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Differences, Similarities, and The Montage of Being: A Comparison of Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through

fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

-Werner Herzog

Minnesota Declaration

“Tell me, milk cow, what on earth is wrong with you

Hoo hoo, milk cow, what on earth is wrong with you

Now you have a little new calf, hoo hoo, and your milk is turnin’ blue”

Robert Johnson

Milkcow’s Calf Blues

The resonance of documentary cinema is intrinsically linked to the viscosity of subject and the quantic beauty of setting. In boldly vibrant tones of living and breathing, the emotional texture of real people with real, albeit “unreal,” stories can be inherently and fundamentally moving. At the peak of its thematic arc, documentary film is the epicurean catharsis of time and place, a bubbling explosion of ideology and imagery that collide in a whirlwind of identic equanimity. It illuminates the dark corners of human society and summits the loftily panoptic venue of introspection. Emerging from the fertile tradition of implied commentary, documentary cine dustily marks the crossroads of journalism and art. Like all things, documentary filmmaking is ripe with truth and lies, dirt and sky, heaven and hell. There are winners and losers and self-appointed demigods. But there is also a great deal of importance. Important documentary cinema is universal and poignant; it spurns the sirenic allure of municipal closure and, instead, hellishly pursues the ethereal nature of fact.

It is, of course, impossible to speak of “good” documentary cinema and not discuss Errol Morris’s prodigious body of work and its subsequent genre-stretching augmentation. Known for a recognizable “oeuvre of bizarre, banal and ritualistic configurations of human behavior and obsessions,” (Conomos, 2000) Morris’s most frequently and ostensibly commented upon works, Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, encapsulate life in a way that is both indiscernibly real and extraordinarily worthwhile. The subject matter and aesthetic construction mechanisms found in Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line have a number of comparative differences, but at their core, both films deal with the stoutly basic ideas of truth and fact. Morris engages viewers on both a personal and philosophical level; he hints at the ideas of right and wrong. He is compassionately satirical and relentlessly intriguing. His subjects are unpredictable and ridiculous and they reek luxuriously of outlandishness. They are also, however, easy to identify with. We see little bit of ourselves in those mourning the death of a beloved pet and the wrongfully accused. We are engaged cerebrally, emotionally, hypothetically. Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line are messy, complicated films that reject linear plots or director pro-activeness and while both present a sense of moral righteousness, the viewer is never accosted in the formal terms of certainty or sensationalism.

In large part, Morris’s legacy is directly married to his propensity to create films that reject the ostentation of narration and are guided, instead, by the subject and their story. His first film, Gates of Heaven, was created when Morris was 33. He had no formal training or specific outline for the movie. Rumor has it that German Director Werner Herzog told Morris that “You’ll never make a film, but if you do I’ll come and eat my shoe at the premiere” (Singer 1989). According to legend, Herzog boiled and ate his shoe at the 1981 premier of Gates of Heaven (to which Morris supposedly replied “It’s not as if I decided to realize my potential as a human being in order to get somebody to ingest something distasteful. I specifically asked Werner not to eat his shoe”). More importantly than the film’s aura, however, is its actual content. Gates of Heaven is an 85 minute escapade that, on the periphery, seems to be about little more than pet cemeteries and misplaced human emotions. But Gates of Heaven is more than just a quirky story with grainy production and oddball characters; it’s about pain and loss, memories and aspirations, the tangible act of both dying and grieving. Film Critic Roger Ebert, who lists it as one of the 10 greatest films ever made, once said that Morris’s “1978 documentary is surrounded by layer upon layer of comedy, pathos, irony, and human nature. I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it’s about a lot more than pet cemeteries” (Ebert 1997).

Conversely, The Thin Blue Line has a very different, and on some level, more socially substantive subject matter. The film is centered on a man, Randall Adams, wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a Dallas police officer. As the movie begins, Adams has been in jail 11 years, his original sentence of death by electrocution commuted to life in prison. The film clearly suggests that the murder was actually committed by David Harris, a squirrelly and ragged “problem child” concurrently in jail for an unrelated crime. Unsurprisingly, Harris was the one who fingered Adams in the shooting. A police officer dying in the line of fire is an obviously sensational event, but Morris fights the urge to paint any aspect of the situation with the broad brushstrokes of melodrama. Instead, he simply allows the subjects of the film- mostly Adams and Harris but also a variety of peripheral characters such as the Judge and DA – to talk about the events surrounding the crime. Through their frank, though often meandering and biased discourse, the viewer comes upon the realization that the accused is an innocent man. In fact, it was The Thin Blue Line that has widely been accepted as the primary force behind the eventual exoneration of Randall Adams.

