With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers:
What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade?
We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds.
The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened — beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” — that rape was
the price one has to pay for staying on…they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid…about what human beings do to other human beings” — such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” — yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote:
Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it…A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel…I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion…The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life.
For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility.
Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre:
For the South African novelist…how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing?
Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: “[C]ontemporary political novels — the ones that sell, at least — are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through…is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.”
Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist — David Lurie is — her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal — are as relevant as they’ve ever been.
In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
That’s a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men — which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop — and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much.
Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described — the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck — all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.”
But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn’t be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life’s Work, although again it’s not fiction. But I don’t suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant — finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now.
I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn’t participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again…on and on, and I haven’t even gotten into international issues!
I don’t want politics to be a source of entertainment — there is too much at stake for that — and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don’t misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let’s keep them separate.
But maybe that isn’t possible.
Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel’s novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it’s whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn’t feel overtly political; it’s concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn’t shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth — with black slaves, for starters.
The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family’s history: for instance, one mother’s goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can’t have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming.
Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the “finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” It’s a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”)
Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain’t makin’ carpenters who know what nails are for.” And this year, crazy has gone national, though it’s New York, not Texas, to blame.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer’s wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There’s a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it’s the perfect Austin novel.
The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there’s not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it’s happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump).
The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it’s a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y’all. Or at least we meant to.
One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics — with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall.
Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head.
I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about.
At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk.
Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable.
As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.”
As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world — to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman — feels like a slow death.
Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice — the most important political weapon there is.
Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.”
What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution.
Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.”
Put your idleness, if you’re fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings:
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875)
What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else’s industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Among the threads in Ford’s intricately woven “saddest story” is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it’s the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide.
Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.”
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.”
Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967)
One of literature’s most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka’s August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite — or because of — what he describes as her “bony, empty face,” he reported he was “completely under the influence of the girl.”
The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974)
The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson’s hands, and one by Manson’s prosecutor that’s part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood.
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981)
Bradley’s nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting — self-inflicted, the legends say — of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter
Carter’s fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995)
A book — call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel — grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived — I’d enjoyed.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
The epigraph to All the King’s Men is from Purgatorio, which happens to be my personal favorite stop on Dante’s guided tour of the celestial realm. It is so favorite a favorite that I had one of its scenes, a somewhat impressionistic rendering of a Doré rendering, tattooed on my forearm in a fit of youthful bravado. (If I have any regrets about this, they are that I have only a dwindling supply of bravado, and only two arms, and only one life to encounter moving things and be altered by them for the duration.) Anyway, it’s an exceedingly helpful epigraph for reading this novel; once Dante has been invoked, he has a way of suffusing everything and providing a theme and trajectory to the work: down, and then up, up, up.
The Divine Comedy has a lot of politics in it, Guelphs and Ghibellines and so forth, because Dante was a political animal who went through the wringer and finally lived out his days in exile, a self-described “party of one.” After centuries, most of us read the poet’s verse and the footnotes prepared by dedicated historians and have only the vaguest sense of who everyone was. Still, we know that they are meaningful in their perdition or their grace.
Robert Penn Warren’s tortured narrator, Jack Burden, was a party of one if ever one there was: a failed law student, historian, journalist, henchman, ungentlemanly Southern gent. Like Dante, he is prone to sudden sleep and wandering into error. Warren evidently protested the designation, but I’ll allow that All the King’s Men is a novel about politics in the Dantean sense — politics happens in the story, Guelphs and Ghibellines and hicks and state power and porcine Duffy and inscrutable Stark. But it’s not Willie Stark who makes the lasting impression in this novel. It’s Jack Burden, party of one, who midway through the journey of his life finds himself in a dark wood, the right path lost. He is here to tell us about several generations of honor and shame, about soiling your good name and living, or not living, with the results. There is no one in this novel, save perhaps the long-suffering Lucy, who does not stain him or herself with some kind of wrong.
Dante was a party of one, but he was also a patriot, if we can try and understand the word outside of that dubious 19th-century invention, the nation state. Dante was a Florentine who loved his city; he celebrated and indicted it in his lovely poem in his beloved language. Reading All the King’s Men, I thought a lot about patriotism. This novel is written so beautifully, so stylishly, and feels so American — with all the muddled greatness and shittiness that descriptor implies — that my decrepit patriotism pricked up its ears like it sometimes does when I read a stunning novel about America, in fine American English.
