series #13, thirteenth Sunday of 2012: Four by the late great Russell Hoban. A few Philip K. Dick volumes, although it’s worth pointing out that most of the good stuff I’ve owned by him has been loaned out and never returned and/or exists in ratty coverless mass market editions. PK Dick transitions to William Burroughs to JG Ballard (another writer who I used to own other books by before they were dispersed . . .). Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship is a thoroughly obscure volume in a Ballardian/Burroughsian vein; it deserves a reprint. Gardner, Brodkey, Gass, Kosinski. I’ve owned Raymond Carver’s Cathedral since high school, or maybe freshman year of college. It’s all the Carver that any library needs. Lish comma Gordon. Two by Malcolm Lowry. Two by Barry Hannah. Four from Sam Lipsyte.

The Carver and Kosinski volumes are part of the 1980s Vintage Contemporaries line that all feature awful, hyper-literal covers. I have about a dozen such volumes and I’m planning a piece on them in the future. Observe:

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Smoking Makes You Look Cool, Part II (More Pics of Writers Smoking)

Zora Neale Hurston
Rudyard Kipling
Anne Sexton 

A.A. Milne

Virginia Woolf

Carson McCullers

Dylan Thomas

Arthur Conan Doyle

Lillian Hellman

Raymond Carver

(For more pics of writers smoking, check out our first gallery—and don’t worry, people already expressed their hatred for what they perceived to be our endorsement of smoking there).

“I Write Stories About a Submerged Population” — Raymond Carver on Fiction, Class, and Political Writing

Raymond Carver talks about the political scope (or lack thereof) in his writing in a 1987 interview

A writer ought to speak about things that are important to him. As you know, I’ve taught in universities, in fact for some fifteen years. I had time there for other work, and I never wrote a single story about university life because it’s an experience that left no mark on my emotional life. I tend to go back to the time and the people I knew well when I was younger and who made a very strong impression on me . . . Some of my recent stories deal with executives. (For example, that one in The New Yorker, “Whoever Was Using This Bed,” where the people discuss things the characters in my earlier stories would never discuss). He’s a businessman, and so on. But most of the people in my stories are poor and bewildered, that’s true. The economy, that’s important . . . I don’t feel I’m a political writer and yet I’ve been attacked by right-wing critics in the U.S.A. who blame me for not painting a more smiling picture of America, for not being optimistic enough, for writing stories about the people who don’t succeed. But these lives are as valid as those of the go-getters. Yes, I take unemployment, money problems, and marital problems as givens in life. People worry about their rent, their children, their home life. That’s basic. That’s how 80-90 percent, or God knows how many people live. I write stories about a submerged population, people who don’t always have someone to speak for them. I’m sort of a witness, and, besides, that’s the life I myself lived for a long time. I don’t see myself as a spokesman but as a witness to these lives. I’m a writer.

“What’s the Matter, Don’t You Love Me Anymore?” — Raymond Carver’s Correspondence with Gordon Lish

Today is Raymond Carver’s birthday. Read excerpts of Carver’s letters to his editor Gordon Lish at The New Yorker. A few highlights (the letter from July 8, 1980 is fantastic and should be read in full, by the way)—

July 15, 1970

Hombre, thanks for the superb assist on the stories. No one has done that for me since I was 18, I mean it. High time I think, too. Feel the stories are first class now, but whatever the outcome there, I appreciate the fine eye you turned on them. Hang tough.

February 1, 1979

I’m going to Mardi Gras with Tess; and the Fords are coming down in March for spring break and we’re going into Mexico by train for a week. . . . I’m happy, and I’m sober. It’s aces right now, Gordon. I know better than anyone a fellow is never out of the woods, but right now it’s aces, and I’m enjoying it.

July 8, 1980, 8 a.m.

Dearest Gordon,

I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this, and nothing but this, so help me. I’ve looked at it from every side, I’ve compared both versions of the edited mss—the first one is better, I truly believe, if some things are carried over from the second to the first—until my eyes are nearly to fall out of my head. You are a wonder, a genius, and there’s no doubt of that, better than any two of Max Perkins, etc., etc. And I’m not unmindful of the fact of my immense debt to you, a debt I can simply never, never repay. This whole new life I have, so many of the friends I now have, this job up here, everything, I owe to you for “Will You Please.” You’ve given me some degree of immortality already.