While The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven differ decidedly in regards to platonic subject matter, both movies handle human emotion on a fundamentally personal level. There is a vested and compelling focus on the human element and the way that affected actors rationalize and categorize their memories. The referent, even if just existing on the peripheral plane, acts as the brush in which the “big” picture is to be painted with. In this sense, the films’ are as much about the mannerisms, the idiosyncrasies, and the self perception of the people actually telling the story as they are about the story itself. Evidence of can be found in the fact that Morris does not, in either film, accord time to witnesses and participants solely on their role in the story. He seems, rather, to allocate time based on the personality of each interviewee. For example, in The Thin Blue Line, Judge Metcalf’s delineation of the events surrounding Adams’s trial is no more insightful than that of Adams’s two defense attorneys, but he receives more time because he is a curious amalgamate of interesting and strange. Similarly in Gates of Heaven, Morris allows a lonely elderly woman named Florence Rasmussen to launch a painful, dementia-riddled speech on topics ranging from decentralized commercial development to her disappointment with her grandson. Morris’s allocation of airtime is part of a ritualistically analog method of exposition and artistic navigation that is qualitatively residual, a collage of both minor and major puzzle pieces carefully arranged in a way that strategically provides equal parts of clarification and mis-direction.

It is also readily apparent that both films share the common expositional mechanism of being interview driven. During his filming of Gates of Heaven, Morris became fascinated with projecting the first person, an obsession that would later lead to his invention of the Interrotron, a camera that allows the interviewer and subject to see one another as if they are locked in an epiphanic conversation. Although it would not be until years later that the Interrotron was unleashed in its full glory (on Morris’s quixotic Interrotron Stories), both Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line place a substantive value on the unobserved intimacy between interviewer and interviewee. “When someone watches my films, it is as though the characters are talking to directly to them,” said Morris in a 2004 interview with FLM Magazine. “On television we’re used to seeing people interviewed sixty-minutes-style. There is Mike Wallace or Larry King, and the camera is off to the side. Hence, we, the audience, are also off to the side.” Morris, in his quest for the “real truth,” utilizes eye contact to great effect. When Danny Harberts, in Gates of Heaven, dejectedly reminisces into the camera that “a broken heart is something everyone should experience,” there is a special bond between himself in the audience. It’s a moment of nearly inexplicable hospitality, an outpouring of soulful feeling– much like bluesmen such as Johnson and Coltrane – in which truth is discovered only though agony. Similarly, as David Harris stares into the camera in the dying moments of The Thin Blue Line, an arresting sense of evil, both seen and felt, flashes hauntingly and vividly before only slowly dissipating.

Accordingly, both films have similar sense of interviewee presentation. The camera addresses the viewer in an impartial, almost plain manner. Michael Covino writes that Morris’s subjects possess a “self-conscious artificiality – as something apart from the ‘naturalistic’ camera work of most documentaries – that intensifies the general atmosphere of artificiality to such an excruciating degree that one can no longer ignore the artificiality, one becomes conscious of it” (1980). The subjects themselves, at times, seem to be acting out a specific persona. They are aware of the camera, the interviewer, and their initial projections of both themselves and their stories come off as awkward and self-consciousness. The emotions manifested by Harberts and Harris can only be developed through time. Viewers are forced to build relationships with interviewees much in the same manner that the interviewees were forced to build a relationship with Morris. And as the audience becomes comfortable with the characters (as one invariably does in both films) maladroitness metasizes into familiarity and we begin to question whether or not these people are simply acting or, as a result of their amateurism, rigidly angular because they are uncomfortable with their roles as “filmed subjects.”

