Monday, December 14, 2009

Self-defeat, self-destruction, and fame

This post isn't a review of the new Raymond Carver biography, as I'm only about halfway through--indeed, at the moment, I'm at the nadir of Carver's life, when he is busy drinking from morning until night, bankrupt, and whacking his wife on the side of the head with a wine bottle. At the moment, I can barely even think about rereading Carver's work (which is what I planned to do after reading the bio), so odious, cowardly, hypocritical, and repulsive is the man at this stage of his life. Presumably things will soon start getting better, and my sympathy for the master of the short story will return.

But Jesus Christ. What a fucking bummer. Carver comes off very poorly here, as does almost everyone he knows--drinking buddies, enablers, philanderers, abusers, liars, fools. And Gordon Lish (whose editing I do believe improved Carver's work enormously, as Rhian and I previously discussed in these posts) would appear to be a total ass.

And yet...these monstrous years created a tremendous, if small, body of work--some of the best stories of the past half a century. I find myself in the position of not wanting it to be true, as there is nothing that enrages me more than that particular masculine insecurity that surfaces as self-pity and disrespect for women. But it is, and it often seems to be. How come weak men so often create great art?

Here's a passage from the book that really got my blood boiling. Carver is palling around with John Cheever in Iowa, who is busy drinking himself to death:

Cheever told Ray, "Fiction should throw light and air on a situation, and it shouldn't be vile. If somebody's getting a blow job in a balcony in a theater in Times Square, this may be a fact, but it's not the truth." Cheever believed fiction is "our most intimate and acute means of communication, at a profound level, about our deepest apprehensions and intuitions on the meaning of life and death." Both writers also disdained the so-called experimental fiction of the era.

What a bunch of horseshit! How convenient for Cheever, denying that the squalor of his own life could be regarded as "the truth" (Cheever and Carver got to the liquor store early, to make sure they were the first guys in the door), then dissing the fiction of the era designed specifically to explore the nuances of what he claimed to hold most dear. The hypocrisy and insecurity are staggering.

And yet...Cheever! And Carver! I love what these men did--they are heroes. And my heroes are bastards.

Of course, if we go around holding our favorite artists to high standards of personal behavior, there will be little art left for us to love. But why should that be? How can such personal weakness give way to such stunning brilliance? You can tell, obviously, that I have a horse in this race: I want to believe a nice fella can be a genius, too. And sure, I suppose it's possible. But it is sad to see how a writer so original could have been living, daily, the most boring imaginable cliché.

24 comments:

lisa peet said...

Righteous. I just got the book but am a little afraid to read it for just the reasons you mention. I guess by the time the Cheever bio rolled in this summer I was used to the Cheever anti-myth, but this one sounds harsh. My guy is reading it but he hasn't said anything yet.

jrlennon said...

It is a terrifying read. In many ways, I sympathize deeply with the man--I share his deep fear of things falling apart. But at the same time, he seemed addicted to destroying them.

I'm at the bit where he kicks the bottle, and it is indeed a sunnier picture.

I'm really very surprised at how many of Carver's friends in this era are people Rhian and I sort of know, or used to know. It's very odd to see them in this context--I knew them as older, wiser, defeated and reborn people...here, they are very different. Just now R. and I were reminiscing about a party we attended, thrown by one of Carver's drinking buddies from the seventies...I now recognize it as the horrible disfigured ghost of the parties in this book. Suffice to say it involved a dead cat, lots of crying, and cabinets filled with paper plates.

5 Red Pandas said...

It is troubling to read these accounts of lives of writers who do so much so well on the page, but manage to screw up their lives. Then again, they're alcoholics. Can we expect them to behave better just because they're writers?

Which isn't to say that being an alcoholic makes you a bastard, but it certainly doesn't help!

Are you/ have you read Mary Karr's memoir? I got it but haven't read it yet. She also talks about her alcoholism.

rmellis said...

I decided long ago to separate my feelings for a writer's work from the writer him or herself. Many times the best writers are wholly self-absorbed jerks.

Incidentally, I recently reread Carver's non-Lished "A Small Good Thing" because of Stephen King's review of the biography. King went on about how much better the original unedited Carver is, how full of "heart" it is. But you know what: "A Small Good Thing" is really BAD. BAD BAD: sentimental, gooey, and false.

It reminds me of that offensive Charles Baxter story, "Surprised by Joy," about parents finding happiness again after their baby dies. The fictional killing and maiming of children in order to manufacture some kind of hokey Redemption afterward makes me want to vomit.

jrlennon said...

You used to like that Baxter story! And "A Small, Good Thing," too. What happened?

The Lished version of the latter is called "The Bath," BTW, and it's in "What We Talk About etc."