January 21, 1983

What’s the matter, don’t you love me anymore? I never hear from you. Have you forgotten me already? Well, I’m going back to the [Paris Review] interview and take out all the good things I said about you.

Will Ferrell on Raymond Carver

Will Ferrell talks to the AV Club about his new film, Everything Must Go, which is based on Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” From the interview—

AVC: Your character in Everything Must Go is a persistent alcoholic who loses his job and his wife in one fell swoop, so the film could have been much darker than it is, especially considering the source. Raymond Carver isn’t known for being quirky and lighthearted.

WF: I probably shouldn’t admit, but I will, that I had never read Raymond Carver prior to this. When Dan gave me the short story, the collection it was in, I read it cover to cover, and I loved the starkness of his writing. But it’s true, it’s pretty dark and alcoholic. It just depends on your filter and where you’re coming from. You mentioned that it could be a lot darker. Other people have said to me, “Wow, this is really dark, especially for you to do.” I was fearful of the shot of the shaky hand reaching for the can, like, “That’s going to come off terrible.” A more skilled actor maybe could do it, but for me, and Dan agreed, we just made sure that everything was underplayed, if anything.

AVC: Actors often say that playing drunk is one of the hardest things to do, and the secret is acting like you’re trying not to look drunk. 

WF: Totally. I actually had a buddy of mine come over and film me getting drunk one night, just as an excuse to drink 18 beers, but also to see if there was anything I could glean from that.

Amy Hempel on Gordon Lish and Steve Martin

Amy Hempel talks about studying under Gordon Lish (and how Steve Martin influenced her) in her 2003 interview with The Paris Review

INTERVIEWER

Why Lish?

HEMPEL

At Esquire in the seventies and, later, at Knopf, he was publishing the voices that interested me most. I felt allied with his choices, so he was the one I wanted to work with. Writers like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Mary Robison. These were the three who had the most effect on me when I started.

INTERVIEWER

What about their work interested you?

HEMPEL

They didn’t sound like anyone else I had read. For me, they redefined what a story could be—the thing happening off to the side of the story other writers were telling; they would start where someone else would leave off, or stop where someone else would start. As Hannah said later in Boomerang, a lot of people have their overview, whereas he has his “underview,” scouting “under the bleachers, for what life has dropped.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember the first class?

HEMPEL

Vividly. The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was. We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell. No half-measures. He thought any of us could do it if we wanted it badly enough. And that, when I was starting out, was a great thing to hear from someone who would know.

INTERVIEWER

What was, if you can say, your “worst secret”?

HEMPEL

I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”

INTERVIEWER

You stayed on in his workshop as a student for years. You must have been repeatedly humbled.

HEMPEL

I felt humbled by realizing how hard the job was. How hard it is to write a moving, worthwhile, memorable story. But more often I was inspired. It turned out that one of the most helpful things I did without knowing it would be helpful later was hang out with stand-up comics in San Francisco. I went to their shows night after night after night. I watched them performing, working through the same material. I saw some nights it killed and other nights it bombed. All that time I was observing nuance, inflection, timing, how the slightest difference mattered. How the littlest leaning on a word—or leaning away from it—would get the laugh, and this lesson was so valuable. And the improv work—they called it “being human on purpose,” this falling back on the language in your mouth—was hugely important. Just listening to what you’re saying. I learned this when my late friend Morgan Upton, an actor and member of the Committee, took me to a Steve Martin show at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Back in the green room, Steve Martin was sick, but preparing to do his show anyway. I told him I admired that, I said I couldn’t go out there and make people laugh if I were sick. And he said, Don’t be silly—you couldn’t do it if you were well. A brilliant reply on any number of levels. I based an early story, “Three Popes Walk into a Bar,” on that night. Then I ran into him about twenty years later and reminded him of our exchange. He laughed and said, “It sounds mean!” But I thought it was great.

