Thursday, May 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 16: Raymond Carver, Why Don’t You Dance? (#91)

Today's selection is no longer available at the LoA website, but I found a copy of one version here.

Raymond Carver, "Why Don’t You Dance?" (1978?) from Raymond Carver: Collected Stories:
When I was at Bard College, my fiction writing class was convulsed for one afternoon with the revelation that Raymond Carver's stories were heavily edited by Gordon Lish, so who was the genius of that minimalist style? I still remember Mona Simpson's Solomonic wisdom: if Lish could've written those stories, he could've, but he didn't. I was never sure whether she believed that Carver was responsible or that both were responsible.

Which is a long, name-droppy introduction because the Library of America collection of Carver's stories includes the published versions and a few of Carver's originals. But the only version I've read is the Lish-edited version.

But it might be my favorite Carver story. The first line is immediately arresting in its confusing material and incredibly simple grammar: "In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard." There's nice balance in the bookending of the locating phrases--"In the kitchen.... in his front yard"; and his actions are simple--pouring and looking. But the sum total required me to reread it to try to figure out what's inside and what's outside.

Which is kind of the central theme of the story: after some mysterious crisis (divorce? death?), the character has brought all his furniture outside, but arranged most of it as if it were still inside. He's connected all the electric cords and even gotten water outside. But what's really inside him, his history, remains forever mysterious. And as the girl discovers at the end, when she's trying to talk out the inside of the story, she never can bring out what the story has in it.

The outside/inside issue also gets a workout in the floating POV: we start with him and his thoughts; get the boy and girl who come to his unusual yard sale, where we only get a hint of their thoughts; and then we get a lot of surface skating that could, technically, be from any POV, with only very little drops of personality (a question gets marked as "preposterous," which it is from the man's POV); and finally we end up with something of the girl's POV, as she tries to talk abou the story.

So the floating, mostly shallow, vague POV keeps us at arm's-length from the terrible things that have clearly happened here.

Another technique that Carver uses is something that makes me reconsider what I wrote in my reading of his "Kindling": there I wrote that Carver often gives us the step-by-step actions. But here, the story resembles more a scratched record, giving us skipping fragments that occasionally repeat. For instance, the first section has the man in his house looking out, the second has the boy and girl driving up, and the third has the man coming back from the store. But wait, when did he leave? Oh, Carver, you fragmentary rascal.

This fragmentary nature comes out also in the repetitious writing, which Carver can get away with in such a short piece. (Although Wodehouse also gets away with repetition--Bertie thinks about something and then says it--though there it has a different effect and rationale, to wit, the comedy of Bertie's external and internal coherence. He doesn't pretend to be something other than a twit.) For a big instance of repetition, here's the man telling the kids his plans:
"I'm going to sit down. I'm going to sit down on that sofa."
The man sat on the sofa, leaned back, and stared at the boy and the girl.
Sure, eventually we hear more than just sitting on the sofa--leaning back and staring! Things are really happening now!. But there's repetition all over here, as when the girl notes that he must be desperate. What's the effect of all this repetition? It makes me sad because it seems like these people are exhausted by life (in the man's case) or keep hitting up against the same limit of expression (in the girl's case).

There's a Will Ferrell-starring movie based on this story with the title Everything Must Go, which is a phrase that occurs in the piece itself. For a long time I thought the emphasis was on "Everything," as if this activity was all consuming. Now I see the emphasis on that "must," as if there's no options or alternatives presented in this story.

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