I imagine Gordon Lish as Raymond Carver’s eyebrow waxer. Carver walks in to Salon Lish with a raging unibrow, only to emerge with a pencil-thin Joan Crawford look. HAHAHAHAHA.
Well, now. I’m being a little hard on both Carver’s unedited writing and Lish’s “generous” edits of Carver’s stories. Carver aficionados can’t seem to agree whether their professional relationship was primarily beneficial or destructive. But can most of us agree that Carver needed Lish to a certain extent, and that without him, Carver would not have been Carver? Few of us knew the difference between Carver un-Lished and Lished-up Carver, however, until they had a bit of a falling out—a literary divorce that provided the foundation for Carver’s widow to publish his original stories.
There’s one story that readers seem to focus on most when pointing fingers at Lish’s heavy hand: “The Bath,” otherwise known as “A Small Good Thing.” Mostly the same stuff happens in both stories—a little boy gets hit by a car on his birthday; his parents wait for him to come out of his coma; the baker who baked the boy’s birthday cake keeps calling their house wanting to know when they’re going to come pick up the cake.
There are plenty of differences too, but the one that’s immediately apparent is that “The Bath” does not include the boy’s name. He’s no longer “Scotty.” He’s “the birthday boy.”
To be fair, this may not have been Lish’s call. Carver published a revised version after “The Bath,”—“A Small Good Thing”—before the third version—also “A Small Good Thing”—was posthumously published decades later. (Anyone out there know the real scoop?) No matter who made what call, more often than not, readers tend to say that the specifics in “A Small Good Thing” make it a better story, and that the proper names add rather than subtract from the reading experience.
But why? Why in fiction would this work better, when readers are charged with identifying themselves with characters enough to evoke sympathy and empathy? Doesn’t a nameless version pretty much say, “INSERT YOUR NAME HERE”? Wouldn’t the omission of proper names make a story more universal? Sometimes, but not really. Or maybe, yes. Or not? Not here, anyway.
Jacques Derrida knows why. He had a thing about proper names, proper nouns—the ultimate signifiers, or so we tend to think. He played around with them. He liked them. He liked the illusion they create—that one particular name signifies one particular person, or thing, or place, when of course that’s not always the case. Just ask John Smith. No, the other John Smith. Not that one, either. Keep going—
In true Derrida fashion, his philosophy about proper names pretty much says: “It’s precisely because of this that this cannot be.” A catch-22. (But we’ll get more into that when we talk about our short fiction for this week.) A proper name is only possible because it is impossible—no name is really, honestly, truly specific to one person, because there’s always a referent, even if we only look at the letters that compose it. A truly unique name could not be understood as a sign that is signifying something. Now, Prince’s symbol: there’s a truly proper name for you. I wonder if Derrida was a fan.
But the big deal? A proper name has to be repeatable. I don’t know how he came up with this part, but there it is. And because it has to be repeatable, that means it can be attached to something or someone else, making it not really unique. Though I must say: having a kid who meets other kids makes me realize how hard some parents try to come up with names for their kids that they would trademark if they could.
So names are more about what they embody, I guess. Paris probably felt pretty unique for hundreds of years, before there was Paris, Tennessee and Paris, Georgia and Paris, Every-Other-State-Except-Maybe-Hawaii. But all roads lead back to that original Paris—the referent. I know this because my mother could not drive through some backwoods town named Paris without joking, “Don’t ever say I never took you to Paris!”
Yeah, well. Apparently we crave the idea of names being attached to people, places, and things, because it gives us the illusion that we’re clinging to something. We can refer to names, and that’s a comfortable thing. Undergrads do not have to repeatedly refer to “the birthday boy” throughout a term paper. “Scotty” gives the poor kid an identity, a life to lose.
I’m not sure if Derrida was completely right about this, though. Because of Jeanette Winterson. Her novel Written On the Body is one of my favorite reads ever—a brilliantly sculpted aesthetic that is also technical and funny and sexy? Get out of town!—and the book would have been entirely different if the narrator had been named. Heck—the narrator’s gender isn’t even revealed. And although I did indeed crave the impossible moment of attaching the narrator to a name, it created a splendid tension that has never been present in any other book I’ve read.
Enough of that. I have exhausted my personal attention span for discussing philosophy. Music and literature are more playful. So after the playlist, check out what’s in this week’s issue. Hint: there are a lot of proper nouns.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” – U2 (video from the concert I saw last year!)
Nels Hanson’s “The Moth and the Butterfly” is reminiscent of Catch-22 in both subject and style—a playful romp through post-war memories, with natural dialogue that brings the past to the forefront. Connections are made, subtly and not-so-subtly—Audie Murphy died in a plane crash, let’s not forget, and his Jimmy Hoffa ties were long suspected of bringing him down—between a multitude of cultural markers, emphasizing how these things can take on more meaning when everyday existence has little structure, and when history gets hazy. (Hanson earns points for mentioning one of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers.) Among these markers you’ll find: Beau Geste, Longfellow, Enola Gay, Virginia, Washington, Boeing, Osaka, Kabala, National Geographic, Reagan, Guam, Hawaii, Evangeline, Wednesday, Eleanor Roosevelt, Days of Wine and Roses, Mozart, The Magic Flute, Edgar Allan Poe, Old French, Masonic, Mona Lisa, Nat King Cole, Audie Murphy, Kennedy, Lincoln, Oswald, God, California, Golden Gate Park, Edison, Robinson Jeffers’ Hawk Tower, The Last Supper, Van Gogh, B-17, Camels, The Fountainhead, Edgar Cayce, Jesus, Cowboy Hall of Fame.
“Nathaniel Thurhurst” is not light material; don’t let the small stature of this flash fool you. Alex Pruteanu has woven together a story in two parts, and in both parts, proper names serve the purpose of making pain and recollection less personal, and therefore more palatable. Pruteanu’s prose sweetly lilts, but signifiers—To the Lighthouse, Ursa Major, Joseph, Genesis, Benjamin, Laertes, Ophelia, As the Stars Fall—keep the story locked in a pseudo-reality.
I have been waiting for the right week to publish “A Girl In Every Painting.” It’s one of those poems I’ve kept in my periphery, and also one I didn’t want to get lost if paired with incompatible fiction pieces. But I think that the era of Hanson’s story and the dreamlike quality of Pruteanu’s flash work well with Deana Prock’s poem, which is a delight to read, and read again. Get lost searching for an Easter egg, a Carmen Miranda hat, and six dogs all named Daisy in Henri Matisse’s Promenade Among the Olive Trees.
Photo Source: Jacques Derrida, Marxist Update