After two foreign wars and all manner of troubling happenings on the domestic front, the thinking American, even while she tells herself that states are a construct, can find herself looking wistfully for uncontentious and productive symbols of homeland pride. In these moments, I settle on rock ‘n’ roll, because I believe that is a genuinely good American invention, one that people from other countries (with the exception of the squares and grumps who turn up in any society) have taken up with great gusto and badass results.
But then, if we work past the hugely powerful instinct to take national ownership in a thing, pride must be tempered by the fact that this American cultural good arose from an indelible stain upon our history. Put very simply, there would be no rock ‘n’ roll, no jazz, if there were no slaves in America. So you recalibrate your patriotic enthusiasm — rock music is a great good with a great evil woven into its roots.
All the King’s Men is a novel that puts shame front and center — personal shame, familial shame, state shame. And see in this novel, that other, larger shame: it’s a novel with “nigger” on the first page, its world reels from the sin of a woman sold down the river. Maybe it’s because the hot, schismatic South has ever had some kind of weird claim on Americanness, but there is something about All the King’s Men that like rock ‘n’ roll seems profoundly American, something paradoxical that makes a person feel like holding up her head about the accident of her citizenship to say, “We made this, so we can’t be all bad,” even while the thing in question in fact confirms that we can be and are that bad — on the national scale, on the universal scale, we’re that bad.
We’re that bad — but some of us can really write.
Can Robert Penn Warren ever write. He’s a poet, and his prose is full of poetry and swagger. It’s not a style I thought I favored; I think of my literary tastes, ironically, as running prim and anglophilic. But perhaps it’s not a style I favor only because it is often imitated, unwittingly or the reverse, with such excruciating results. There are rioting metaphors on every page; cliches lurk around every corner. A hometown hero, a depressive journalist, a yellowing diary, a buried secret, a war, a zaftig bivalvular ex-wife, all written so beautifully I can hardly stand it. My copy is dog-eared the whole way through, the better to find the remarkable passages that proliferate therein.
We had taken lots of swims in the rain, that summer and the summers before when Adam had been with us. We would no doubt have gone that night too, if the rain had been falling a different kind of rain, if it had been a light sweet rain, falling out of a high sky, the kind that barely whispers with a silky sound on the surface of the water you are swimming in, or if had been a driven, needle-pointed, cold, cathartic rain to make you want to run along the beach and yell before you took refuge in the sea, or even if it had been a torrent, the kind you get on the Gulf that is like nothing so much as what happens when the bottom finally bursts out of a big paper bag suspended full of water. But it wasn’t like any of those kinds of rain. It was as though the sky had sagged down as low as possible and there were a universal leaking of bilge down through the black, gummy, dispirited air.
They flow like this, one after another, in a manner that sometimes sounds free-wheeling and unconstructed, like a drugstore poet shooting the breeze between sips from his soda pop. But try to write a letter and sound like Robert Penn Warren. Try to write a story.
I rejoice in this great American novel, a reminder of people’s capacity for those universal states, perdition and grace. Jack Burden says “what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of bad and the bad out of good, and the devil take the hindmost.” Jack Burden asks if we are only as a good as the worst thing we’ve ever done and we have to concede it is so. It is so, but there’s a chance of heaven yet. Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde.
Fans of Raymond Carver’s short fiction got a treat last year when the Library of America published the celebrated writer’s Collected Stories. Yet for some of his readers, the book cast a disquieting shadow over his career and work. Editors William Stull and Maureen Carroll included in this new volume a manuscript which they entitled Beginners, an alternate version of the 1981 Carver collection published by Knopf as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Nearly thirty years ago, Carver’s editor Gordon Lish cut this manuscript by some 55 percent, essentially against Carver’s wishes. Though WWTA went on to become a critical success and a watershed in Carver’s career, the extent of Lish’s influence on the book has raised questions about just who is responsible for Carver’s artistic success.
In that regard, the Library of America volume’s inclusion of the complete manuscript of Beginners, all seventeen stories, offers readers a chance to draw their own conclusions about who Carver was as a writer, and about the meaning and worth of these contested stories. What follows are my own conclusions.
1: Just Leave Well Enough Alone?