Such interviewee assimilation into the cinematic fabric is not unimportant, writes John Dorst. “As subjects of the documentary eye, they [the interviewees] do in fact become part of the cinematic apparatus through which they are recorded and projected-their textuality is inseparable from their imbrication with the device” (Dorst 279). As such, Morris is commenting upon not only the immutable subjectivity of truth, he’s allowing his interviewed subjects to act as a caricature of how truth is manufactured Even in The Thin Blue Line, the pragmatic elements of pristine truth are juxtaposed over the cognate reality of an individually groomed construction of reality. Therein, Morris is directly commenting that the intersection of truth and society often manifests itself in a myopic pattern of lesser realities, individual conceptualizations of reality in which the “chicken and the egg” conundrum is marginalized (280).

Both films, further, avoid recognizing the subject being interviewed by title box or any other form of text-based form of identification. It is up to the viewers to discern who, exactly, is speaking. And, it should be pointed out, why exactly they are, in fact, speaking. In a sense, this is a classic actualization of John Grierson’s definition of documentary as being the “the creative treatment of actuality” (Eitzen 1995). Morris forces the viewer, at least in the character’s introductory phase, to be judged at face value. The words each character uses, their mannerisms, and the way they present themselves dictate how each individual is to be perceived. At the same time, the backdrops and the lack of any character identification by Morris are surely borne out of a targeted sense of artistic creation. Morris is essentially fostering a situational climate where subjects are to be judged on a level that transcends the simplistic conceptualization of “actor” and “story.” There is no casual nexus and, much like day-to-day life, the interviewees are (initially, at least) judged on first impressions – an especially important (although transient) concept in The Thin Blue Line.

Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line were produced, shot, and released during the heyday of the Cinema Verite movement. As defined by Ellis and McLane, verite, in its rawest form, refers to a “generically non directed filmmaking” that uses naturalistic techniques in combination with the storytelling elements typical of a scripted film. (216) In both films, Morris goes against the populist grain and breaks form with Cinema Verite conventions in preference of “slow motion and expressionistic reenactments of different witnesses’ versions of the murder (Thin Blue Line)” and elongated but neutral camera angles that feature people talking straight into the camera while standing beneath a tree or sitting on an upholstered couch (Gates of Heaven) (Williams, 382). Morris, in his depictive elements, seems to proscribe to Bill Nichols’s assertion that “the reality effect of a new mode of documentary representation tends to fade away when the conventional nature of this mode of representation becomes increasingly apparent” (1998).

The provocative mannerisms and ultimately ill-fated attempt of the verite movement to create a climate where authentic dialogue, naturalness of action, and a minimal camera arrangement present the real “truth” are rejected by Morris in favor of a series of artistically balanced interviews in which the subject speaks directly into the screen. This rejection is complete, comprehensive. “What I don’t like about verite is this claim that somehow you’re guaranteed truthfulness by virtue of style,” said Morris in 2004. “That’s my complaint. That somehow because a film has been made in a certain way—handheld camera, available light, fly on the wall—that somehow it becomes more truthful as a result” (Believer 2004). Through this repulsion of verite musings, Morris enables himself to create films, such as Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, which are artistically and dramatically stimulating without disengaging from either the rationalization of truth or the debate on how such rationalization impacts the breathing world.

There are, however, dramatic and important differences between the style and intellectual composure of The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven. One critic commented that The Thin Blue Line is the “very line at which his [Morris’s] films make the unlikely leap from gently abstract and rubbery to substantive literal, sometimes aggressively topical, suddenly abounding in visual fripperies and hypnotic music where they were once Spartan and resolutely quiet” (Adams 2005). While such circumscription may rely heavily on overwrought hyperbole, it does, in fact, have an appreciable amount of truth to it. The Thin Blue Line, for all practical intents and purposes, is Morris’s first pronounced attempt to actively pursue the utilitarian mantra of examination that would later come to define subsequent films such as Fog of War and Dr. Death. Gates of Heaven is unabashedly esoteric, a burgeoning, glacial mass of laconic observation which possesses neither the social functionality nor the statuesque efficacy of The Thin Blue Line.

