In his brief “This Week in Fiction” chat with New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/08/this-week-in-fiction-t-c-boyle.html), T. C. Boyle says that his current story in the magazine, ”Birnam Wood,” is based on a remembered event: ”I lived in that shack and I lived in that mansion with the pool table, too. This is fiction, but there are autobiographical elements here as well. I think of it as a memory piece.” Indeed, “Birnam Wood” may be a “memory piece,” but is it a story?”
In response to my blog post on Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker story “Amundsen” last week, I am happy to say that several of my readers joined the discussion with comments. T.C. Boyle’s new story provides me with an opportunity hopefully to advance that discussion with Jon, Steve, and Jay--which seems to center basically on the issue Jon’s argument for “maintaining that basic sense of the author having created characters we respond to in a flesh and blood sort of way. Otherwise, it seems like we become one of those types who read fiction, not as an inherent pleasure, but as a necessary chore just to offer an object for dry analysis.”
Well, I certainly would not like to think of myself as “one of those types” who read fiction not for pleasure, but as an onerous opportunity for a “dry analysis.” Jon says that he has “met people who say they don't really like to read, but only do it because they enjoy analysis (they're usually coming from the perspective of one of the "isms.”) And certainly I am aware that in the world of academic criticism today, there are those who are more interested in theory or social issues than in literature, but I have never been accused of that.
Jon seems to advocate that we should relate to characters as if they were real people engaged in actions that simulate actual events in the real world. And indeed, this is what T. C. Boyle seems to suggest about his recent “memory piece,” that is, that “Birnam Wood” recounts something that happened to him--after a fashion. Boyle is a natural old-fashioned storyteller; as I have noted in this blog before, he knows how to tell a plotted tale in an engaging and entertaining way. I have sat in a theatre full of people and watched him hold the audience spellbound as if they were huddled around a fireplace in an old Irish cottage.
However, in this new piece in The New Yorker, he seems to have chosen to write something less like a story and more like a remembered event. I would like to compare “Birnam Wood” to a couple of well-known stories by Ian McEwan and Raymond Carver that also focus on a male/female couple in a certain place at a certain time experiencing both union and conflict.
“First Love, Last Rites,” the title story of Ian McEwan’s debut collection (his master’s thesis, by the way, supervised by Malcolm Bradbury in the MA program in creative writing at University of East Anglia) generated quite a bit of buzz and controversy when first published in 1975, when he was twenty-four.
“Chef’s House” first appeared in Raymond Carver’s third book, Cathedral, after, we presume, he had broken away from the insistent editing of Gordon Lish, although not, obviously, from the taut style Lish had taught him.
I have no idea if “First Love, Last Rites” is based on an actual event in Ian McEwan’s life, but clearly “Chef’s House” is based on an actual event in Carver’s life—a temporary reunion with his estranged wife Maryann. In fact, Maryann has said that when she read “Chef’s Wife,” she was “almost offended that the could call it fiction. All he was doing was writing an account of what happened there.” However, this may only indicate that Maryann was unaware of the importance of style in transforming something that merely happened into a fiction that means something.
David Means, a very fine short storywriter, whom I have discussed before on this blog, reads “Chef’s House” and talks about it with Deborah Treisman on the New Yorker podcast at http://www.newyorker.com/online/2010/10/18/101018on_audio_means
David Means, a Carver fan, disagrees with Maryann’s assessment. Regardless of what actually happened when Carver and his wife made one final effort to reconcile, “Chef’s House” differs from that remembered event by being a story, not a “memory piece,” like T.C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood.” And what makes it different than a “real event,” involving characters in a “flesh and blood,” way is what David Means calls the story’s “style,” that is, all the language choices the writer makes about what to include and what to leave out that creates a meaningful form or pattern with significance, theme, meaning.
I would argue that Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House” and Ian McEwan’s “First Love, Last Rites” are short stories because they create a meaningful thematic pattern, whereas T.C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood” is simply a “memory piece” because it has no meaning at all, but is just about “flesh and blood” people in an “as-if-real” event.
Rather than offering extended critical analyses of the style, language, form, and theme of the Carver and McEwan stories, I will simply make a couple of brief comments on what I think makes them stories rather than “flesh and blood” “memory pieces” and urge the reader to read them or reread them and compare them to T.C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood.”
McEwan establishes a metaphor at the beginning of his story that persists throughout of a creature scratching behind the wall. During sex, the male narrator has fantasies of making a creature grow in his girlfriend’s belly—not a child but a creature “growing out of a dark red slime”—eggs, sperms chromosomes, features, gills, claws. He is caught like an eel in his fantasy of this primeval force, feeling that he and his girlfriend are also creatures in the slime. When they finally encounter a large rat, the narrator associates it with the smell of his girlfriend’s monthly period. When he splits the rat open, five small fetuses fall out, and he sees one quiver, as if in hope. His girlfriend carefully folds them back into the rats’ womb and closes the flesh over them. Many early readers of the story were repulsed by “First Love, First Rites,” but McEwan has said that he has always thought of it as an affirmative story about pregnancy.