I do understand the feelings of those who, perhaps without having read Beginners, feel a certain weariness at the idea of it. On the way to a chess match today, I was talking with a student at the high school where I teach. In his English class, he’s reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. There’s been some confusion because a number of students purchased a different edition of the novel, one that includes scenes that Warren’s editors removed from the novel for its original publication. Only recently, decades after All the King’s Men has become a modern classic, have these additional scenes been spliced back in. In addition, Willie Stark, one of the central characters in the novel, has had his name changed to Willie Talos, Warren’s original name for him.
For Pete’s sake, I found myself thinking. Do we really need this? Wasn’t the novel great enough as it was? And long enough already? Can’t we just leave well enough alone? Willie Talos?
For those who fell in love with Carver’s work while reading WWTA, I can imagine a similar reaction to the publication of Beginners. There’s a feeling of having been baited-and-switched, perhaps. Or of having received an assignment to re-do work one had already completed. There’s an impulse to just throw up one’s hands and say, “It is what it is, and there’s no turning back time.” Or even to say that Lish was the one who made Carver great in the first place.
I understand these reactions. But having read both versions of this story collection in their entirety, my conclusion is that Beginners is vastly superior to WWTA, and indeed a work of art at least equal to Carver’s subsequent collection Cathedral. I don’t mean to be histrionic, but while reading the two versions side by side, I often felt that Lish’s treatment of Carver’s stories verged on the criminal. In a just world, Beginners would be published as a stand-alone volume to replace the shell that Lish made of it.
2: I See a Darkness
The conventional shorthand is that Lish’s versions are bracing and bleak, Carver’s verbose and sentimental. In actuality, however, many of the stories are more disturbing in their original form than in their eventual published form.
In the story “The Fling,” for instance, a father meets his adult son in an airport bar and makes a long confession about the affair that ended his marriage to the man’s mother. “I’ve got to tell this to somebody. I can’t keep it in any longer,” he tells his son. The son, who narrates the story, doesn’t want to listen, much less to forgive. The encounter ends in further estrangement between the two:
He hasn’t written, I haven’t heard from him since then. I’d write to him and see how he’s getting along, but I’m afraid I’ve lost his address. But, tell me, after all, what could he expect from someone like me?
It’s a story about the human need for reconciliation, the sacramental quality of confession and our inability, sometimes, to provide that for those who’ve hurt us. In the original version, the father’s guilt is compounded by the fact that his affair also led to the ghastly suicide of his mistress’s husband. In addition, he characterizes his first sexual encounter with this woman as a kind of rape. In comparison to the WWTA version of this story, entitled “Sacks,” this earlier version has an even darker view of the human capacity for evil—and concomitantly the father’s guilty desire for forgiveness takes on an even more profound resonance.
The most chilling example of the darkness in Carver’s vision, though, is the story “Tell the Women We’re Going,” which culminates in the rape and murder of a woman by one of the main characters. This story is one of the creepiest I’ve read in my life, right up there with Dan Chaon’s “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By.” It’s creepy largely because of the patience with which it builds to its horrifying climax. It follows a pair of high school chums who grow into adults with wives and children, then one Sunday afternoon leave their families to go for a drive in the countryside. They drink all afternoon and then head out toward Painted Rocks and the Naches River, encountering a pair of women on bicycles along the way. Their dealings with these women begin with flirtatious banter, then gradually gain menace, until one of the men is half-chasing (and then truly chasing) one of the women up an isolated rock. The violence is described in awful detail, but what makes it most awful is how understandable Carver makes it: we’re in the murderer’s head, seeing the steps that lead to his terrible acts.
At the same time, Carver also does a brilliant job of distinguishing between the two men, one of whom is reluctant to participate in the back-and-forth with the women, and who has parted from the other woman after nothing more than a brief conversation. At the end of the story, he comes upon the scene of the crime and is horrified by what he sees:
Bill felt himself shrinking, becoming thin and weightless. At the same time he had the sensation of standing against a heavy wind that was cuffing his ears. He wanted to break loose and run, but something was moving toward him. The shadows of the rocks as the shape came across them seemed to move with the shape and under it. The ground seemed to have shifted in the odd-angled light. He thought unreasonably of the two bicycles waiting at the bottom of the hill near the car, as though taking one away would change all this, make the girl stop happening to him in that moment he had topped the hill. But Jerry was standing now in front of him, slung loosely in his clothes as though the bones had gone out of him. Bill felt the awful closeness of their two bodies, less than an arm’s length between. Then the head came down on Bill’s shoulder. He raised his hand, and as if the distance now separating them deserved at least this, he began to pat, to stroke the other, while his own tears broke.