Perhaps the most important distinction between the films emerges in Morris’s use of the visual aesthetic. Morris’s comprehensive construction of each film’s aesthetic blueprint reveals a diversity of production values and thematic intentions. Gates of Heaven does not enact any sort of artistic licensing in order to make the film more bold or understandable. The Thin Blue Line, however, deviates from this pattern explicitly by incorporating a substantial amount of visually interpretive material. In a sense, the appreciable and methodical use of re-enacted “cinematic fabric” blurs the line between an objective reality and what the film maker wants the viewers to perceive as reality, but at the same time, Morris’s use of pre-conceived footage allows the viewer a starker, and perhaps more meaningful, picture of what happened (Ansen 1997). The enacted material doesn’t add a sense of sensationalism or “TV Drama” – instead, it works like a map, outlining certain, crucial events in a clearly understandable manner that seems to have as much in common with foreign cinema and non-fiction Hollywood (ala Oliver Stone’s JFK, Nixon, etc) as it does with the Vertovian mechanism of “life as is.”

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Importantly, it’s worthwhile to note Morris’s longstanding objection to the claim that his use of produced footage constitutes “re-enactment.” In a 2000 interview, Morris combatively stated that “people use this term re-enactment’ and I think that it’s horribly misleading. I’ve been accused of having created re-enactment television, that somehow The Thin Blue Line spawned a hundred reality programs on Fox and elsewhere.” He further goes on to refute the idea that any re-enactments appear in The Thin Blue Line, stating instead that the functionally realized purpose of the footage allowed him to show “pictures of belief, untruth, falsehood, confusion. I have taken people back into what they thought they might have seen, thought might have been out there, but it’s clear they were wrong or delusional (Cineaste, 2000). Morris breached the issue again in a later interview, saying that “when people complain about reenactments, I like to point out that consciousness, itself, is a reenactment. Everything is a reenactment. We are reenacting the world in the mind. The world is not inside there. It does not reside in the gray matter of the brain. Think of my movies as heightening our awareness” (Believer 2004).

Boiled down, however, Morris’s dogmatic definition of “re-enactment” as “reality programs on Fox,” is little more than a semantically-rooted disagreement with the auspices of a specific labeling regimen, predicated almost wholly upon its larger connotation. Semantics aside, the footage used by Morris in The Thin Blue Line (and 1999’s Mr. Death) is instituted with the primary purpose of characterizing a specific event or series of events. The produced, non-interview footage (aka “re-enactment”) catalyzes a relationship between director and audience in which there is “right” way of thinking. The re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line allow Morris to surrealistically create an environment that is receptive to Adam’s innocence. It’s the practical implementation of Michael Renov’s dictum that “the value of the image depends upon its ability to inspire belief in its real provenance” (8). Using the observational/expository method of documentary film making, Morris never directly insert his conclusions. He does, however, suggest Adams’ innocence by displaying “key psychological images and sound effects such as the twirling crisis light of a police car, the ‘clicking’ sound of the ever-blinking red and blue light, and the slow-motion flying milkshake released by the partner of the cop being shot” (Curry 1995).

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In fact, Morris’s implication of Adam’s innocence in The Thin Blue Line fundamentally mitigates (and dominates) the critical and analytical elements professed on the part of the audience. And, unlike Gates of Heaven, the audience is pushed toward a specific mode of thought. The esoteric is rejected in favour of brawny factualism. The reactionary cognition of such fact has led the myopic critic to accuse Morris of wandering from the objective criticality that fundamentally governs documentary cine. And, in a sense, The Thin Blue Line is less respectful of the viewer than Gates of Heaven. It’s an important difference between the films, a manifested paradigm shift that dramatically shapes the role of audience. Gates of Heaven essentially clouds our empirical reliance on the principles of fact and fiction. If the modern man can judge only what he sees, smells, tastes, and touches as real, he cannot understand spirituality. In a sense, he cannot even understand the emotional nuances of living and dying. But there is more to the modern man than his simple sensory vehicles. There has to be. Morris plays off this vantage by using visual elements, such as the unobstructed aerial shot and the beauty of the natural environment to scratch at the difference between empirical and spiritual spheres. He refuses to hiearchize these two spheres, however, opting instead to allow the belief structures of the audience to determine perspective. Hinting at the idea ithat something outside the purely physical exists is enough for Morris in Gates of Heaven. Comparatively, the “re-enacted” footage in The Thin Blue Line aggrandizes physical fact, establishing it as a preemptively important value. Reliance upon a specific truth – Adam’s innocence – is required in order for the audience to connect to The Thin Blue Line and Morris deftly uses such rationalization to inspire outrage and action, reaction and, perhaps, introspection.