 

“Your Dog Dies” — Raymond Carver

“Your Dog Dies” by Raymond Carver–

It gets run over by a van.
you find it at the side of the road
and bury it.
you feel bad about it.
you feel bad personally,
but you feel bad for your daughter
because it was her pet,
and she loved it so.
she used to croon to it
and let it sleep in her bed.
you write a poem about it.
you call it a poem for your daughter,
about the dog getting run over by a van
and how you looked after it,
took it out into the woods
and buried it deep, deep,
and that poem turns out so good
you’re almost glad the little dog
was run over, or else you’d never
have written that good poem.
then you sit down to write
a poem about writing a poem
about the death of that dog,
but while you’re writing you
hear a woman scream
your name, your first name,
both syllables,
and your heart stops.
after a minute, you continue writing.
she screams again.
you wonder how long this can go on.


Read Gordon Lish’s Edit of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Boy oh boy this is great (yes, I am that kind of nerd). A few years ago The New Yorker published an early draft of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which was originally titled “Beginners.” The New Yorker simultaneously published a version of the story showing Gordon Lish’s edits. It’s a fascinating look at the Carver-Lish writing experience. In the sample that follows, strike-throughs are deletions and boldfaced words are Lish’s additions—

My friend Mel Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel Herb and me I and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, then. But but we were all from somewhere else. There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. Mel Herb thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. He said When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said he still looked back on to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel Herb loved her so much he tried to kill her. Herb laughed after she said this. He made a face. Terri looked at him. Then Terri she said, “He beat me up one night, the last night we lived together. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, , all the while saying, ‘I love you, don’t you see? I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room. My , my head kept knocking on things.” TerriShe looked around the table at us and then looked at her hands on her glass. “What do you do with love like that?” she said. She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked necklaces made of turquoise, and long pendant earrings. She was fifteen years younger than Herb, had suffered periods of anorexia, and during the late sixties, before she’d gone to nursing school, had been a dropout, a “street person” as she put it. Herb sometimes called her, affectionately, his hippie.

“My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it,” Mel Herb said. “I don’t know what you’d call it, —madness is what I’d call it—but I sure know you wouldn’t call it it’s sure as hell not love.”

The Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish (as Read by Gordon Lish)

Listening to Gordon Lish read selections from Iambik Audio’s compendium of his Collected Fictions for the fourth time today, it occurred to me that I should just go ahead and review the damn thing. Quit stalling. Get to it. I hope that pointing out that I’ve listened to Lish narrate ten of his odd, funny, gut-wrenching tales four times now (and will surely listen again) is enough to motivate thee, gentle reader, to follow my example—but that’s lazy, wishful thinking, right? There needs to be a proper review. Here goes—

Lish is perhaps more famous as an editor than a writer of short fiction. He worked for years at Vanity Fair and later for Knopf, and the list of writers that he championed reads like a who’s-who of contemporary greats: Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Amy Hempel, Barry Hannah, David Leavitt, and Harold Brodkey, just to name a few. The writer he is perhaps most associated with though is Raymond Carver. By paring down sentence after sentence, Lish helped Carver develop his spare, minimalist style.

It’s that attention to sentences, to the truth of each sentence, to their individual force, that shines through in the collection. Consider this beauty, from “The Death of Me,” a story about a boy (surely Gordon Lish, hero of all Gordon Lish stories) who peaks too early, winning first place in all five field events at his summer camp one fine day in 1944, and then succumbing to the realization that this apex is, frankly, the end of it all–

I felt like going to sleep and staying asleep until someone came and told me that my parents were dead and that I was all grown up and that there was a new God in heaven and that he liked me better even than the old God had.

This sentence seems to me to be the expression of an emotion that I’ve felt for which I have no name. Lish’s sentences can move through tragedy and pathos to devastating comedy, a kind of comedy that collapses the auditor. Check out a line from “Mr. Goldbaum”–

What if your father was the kind of father who was dying and he called you to him and you were his son and he said for you to come lie down on the bed with him so that he could hold you and so that you could hold him so that you both could be like that hugging with each other like that to say goodbye before you had to actually go leave each other and did it, you did it, you god down on the bed with your father and you got up close to your father and you got your arms around your father and your father was hugging you and you were hugging your father and there was one of you who could not stop it, who could not help it, but who just got a hard-on?

