What We Talk About When We Talk About a Couple of Carver's Short Stories
Image by Courtney Nicholas
Yesterday I was roasted for a Comedy Central program that will air on Labor Day. All the comics at the roast were great and seeing them perform their monologues amazed me. I was just happy to be in their company because they were so skilled. Each one was experienced at performing in front of a live audience, whether it was in stand-up or sketch comedy. Comedians have an way of working that involves honing their material in front of a crowd. But I realized during the roast, that essentially they are writers—they just write with their performances in mind.
Short story writing is a different beast than live comedy, but in some ways it resembles what the comedians did at my roast. There is usually one protagonist guiding the story and there are often some insights given along the way about the human condition. When you take away the laughter, the jokes at the roast achieved the same things. Raymond Carver is generally regarded as a master of the form—he took the Hemingway iceberg theory about simple surfaces that concealed great depth and mixed that with working-class humor, alcohol, and cigarettes (or, as he insisted on spelling that word, "cigarets"). His story “The Bath” isn’t the funniest story in the world, but there is something about his writing that makes the death of a kid by a car accident not only interesting, but entertaining.
In 1981, he published “The Bath” in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, then revised the story and changed the titled to “A Small, Good Thing” (“AS, GT”) for his collection Cathedral. What We Talk About is noted for the minimalism of its stories. It was Carver’s first major success and it earned him a reputation as a godfather of the minimalist movement of the 80s. (It was also heavily edited by Gordon Lish.) But the revisions made to “The Bath” to turn it into “AS, GT” show that he was moving away from the dark, purposely vague, and cold world of minimalism into a more precise, redemptive, and descriptive form. The changes Carver made between the story told in "The Bath" and “AS, GT” are a perfect to dissect to learn about him and his evolution as a writer.
One of the most obvious differences is the use of common nouns in “The Bath” and the use of proper nouns in “AS, GT,” which makes the latter a much more defined piece with more distinct characters. In “The Bath” the only two characters with names are the dying boy, Scotty, and his mother, Ann. But for the most part Ann is identified as “the mother” or “the wife” and Scotty is referred to as “the boy,” or ironically as “the birthday boy.” The characters are difficult to penetrate in “The Bath” compared to “AS, GT,” in which almost everyone gets a name except for the baker, and everyone is given a distinct personality. This difference addresses the core divergence between the stories: “The Bath” is about isolation and menace in everyday life, while “AS, GT” is about connection and redemption.
In “AS, GT” every character is given more personality so that the reality of the death can be more universal. In “The Bath,” the black family in the waiting room is described with few details—Carver doesn’t even specify that they are black, and he never reveals what happened to their child. At the end of the scene the father just shakes his head and says, “Our Nelson” to himself. There is no engagement with Ann in this version. In “AS, GT” there is an extended dialogue between Ann and the father. The black child’s circumstances are explained, and it is made clear that Ann and the black family are in the same situation. Ann and the black father empathize with each other. When Ann learns later that the black child (named Franklin in “AS, GT”) died, it makes the imminent death of her own son more universal. It shows that the pain she is feeling can be and is experienced by everyone.
The difference in the titles also addresses this core issue. In the earlier version, “The Bath” refers to the bath that the husband takes and the one the wife intends to take when they each go home to relieve themselves from the pain of the hospital. A bath may symbolize baptism or return to the womb or rebirth. Bathing is also a solitary act, while the title of “AS, GT” is linked to the communal act of eating. The birth references in “The Bath” might also be ironic, because the boy is hit on his birthday.
In “The Bath,” the couple cannot connect at the hospital and they both go home to be relieved of their pain. The lack of a bond between the characters in “The Bath” is obvious:
They sat like that for a while, watching the boy, not talking. From time to time he squeezed her hand until she took it away.
"I’ve been praying," she said.
"Me too," the father said. "I’ve been praying too."
The couple doesn’t even look at each other in that scene. Compare to “AS, GT”:
Howard sat in the chair next to her chair. They looked at each other. He wanted to say something else and reassure her . . .
"I’ve been praying," she said. . .
"I’ve already prayed," he said. "I prayed this afternoon—yesterday afternoon, I mean—after you called, while I was driving to the hospital. I’ve been praying," he said.
"That’s good," she said. For the first time, she felt they were together in it, this trouble. She realized with a start that, until now, it had only been happening to her and to Scotty. She hadn’t let Howard into it, though he was there and needed all along. She felt glad to be his wife
The feelings of the character are related with more detail in “AS, GT” and the characters connect here in a way that doesn’t happen in the earlier piece. “The Bath,” is about how the couple doesn’t connect in the face of a crisis, and never do. The baths in the story represent their desire for isolation from each other. “AS, GT” shows the couple finding it hard to connect, but as the story progresses, they come together and in the end they bond in the presence of the baker. The biscuits in that scene represent their union and redemption.
Because “AS, GT” is twice as long as “The Bath,” a whole new storyline is added in the second half. But the beginning of “AS, GT,” which closely resembles “The Bath,” is also more developed than its earlier incarnation. In “AS, GT,” Carver is concerned with creating suspense around the child’s life. The parent’s fear is constantly noted, where it is only implied in “The Bath.” The doctor in “AS, GT” is a more established character, too. He has a name and is constantly giving them conflicting messages. He will tell them the child isn’t in a coma, it’s all fine, but later he'll say that the child might be in a coma, but then he’ll say that everything is OK. In “The Bath,” the child’s lack of progress is only lightly touched on because his condition is never resolved. The child is still alive at the end of “The Bath,” so that the baker’s call feels more ominous. When he says the call has to do with Scotty, he is talking about the cake, but it could just as well be the voice of a death saying that their child has died. In “AS, GT” the parents’ fear and pain is heightened so that they can have somewhere to go at the end. They go through the terrible trial of losing a child so that they can eventually come together in a more profound way. “The Bath,” however, achieves its power by being ambiguous.
In “AS, GT,” the baker has his own character arc, while in “The Bath,” he is mostly a bodiless demon that haunts the couple. From the beginning of “AS, GT,” he is described with more detail. When ordering the cake, Ann even contemplates the baker’s past life and wonders if he has children and can understand what she is going through. This is a setup for the baker’s admission at the end of the story where he says that he never had children and can’t remember what he was before he was a baker. The telephone calls are mentioned often at the hospital in order to remind the reader of the baker and the couple’s misunderstanding about his intentions. The phone calls are no longer used to close the story, they are used to set up Ann’s rage in order to get the couple over to the bakery. Carver explicitly stated that Ann and the baker do not connect in the first scene in order to pay it off by connecting them at the end. In “The Bath” there is no set up because the pay off is not the same. The phone calls are not discussed so that they feel more ambiguous and ominous. In “The Bath,” the baker is sketched very lightly in the beginning so that he can play the disembodied haunter.
The change in emphasis and style in the stories is characteristic of an overall change in Carver’s writing. The move away from inarticulate despair of his earlier minimalist work is changed into a more descriptive, redemptive style. In the title story of Cathedral the protagonist learns to sympathize with a blind man that he had previously written off. The arc is similar to that of the couple’s in “AS, GT.” After “AS, GT” Carver no longer rewrote his older stories. He was moving in a new direction and he was ready to leave his old work behind him. But it was not necessarily a move for the better. “The Bath” has an implicit power that “AS, GT” lacks because in the latter everything is made plain and the ending is too soft. The abrupt, haunting ending of “The Bath” is much more unique and suggestive.
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