Morris furthers this perspective of Adams’s innocence by “demonstrating an interplay of perspectives, both oral and visual, in order to design an overall view of the situation.” In other words, Morris documents the situation through a mode of telling that “focuses on the individual plight of Randall Adams while it causes the viewer to reflect upon the machinery of the social justice system operating outside the frame of the film” (Curry 1995). It’s a direct way of fostering a specific sense of truth, an implied comment on both the micro and macro levels. Linda Williams, in “Mirrors Without Memories,” writes

“When Errol Morris fictionally reenacts the murder of Officer Wood

as differently remembered by David Harris, Randall Adams, the

officer’s partner, and the various witnesses who claimed to have seen

the murder, he turns his film into a temporally elaborated palimpsest,

discrediting some versions more than others but refusing to ever fix

one as the truth. It is precisely Morris’s refusal to fix the final truth, to

go on seeking reverberations and repetitions that, I argue, gives this

film its exceptional power of truth” (1993).

Herein, Morris is utilizing the tools of the aesthetic to draw a distinct and important perpendicular to his use of visual presentation in Gates of Heaven. In The Thin Blue Line, production techniques, such as re-enactments, intravenously feed the viewer a steady and calculated diet of subjective truth. Events may be momentarily blurred and smudged but Morris is, cumulatively speaking, directing for comprehensive effect. Although lacking manifested melodrama, Morris is placing the burden of proof squarely upon his

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own shoulders. His hope, of course, is that by proving Adam’s innocence, the audience will question the conceptions of truth and its subsequent interactivity within the legal system. Conversely, in Gates of Heaven, the visual stimuli primarily seeks to tug at the

viewing body’s own sense of spirituality. The lush, beautiful scenes of summer evenings and the stretching use of the panoptic aerial encourage breathy moments of quiet solitude, moments in which man can marvel at the incorporeality of the natural world. The symposium of “God’s” world emerges, but only cautiously.

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This sense of fleeting spirituality is integral to delicate nature of Gates of Heaven. Although both films seek the munificent apropos of a greater and more significant “truth,” The Thin Blue Line places significantly more value on the quantitative. Gates of Heaven is about personal truth, the concepts and thoughts that we, as humans, tell ourselves in order to make life better, worth living, or simply so we can fall asleep at night. Morris perpetuates this concept of individual truth in a variety of ways but the most striking are the scenes featuring pet owners confronting loss, the purpose of life, and the prospective of hope in a diminishing world– a woman who tells herself that she will meet her canine companion in heaven, Floyd McClure telling the camera that he can’t trust a single human on the same level he can trust his “little dog,” and a man that believes that his embarrassing “inspirational speaking” will lead those around him to lead a better life. Simply, the film delves into the spiritual, as opposed to the provisional, constructions of objectivity and truth.

And, as such, Gates of Heaven relies heavily upon the congruencies between the subject’s presented circumstance and the empirical self-realization of the viewer. Deeply imbedded in the sticky sweet marrow of its core, Gates of Heaven can be indelicate and somewhat brusque. Viewers want ask themselves “Why are these people, these fools, so sad, so depressed, so hopelessly lamenting quotidian death of a pet?” But perhaps that’s the point. We all mourn over what others may perceive as trivialities, the trite and temporarily painful events of daily life that gradually fade into reservoir of our memory. At times, Gates of Heaven comes dangerously close to ridicule only to be rescued by a moment of unscripted and poignant monument. “The film lacks the usual shock absorbers. Despite its rigor, despite its formalism, despite its posing, despite its artificiality, despite all these things, Gates of Heaven overwhelms the viewer with the sheer, incredible horror of life as it often is in the quietest, most everyday moments,” writes Covino. “But it’s affecting, vivid, and the viewer suddenly finds himself – but with much preparation – in the presence of a pain, a sorrow, so naked and so powerful that all the film’s artifice drops away” (1988).