Lish advised, “Don’t have stories — have sentences,” but “The Death of Me” and “Mr. Goldbaum” are more than the sum of their parts, more than just a collection of sculpted, scalpeled syntax. From the 1988 collection Mourner at the Door (the only Lish book I’d read before Collected Fictions), both stories announce Lish’s major theme of death, the absurdity of death, or the absurdity of life against the inevitability of death—but also the heavy truth of death, the ugly truth of death, the powerlessness of language against the finality of death. “Spell Bereavement,” also from Mourner, is essentially a prequel to “Mr. Goldbaum”: Gordon gets the news of his father’s death from his sister and mother. The story takes place over the phone as a sort of switch-hit interrogation, as mom and sis caustically berate the speechless man, who tells us, at the end, “There are not people in my heart of hears. There are just sentences in my heart of hearts.” Why does Gordon the narrator of “Spell Bereavement” fail to respond to the news of his father’s death? He is “too disabled to talk . . . going crazy with pencil and paper so as not to miss one word.”

Lish means to capture the ecstatic truth in death, and truth is at the core of all these stories, even when they are fables of a sort, like “After the Beanstalk,” which features a bewitched princess who has been transmogrified into a dog. The tale is hilarious and cutting and sad. There’s also “Squeak in the Sycamore,” which begins as a child’s list of fears and enumerations of death and longing and nature and ends in a joke and then an insult to the reader for laughing at the joke. (Best line: “Six is: the gardener died from digging up a basilisk”). “How to Write a Poem” is a caustic rant that argues that literary theft is really a matter of stern guts, of facing truth, and “Everything I Know” problematizes the very act of storytelling — it’s a story about how we tell stories, or our versions of stories. By far the most affecting piece that Lish reads though is “Eats with Ozick and Lentricchia,” about which he tells us, before reading it, “there is not a word of it that is not true.” It is a story that hovers around the death, or the dying of, more accurately, Lish’s wife Barbara; its details are almost too cruel, too true to bear.

Lish reads his tales in a bold voice that seems to challenge the auditor at all angles, as if his sentences were prodding you, poking you, pinching you even. He claims, in one of the many asides that precede these tales, to have never really read his work aloud before, and not to have really read the work in years, but his confidence seems to belie this notion; maybe, more accurately, it conveys the intense concentration of his intellect. His tone fascinates, and then he cracks out something like: “It always astonishes me I could have written such a thing” in such a dry honest voice that, while his quip hangs ambiguous, it remains utterly sincere. There’s a wonderful moment in the recording when he moves from reading “Mr. Goldbaum” to “Spell Bereavement” and seems to notice, as if for the first time, their close connection. He then remarks–

It shames me in one kind of way to see that my writing gathers itself into such a rut, but on the other hand it does please me to have spoken again and again and again about that which occurred to me at the time to be of consequence. I haven’t written fiction or anything else really for a great number of years and this occasion, reading these pieces, is an education for me and alien, foreign, in one kind of way, because the sentences are complex, but in another kind of way, I’m reminded of who I am.

Lish’s influence cannot be underestimated, from writers like David Foster Wallace to Denis Johnson to Sam Lipsyte, and all of those who will follow in turn. Readers have a fantastic (and incredibly inexpensive, I must add) starting place in Iambik’s wonderful collection. Do yourself a favor and check this out. Very highly recommended.

Did Alcohol Inspire Raymond Carver? “My God, No!” — Carver on His Days with Cheever at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

We continue to raid Raymond Carver’s 1983 Paris Review interview

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever feel that alcohol was in any way an inspiration? I’m thinking of your poem “Vodka,” published in Esquire.

CARVER

My God, no! I hope I’ve made that clear. Cheever remarked that he could always recognize “an alcoholic line” in a writer’s work. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by this but I think I know. When we were teaching in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall semester of 1973, he and I did nothing but drink. I mean we met our classes, in a manner of speaking. But the entire time we were there—we were living in this hotel they have on campus, the Iowa House—I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters. We made trips to a liquor store twice a week in my car.

INTERVIEWER

To stock up?