I'm beginning to think that Carver's great life achievement was the stories he allowed Lish to edit, and Lish's great life achievement was to edit those stories. (The exception is "Errand," which is brilliant, IMHO, and Lish never touched it.) I know Tess Gallagher is determined to extract Lish from Carver's reputation, but I don't think it's possible. At least in terms of those stories, the two are inseparable.

jon said...

Can a nice guy be a brilliant writer? Yeah, the question is both haunting (meaning it haunts me) and horribly misplaced. Writers like Cheever and Carver were damaged long before they started writing. I'm not sure there's no relationship between the damage and the writing. But it is weird how writers who appear to have no insight at all in life have tremendous insight and empathy when they set pen to paper. I think of Joyce and Shakespeare who as people have none of the qualities they have as writers. Joyce's letters mostly concern money, or his demand that his books be published on his birthday. They are petty. Yet his fear of thunder is transmogrified into the long thunderwords of FW, and Vico's myth of the thunder and man's creation of god. Shakespeare appears anyway to be a litigious businessman. of course there has to be more to them than this. But in the end, we are stuck with the biography and the work. On the miniscule scale of myself, I see my actual life and concerns only palely reflected in my writing. A friend of mine met Vonnegut at a cocktail party in the 60's. he said his only interest was the copy of The Sirens of Titan he found on the host's bookshelf.

jrlennon said...

I guess my greatest worry, reading this book, is that our appreciation for the work is tainted, insidiously, by the notion that, if its creator suffered so, then it must be good. This presents me with two concerns--the first is that, when I go back and reread Carver (it has been fifteen years), I will discover the stories to have been overrated all along.

The second, though, is more insidious--and that is the possibility that our literate culture has valued the romance of personal destruction and masculine imperfection for so long that we no longer recognize shallow work when we see it. I don't think I'm going to find Carver shallow this time around, but I must admit that I can't stand Hemingway anymore. I wonder if Hemingway's reputation is in decline--if our appreciation of him was the result of social mores that are now defunct. And I wonder if Carver's reputation will suffer the same decline in the decades to come.

rmellis said...

What happened? I read a lot more, and I had kids.

I think for a long time I was impressed with the power that Baxter story had over me: the depiction of the child in it is particular and excruciating, and to this day I can't get images from it out my head. I no longer think that's necessarily a good thing. Baxter takes your normal, humane tendency to feel emotion for an especially adorable fictional baby, then punishes you by killing it off in a vivid and horrifying manner, and then gets you to go along with the "recovery" at the end. All for what? The moral of the story is: Bad things happen, but life goes on.

Thanks for the insight, Chuck!!!

Kevin said...

re: "A Small Good Thing" is really BAD. BAD BAD: sentimental, gooey, and false.

I've thought this for a while and worried that I was the only one. It's also boring. Details are good and all, but in this you're just inundated with meaningless detail, so nothing really stands out.

"The Bath," on the other had, is great.

Fledgemom said...

Twenty-five years ago, my journalism prof angrily told me I didn't have to be self-destructive to be a good writer. I've had long bouts of healthy happiness (lucky me) and some self-destructive times as well, and I'm not sure I was a better writer when I was miserable and crazy. (Then again, I'm still "aspiring" after all these years.) But yeah, I think you can be a great guy and a kickass writer. There's a ton of gender ideas to address in this thread too, but I won't go there now.

jon said...

it's been years since I've read Carver, but I remember when he was hot, alive, and publishing in the New Yorker. i had heard of him but not read him. One day I picked up the New Yorker and started to read a story and thought, 'this must be by raymond carver'. and it was. many many years later when I was first separated from my first wife, i found myself sitting on a friend's lawn with all of my earthly possessions, including a couch, waiting for him to arrive. When he did he handed me Cathedrals, and I read the story about the divorced guy with all of his stuff on the lawn. it seemed very real to me. could he suck? maybe. but he is very much of a time and place, and that makes for good books. maybe after all these years he will appear to be mannered, a romanticizing boozer. in the way 'Hill Street Blues' probably doesn't seem like a hard hitting urban cop story anymore.

rmellis said...

Jon, I don't like the particular story I mentioned above, but I don't think Carver sucks, at all. I do think he had some bad, oozily sentimental tendencies that were edited out by Lish -- and that the idea that he was a great, warm-hearted, maximalist writer who was edited into a chilly postmodernist (the idea forwarded by S. King) is false.

Carver+Lish created a new and brilliant voice that was, yeah, echt 80's. But there's nothing wrong with that.

jon said...

rhian, yeah, i know you were talking about that particular story and not dismissing carver. i have always been bothered by the lish thing though. i don't want them to be lennon/mccartney! i want carver to be great w/out lish. alas...

jrlennon said...

Don't forget "Errand," "Errand" is ace...

sjwoo said...