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There is no pragmatism is Gates of Heaven, no problem to be solved, and no obvious answers to be provided. The viewer quickly discards the unimportance of the film’s fleeting plot and recognizes that first and foremost, Gates of Heaven provides a stark window into the sense of disconsolateness that hides in the shadows of our emotional equilibriums. It’s not about pet cemeteries, old men with emigrating sagacity, or the ridiculousness of pet headstones that state “God is Dog spelled backwards.” Instead, Gates of Heaven confronts the sting of loss and the uncertainty of death. There is an uncommonly omnipresent sense of heartbreak and fatality, an enigmatic hopelessness set adrift in the stretching wasteland of human cognizance.

 

The Thin Blue Line, mechanically, forms a distinct perpendicular with such ethereal “truthseeking” through Morris’s presentation of a of “whodunit” scenario in which truth is both evaluated and presented on a deeply factual basis. “Truth exists for Morris because lies exist; if lies are to be exposed, truths must be strategically deployed against them,” Williams. “His strategy in the pursuit of this relative, hiearchized, and contingent truth is thus to find guilty those speakers whom he draws most deeply into the explorations of their past” (1993). The Thin Blue Line must be proactive when considering truth and, as such, the stakes are very high. Despite Morris’s usage of surrealistic and re-enacted scenes, real lives hang in the balance of the specific truth the film seeks to prove. And, unlike Gates of Heaven, there are lies to attack and dispel and exactitude to present. By proving Adam’s innocence, however, Morris (like in Gates of Heaven) is still pushing the viewer to question the functionality of truth – in this case, how the cross-section of “legal” truth is impacted by although inbred bias- but his scope is remarkably different. Richard Sherwin writes that The Thin Blue Line allows us to “witness the actualization of deep modern beliefs about what justice is and how it gets done in the world. “These beliefs,” continues Sherwin, “operate so deeply that the way they shape our understanding and our practical judgments remains largely hidden from view. Perhaps this is so because we deal here with things that could not be otherwise” (1996).

 

The handling of truth, while the most important difference between the two films, is not the only area in which the Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line form distinct dissimilarities in regards to artistic scope. In fact, the way that the movies handle mankind’s self-reflexive tendencies may be the area of greatest separation. Gates of Heaven follows closely to Grierson’s interpretation of documentary film conceptualization and execution. Subjects, such as the opening scene featuring Floyd McClure, are shot in artistic backgrounds. The testimony of the characters themselves reveals a true reflection of

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their perception and perspective – manifested primarily in the form of conjecture – regarding a tangible event. Gates of Heaven’s subject matter is robustly and fundamentally epistemological, a fact not at all lost upon the film’s subjects. The intrinsic nature of death, dying, and the afterlife makes it a fertile breeding ground for unrestrained commentary. Everyone is right because no one can be wrong. Characters aren’t bound to the pragmatics of actuality and are, instead, free to parade their own constructions of truth. Accordingly, the philosophical environment is both diverse and lacking any ostensible sense of competition. Characters aren’t trying to validate their views because, logically speaking,

even the attempt to do so would be remarkably futile. Comparatively, The Thin Blue Line is acutely “aware that the individuals whose lives are caught up in events are not so much self-coherent and consistent identities as they are actors in competing narratives” (Williams 1993). Clearly refuting the principles of verite realism, the objective voyeur is totally and fully abandoned, replaced by a plethora of individual voices that have palpable stakes in how and why the story is told. Prolifically self-reflexive, characters in The Thin Blue Line are gravely aware of themselves. It’s an antagonistic dynamic that Morris revels in. Each interviewee’s subjective account of a central series of events gives the film penetrating sense of depth. Here, the stakes are real and, as such, interviews often teeter on the capricious cusp of confessional.