CARVER

Yes, stock up. But the store didn’t open until 10:00 a.m. Once we planned an early morning run, a ten o’clock run, and we were going to meet in the lobby of the hotel. I came down early to get some cigarettes and John was pacing up and down in the lobby. He was wearing loafers, but he didn’t have any socks on. Anyway, we headed out a little early. By the time we got to the liquor store the clerk was just unlocking the front door. On this particular morning, John got out of the car before I could get it properly parked. By the time I got inside the store he was already at the checkout stand with a half gallon of Scotch. He lived on the fourth floor of the hotel and I lived on the second. Our rooms were identical, right down to the same reproduction of the same painting hanging on the wall. But when we drank together, we always drank in his room. He said he was afraid to come down to drink on the second floor. He said there was always a chance of him getting mugged in the hallway! But you know, of course, that fortunately, not too long after Cheever left Iowa City, he went to a treatment center and got sober and stayed sober until he died.

The world of addiction treatment is full of stories of addicts who managed to stay sober using support from other former addicts as they went about the rehabilitation process.

“Let’s just say, on occasion, the police were involved and emergency rooms and courtrooms” — Raymond Carver Talks About Drinking

More from Raymond Carver’s 1983 Paris Review interview

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk a little more about the drinking? So many writers, even if they’re not alcoholics, drink so much.

CARVER

Probably not a whole lot more than any other group of professionals. You’d be surprised. Of course there’s a mythology that goes along with the drinking, but I was never into that. I was into the drinking itself. I suppose I began to drink heavily after I’d realized that the things I’d wanted most in life for myself and my writing, and my wife and children, were simply not going to happen. It’s strange. You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.

INTERVIEWER

And you were all those things?

CARVER

I was. I’m not any longer. Oh, I lie a little from time to time, like everyone else.

INTERVIEWER

How long since you quit drinking?

CARVER

June second, 1977. If you want the truth, I’m prouder of that, that I’ve quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I’ll always be an alcoholic, but I’m no longer a practicing alcoholic.

INTERVIEWER

How bad did the drinking get?

CARVER

It’s very painful to think about some of the things that happened back then. I made a wasteland out of everything I touched. But I might add that towards the end of the drinking there wasn’t much left anyway. But specific things? Let’s just say, on occasion, the police were involved and emergency rooms and courtrooms.

 

“None of my stories really happened, of course” — Raymond Carver on Realism (and Drinking) in His Stories

Raymond Carver talks realism, autobiography (and drinking) in his 1983 Paris Review interview. A taste–

INTERVIEWER

Where do your stories come from, then? I’m especially asking about the stories that have something to do with drinking.

CARVER

The fiction I’m most interested in has lines of reference to the real world. None of my stories really happened, of course. But there’s always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place. Here’s an example: “That’s the last Christmas you’ll ever ruin for us!” I was drunk when I heard that, but I remembered it. And later, much later, when I was sober, using only that one line and other things I imagined, imagined so accurately that they could have happened, I made a story—“A Serious Talk.” But the fiction I’m most interested in, whether it’s Tolstoy’s fiction, Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Ann Beattie, or Anne Tyler, strikes me as autobiographical to some extent. At the very least it’s referential. Stories long or short don’t just come out of thin air. I’m reminded of a conversation involving John Cheever. We were sitting around a table in Iowa City with some people and he happened to remark that after a family fracas at his home one night, he got up the next morning and went into the bathroom to find something his daughter had written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror: “D-e-r-e daddy, don’t leave us.” Someone at the table spoke up and said, “I recognize that from one of your stories.” Cheever said, “Probably so. Everything I write is autobiographical.” Now of course that’s not literally true. But everything we write is, in some way, autobiographical. I’m not in the least bothered by “autobiographical” fiction. To the contrary. On the Road. Céline. Roth. Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet. So much of Hemingway in the Nick Adams stories. Updike, too, you bet. Jim McConkey. Clark Blaise is a contemporary writer whose fiction is out-and-out autobiography. Of course, you have to know what you’re doing when you turn your life’s stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself. You’re told time and again when you’re young to write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets? But unless you’re a special kind of writer, and a very talented one, it’s dangerous to try and write volume after volume on The Story of My Life. A great danger, or at least a great temptation, for many writers is to become too autobiographical in their approach to their fiction. A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.

 

Raymond Carver: Dreams Are What You Wake Up From

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