Following an incredibly intense narration of a brutal murder, this passage puts us into the experience of the murderer’s friend: the violent shift in his perspective on his old buddy; the surreal quality of coming face to face with this enormity; and, simultaneously, the recognition of the murderer’s humanity despite his new and unbridgeable differentness.
Compare all of that to Lish’s version of the ending (the pursuit, murder, and reaction, in their entirety):
Bill had just wanted to fuck. Or even to see them naked. On the other hand, it was okay with him if it didn’t work out.
He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.
Lish has stripped the story’s ending of its narrative drive and emotional power and replaced them with a cheap jolt. Both stories are bleak, but only Carver’s version expands our understanding of the world by taking us viscerally into the abyss.
3: Less is Less
The radically truncated stories in WWTA cemented Carver’s identity as a minimalist in many people’s minds. Yet a comparison of the stories in Beginners with their counterparts in WWTA demonstrates how false that label is, and how impoverished the minimalist versions really are.
In one of his letters to Lish about the manuscript, Carver wrote the following:
I’m mortally afraid of taking out too much from the stories, of making them too thin, not enough connecting tissue to them.
His fears were well-founded. Lish took from these stories their rich sense of human possibility—their meaningfulness, to put it bluntly.
Lish altered the title of “Want to See Something?” to “I Could See the Smallest Things,” a telling change. For in Lish’s version, the narrator, an insomniac woman who walks out to her backyard in the middle of the night to find a troubled neighbor at war with slugs, comes away from the story with only the smallest changes in her perceptions about her life. She returns to her husband, hears him snoring, then says:
I don’t know. It made me think of those things that Sam Lawton was dumping powder on.
I thought for a minute of the world outside my house, and then I didn’t have any more thoughts except the thought that I had to hurry up and sleep.
In Carver’s version, the woman’s nocturnal sojourn has given her a new perspective on her life and her marriage. She returns to bed and is moved to talk to her husband about her love for him along with her fears about their relationship:
I felt we were going nowhere fast, and it was time to admit it, even though there was maybe no help for it.
Just so many words, you might think. But I felt better for having said them.
He’s still asleep during all of this, but she realizes that that doesn’t matter, and that, in fact, “he already knew everything I was saying, maybe better than I knew, and had for a long time.” The story is about a dark night of the soul, a revelation, a moment of intense awareness that leads to no apparent solution or change except for the profound internal change in the narrator. Lish’s version gives us only the faintest whisper of such a realization.
Many of these stories, as Carver notes in his letters to Lish, are also deeply connected with Carver’s recovery from alcoholism. “If It Please You,” for instance, is about a former drinker, James Packer, who has overcome his desire for booze by taking up needlework, something that another alcoholic recommends as a way to fill up the time formerly devoted to drinking. It’s an activity he finds satisfying. He also knits things that connect him to others’ lives—“caps and scarves and mittens for the grandchildren,” “two woolen ponchos which he and Edith wore when they walked on the beach,” and an afghan that he and his wife sleep under.
In the end of this story, James is full of bad feelings: anger at some “hippies” who cheated at bingo earlier that night; and fear about his wife, who may have uterine cancer. In Carver’s story, he tries to pray—to take solace in another activity endorsed by AA, which demands belief in a higher power. The story ends with a powerful meditation on prayer, and a real spiritual change for James:
He felt something stir inside him again, but it was not anger. He lay as if waiting. Then something left him and something else took its place. He found tears in his eyes. He began praying again, words and parts of speech piling up in a torrent in his mind. He went slower. He put the words together, one after the other, and prayed. This time he was able to include the girl and the hippie in his prayers. Let them have it, yes, drive vans and be arrogant and laugh and wear rings, even cheat if they wanted. Meanwhile, prayers were needed. They could use them too, even his, especially his, in fact. “If it please you,” he said in the new prayers for all of them, the living and the dead.
Lish appears to understand or sympathize with none of this. In his version, called “After the Denim,” there’s no prayer at all, and even the knitting is depicted only as an expression of lonely anger, the desperate act of a man on a shipwrecked boat (recalling a photograph James sees earlier in the story):
Holding the tiny needle to the light, James Packer stabbed at the eye with a length of blue silk thread. Then he set to work—stitch after stitch—making believe he was waving like the man on the keel.