I think Carver's real-life nastiness is also a reflection of the times -- guys like Richard Yates and James Crumley were also notorious drunks, and it was more accepted back then that writing = drinking.

I'm totally with you, Rhian -- "A Small, Good Thing" can't hold a candle to "The Bath." But it's funny -- I, too, used to feel a great warmth toward ASGT and preferred it to the severe Lish edit, but it was years ago, in my early twenties. Now that I'm older, I just really dig that menace in TB. I think the Altman film ruined it for me, too -- nowadays, whenever I think of ASGT, I can't help but see Lyle Lovett.

That comparison TNY did a few years ago, where they showed the Lish edit of Beginners/What We Talk About was just completely, absolutely eye-opening. Lish saw that incredibly stylistic story inside that bigger, arguably overwritten story. It's really just amazing, how he saw the few good trees in that forest. I guess that's why he's the editor.

Russell said...

If you do drink too much and sleep with groupies (prostitutes), you might one day perform "Sick Again" at the Knebworth Festival (1979, Led Zeppelin; the original, on Physical Graffiti, was just as good). On the other hand, if you've refused entirely to engage in life's messy things, you might one day write Beast in the Jungle. Speaking of Henry James—nonalcoholic, asexual, more insight into women than women themselves—I decided recently to re-read the Spoils of Poynton (1897, what some would argue is his first "late" work). What is most amazing to me is how autobiographical it seems. Fleda Vetch is so tantalizingly on the precipice of simply "screwing" Owen Gereth in her father's apartment that I feel almost compelled (now that the book is out of copyright) to rewrite the thing so that they can "let themselves go" (to echo Mrs. Gereth's dictum to Fleda). But it works as is: I wouldn't have this urge to see Owen and Fleda devour each other if not for the disciplined (obsessive) way in which the agony of inaction is portrayed. And here's what I'm up to (in this comment): Carver's stories are meticulously observed meditations on the messiness of life (see the paradox?). It's as if he—unable to live a good life—"controlled" the chaos by putting what he wanted to on the page. His editor, by making things even more spare, turned some beautiful, worried-over prose into what might almost be called poetry. That we don't have to live his life—or be responsible for his partygoers, demons, jilted partners, or paper plates in the cupboard—is consolation enough. I'm thankful that he had just enough energy to put his imagination on paper. As for the normal ones among us: be grateful but be disciplined. We all have so much to say.

jrlennon said...

Russell--Josh perhaps?--well put. And as predicted, I'm feeling a little more warm about Carver after finishing, a few minutes ago, reading the book. Clearly he made some amends at the end and his natural kindness emerged. I can't believe you have read Spoils of Poynton twice.

I'm reminded, as I often am, of Rhian's oft-repeated remark that it's not enough to be great, you have to be great at the right place and time. Carver was all three, which is why he's CARVER.

jrlennon said...

By the way, sjwoo, I guess it's OK to say this since he's gone, but the dead cat party mentioned earlier was in fact at Crumley's place in Pattee Canyon, in Missoula. He was a sweet and troubled soul--didn't know him well, but it would seem he never shook off those heavy days.

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Russell said...

Yes: a second helping of the Spoils of Poynton. But it's a short work and we just moved house. The anxiety (and guilt) surrounding our "things" (the original title for the book when it was syndicated in Atlantic Monthly was "The Old Things") drove me to the book. Then, when I read your post, the gulf between working-class, smoking, drinking, heterosexual Carver and the patrician, celibate gourmand seemed unfathomable. And around the same time Henry James was writing his late-stage masterworks (1902-1904), struggling to sell anything, the top-selling writer was another working-class, self-destructive, alcoholic guy from the Pacific Northwest, Jack London. Meanwhile, O. Henry (writer of one of the few good Christmas tales, as another poster pointed out), fresh out of prison, would go on to do pretty well before drinking himself to death. What does it all mean? I don't know, but maybe it's easier to build a fantasy around the tragic writer-hero than it is around the type of writer who lives a good (comfortable) life (think Updike and Oates). Henry James has been appreciated mainly by his peers and his peers' progeny (other writers). Raymond Carver has been appreciated period. As for Hemingway, products were once named for him. Imagine a Joyce Carol Oates perfume or a John Updike cologne. There's a difference there, and it must have something to do with popular culture. [PS. Spoils of Poynton features an alcoholic: Fleda Vetch's father, 57 going on 70, a man who "doddered after breakfast off to his club," returning at midnight, looking at his daughter in a funny, hard way and "not risking long words." James apparently didn't think much of alcoholics, who, to him, were babies with their bottles.]

jrlennon said...

I wouldn't dream of leaving the house without dabbing a bit of Updike on my neck.

Russell said...

Me neither; it not only smells good but it helps to keep my psoriasis at bay.

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