And indeed, the story does end on an affirmative note as the couple decides to pull themselves out of the slime, clean up the room and go for a walk, and the narrator presses his palm against her belly and says, “yes.” Birth and death are inextricably intertwined in the story—a story of life in all its hopeful beauty originating in the slime of the primeval swamp.
In contrast to McEwan’s thickly textured story of blood and creatures, slime and sex, Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House” is lean and clean, depending only on a single metaphor of the house itself and the delicate and difficult borderline between hopeful stability and a fall into the abyss. Carver’s first New Yorker story, “Chef’s House” is also one of the few Carver stories told from a female point of view. The first-person narrator, named Edna, receives a phone call from her estranged husband, Wes, who has rented a furnished house north of Eureka, California from a recovered alcoholic named Chef; Wes tells Edna he has stopped drinking and wants her to join him so they can start over.
The idyllic summer, during which Edna and Wes only drink soda pop and fruit juice, takes three paragraphs of the story, but is enough to suggest it is a romantic return to the old Wes, the Wes she married. When Chef tells them his daughter’s husband has left and that she needs a place to live, Wes gets “this look about him,” a look that Edna knows well and knows the summer is over. When Edna tries to get Wes to accept this and “go easy,” she finds herself talking about the summer as if it were something that happened years ago.
The central thematic point in the story occurs when Edna tells Wes: “Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time. Just suppose. It doesn’t hurt to suppose. Say none of the other had ever happened. You know what I mean? Then what?”
But Wes says he does not have that kind of “supposing” left in him. When Edna says she did not throw away a good thing and come six hundred miles to hear him talk like that, he says he cannot talk like somebody he is not. “I’m not somebody else. If I was somebody else, I sure as hell wouldn’t’ be here. If I was somebody else, I wouldn’t be me. But I’m who I am. Don’t you see?”
As Wes sits patting his chin, like he was trying to figure out the next thing, Edna looks around at Chef’s living room, at Chef’s things and thinks, “We have to do something now and do it quick.” But given who Wes is, there is nothing to be done. The fact that it is Chef’s house and Chef’s things and not theirs is brought home to Wes, and he must give up the fantasy of the summer that it all belonged to Edna and himself. Wes goes to the window and pulls the drapes, “and the ocean was gone just like that.” Edna goes to the icebox for the last of the fish they had caught and she things, “We’ll clean it up tonight…and that will be the end of it.”
As David Means says, “Chef’s House” is an “incredibly intimate story” that evokes a painful sense of loneliness. It suggests Nick Carraway’s realistic reminder to Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel that you cannot repeat the past and Gatsby’s incredulous response—“can’t repeat the past. Of course you can.” The fact that the reader feels so sympathetic to Edna and Wes’s effort to repeat the past is a result of Carver’s quiet, restrained style.
T. C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood” has neither the metaphorically thick thematic significance of Ian McEwan’s story, nor the tautly restrained thematic significance of Raymond Carver’s story. It is simply is a “memory piece” about a couple who move from a damp shack to a lavish apartment the size of a basketball court, but whose relationship falls apart because of the male narrator’s foolish bit of bravado with another man. Boyle’s follow-up to Deborah Treisman’s question about why he chose the name “Birnam Wood,” with its Macbeth allusion for the story—that just as all seems well for Macbeth since Birnam Wood could never come down to Dunsinane, all should be well for the couple since they have such a great place to live—seems shallow and unconvincing.
Why the couple break up seems primarily due to the narrator’s resentment of his girlfriend—anger that she will not get “off her ass and find a job,” anger that she did not keep her eyes open to find the house while he was driving and she was bitching, condescension that she might not be able to hold down a job as a hostess. He says he wants to break down her strong-willed nature, maker her dependent on him, but at the same time hold up her end.
When he meets the guy in the bar who is attracted to his “old lady,” he says his feelings were complicated when he says, “She can be a real pain in the ass…. Sometimes I think she’s more trouble than she's worth.” But it is not complicated—just ego-proud guy talk. When the man shows up at their place with a bottle of tequila, the narrator says he wants to do something right for a change, to confess, tell her that he loved her, but he does not; she takes one look at him and knows that he has betrayed her.
The story ends predictably when the girlfriend, in revenge for the betrayal, welcomes the stranger and the narrator walks across the frozen lake and looks in the window of a couple getting ready for bed. What he feels is probably what Gatsby felt when he looked in the window and saw Daisy and Tom Buchanan in an intimate conversation. Boyle’s narrator knows he is on the outside looking in at a relationship that he, by his own immaturish behavior, has lost.
“Birnam Wood” is a story about “flesh and blood characters,” a “memory piece” about something that perhaps actually happened, but that does not make it a story—just something that happened to real people, something that Boyle has failed to transform into a meaningful fiction.