4: It’s All Right to Cry
In his drastic cutting of Carver’s stories, Lish evinces a real discomfort with, or perhaps blindness to, the sacramental—moments of transcendent awareness, spiritual awakening, and yearning for reconciliation. His aesthetic is one of surfaces. Perhaps he’s aiming to make Carver’s stories more like Hemingway’s, with only the tip of the iceberg visible and the weight concealed. But mostly what he does is lop off the bulk of the berg, leaving just a floating ice cube.
He cuts out the moments that are most tender and beautiful. For example, in “Gazebo,” a story no less heartrending and sad in Carver’s version, a woman talks with her adulterous husband about a time when she believed that their marriage would last a lifetime:
I remember you were wearing cutoffs that day, and I remember standing there looking at the gazebo and thinking about those musicians when I happened to glance down at your bare legs. I thought to myself, I’ll love those legs even when they’re old and thin and the hair on them has turned white. I’ll love them even then, I thought, they’ll still be my legs. You know what I’m saying? Duane?
It’s a wonderful moment, and a sad one, a moment of palpable love and lost hopes. It’s the type of detail that sticks in your head, that you remember years after reading a story. Lish cuts it.
In “Beginners,” a contemporary version of Plato’s Symposium in which two couples sit around a table with gin and tonic and talk about love, Mel McGinnis tells a story that he thinks illustrates what real love is. In that story, an elderly husband and wife named Henry and Anna Gates are hit by a drunk driver and nearly die. Mel, a doctor, gets to know Henry as he and Anna recover in separate rooms, and Mel is moved by his account of their long marriage. The couple used to be snowed in alone all winter in their country home, and each night they would play records and dance together before falling asleep under piles of quilts. Henry, incapacitated in the hospital, is depressed because he’s separated from his wife. When they are finally reunited, though, the scene brings observers to tears:
She gave a little smile and her face lit up. Out came her hand from under the seat. It was bluish and bruised-looking. Henry took the hand in his hands. He held it and kissed it. Then he said, “Hello, Anna. How’s my babe? Remember me? Tears started down her cheeks. She nodded. “I’ve missed you,” he said. She kept nodding.
As I read this scene, I found myself crying, not only because of the beauty of the moment, but also out of a sadness that this scene was axed from the version of this story that most people know. In Lish’s version, Mel’s story culminates with the rather mundane observation that the husband’s “heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”
This version of the story doesn’t bring us to tears, and maybe that’s how Lish intended it, fearing what he called Carver’s “creeping sentimentality.” But, of course, there’s a difference between sentiment and sentimentality. The point of Mel’s story is not that everyone does or should or can love each other as the Gateses do; Carver even leaves open the possibility that the story isn’t entirely true. But in this contemporary re-working of Plato, the story of Anna and Henry is a kind of idealized vision of love, one that beguiles and inspires the four people in the story, who have been hurt but live on to love again.
Carver himself was hurt by what Lish did to his stories, judging by the letters he wrote him. That hurt must have been complicated enormously by the critical success that the altered stories went on to attain. What’s inspiring, though, is how Carver held on to his own vision: the stories in his 1983 collection Cathedral hew to the model of those in Beginners, and include the story “A Small, Good Thing” essentially in the version originally prepared for Beginners.
In this story, a little boy named Scotty is struck by a car on the day of his own birthday party. He falls into a coma and, after several days in the hospital, dies. His mother had ordered a birthday cake for him a few days before the accident, and the baker who has made it begins calling with nasty messages because Scotty’s parents have not picked it up.
Lish amputates the second half of the story, which he titles “The Bath”: Scotty never dies, and the story ends ambiguously, with Scotty’s mother getting another phone call from the baker.
But in Carver’s version, after Scotty’s death his parents go to the shop and confront the baker. Though he is initially defensive, the baker is suddenly struck with shame. He apologizes and gives the grieving parents hot rolls to eat, telling them that “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” The story ends with another sacramental moment, one of communion between these broken people:
“Here, 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.
It’s all right to come together in times of sadness, this story assures us. It’s all right to risk being sentimental by entering into the sacramental. It’s all right to cry. And it’s all right to write a story that might make someone cry, that might squeeze someone’s heart with horror or sadness, or with small, good things like eating, dancing, knitting, or prayer.
The subsequent evolution of Carver’s career makes it clear that he realized it was okay to write such stories. The publication of Beginners offers a lavish bounty of them.