Another crucial difference between the movies can be found in the handling of sound and song. The Thin Blue Line is the more sensually engaging of the two movies, in large part due to the inclusion of an original score produced by Phillip Glass. Gates of Heaven is totally absent of any musical composition and while such a decision does not harm the movie, it creates a strict parallel with The Thin Blue Line regarding how viewers interact with the film. When talking about his choice of Glass as a composer, Morris said:

When I was working on The Thin Blue Line I started using various Philip Glass CDs as “scratch” music – various tracks from Mishima, In The Upper Room, Glassworks… Instantly the movie was transformed by the music, into what I had always dreamed it could be: a brooding, dark meditation in chance and fate. I was worried. I needed someone to write Philip Glass music… No, I needed Philip Glass.” (1988)

 

In The Thin Blue Line, viewers are almost immediately confronted the absorptive music of Glass. Contrast this to the opening scene of Gates of Heaven in which an eccentric old man with an obvious love for pets, the aforementioned Floyd McClure, gives a rambling lecture on why he believes dogs and cats deserve to be memorialized. While both films’ opening scenes appear to

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painstakingly constructed, there is the sense that the scene in The Thin Blue Line is far more aware the urgent need to attract the viewer’s attention. Each movie utilizes quirky personalities and strange interviewees to drive the story but it is apparent that in The Thin Blue Line, Morris is neurotically conscious of the fact that there is a central story, rife with protagonists and villains, that is to be told. Gates of Heaven, conversely, has neither a clear victim nor a delineated libertine. Instead, the film relies upon the power of emotional testimony and the interviewees’ manifestations of curious and compelling id behavior.

 

A final sense of difference emerges in the study of how each film closes. The Thin Blue Line’s ending makes an effective case for Adams innocence. “Is Randall Adams an innocent man?” Morris asks Harris as the screen goes bleakly stagnant. In a cold, haunting voice, the young man replies: “I’m sure he is.” “How do you know?” asks Morris. “Because I’m the one that knows,” replies Harris. It’s a painful moment in a painful movie, a cross-section of time and place where emotional prudence can no longer be embraced, a calamitous symphony of judgment and bigotry and woe. As the film fades to black, viewers are left shaken but sure of whom the real killer is. It’s a powerful and inhospitable moment and its gravity is enormous. This was not, as several police officers suggest through the film, much ado about nothing. It was much ado about something. It is at this point that The Thin Blue Line is at its most human, the exact moment when the viewer realizes that this is not about a murder but instead, shattered lives and broken hope. A great deal of Adam’s life has been pointlessly and totally wasted by a judicial decision that was rendered on the basis of bigotry and ego. It’s a water-colored painting of vulnerability that stretches far past the confines of simple cinema, shaking the foundation of trust between the legal system and the citizen.

Gates of Heaven ends in a dramatically different fashion; its last shot is an unobstructed aerial shot of the cemetery resting comfortably in the ebbing glow of twilight. There are no people, no pets, no sound. Just a comfortless shot of green countryside that holds for 30 seconds before distressingly blinking out. The ending catches the viewer by surprise. It is delicate, moving, and agonizingly final. One could imagine that is what death would feel like, painlessly and silently floating above a former world of grass and trees. And like death, it’s remarkably untidy. Closure is a hollow illusion distantly straddling the unknown of the future. Here, too, Morris is remarkably and totally human. It’s one of the great ironies of cinema: through the examination of death, Morris touches upon the most sacred aspect of living. Gates of Heaven’s conclusion is the visual personification of McClure’s musing that “death is for the living and not for the dead,” an unspoiled moment of artistic vision that quietly rises into the clouds and before wafting gently into the hereafter.

While both endings leave the viewer feeling uncomfortably disconnected and pastorally alone, the end of Thin Blue Line tells us what the film was about and hints at social commentary while the ending of Gates of Heaven leaves us questioning what the film was really about. Or, perhaps more precisely, what this life really about. Both films touch upon the ephemeral nature of what it is to be human, but they do so in distinctly separate ways, a fact perhaps best projected by each film’s respective concluding sentiments. The truth in Gates of Heaven is winding and incomplete, incomprehensible at times. In The Thin Blue Line, the situational exactitude is raw and uncomfortable, a systemic nightmare with invasively threatening implications. As written by Bernard, “Factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and, at its best, results in a film that is greater than the sum of its parts” (2004). And truly, the greatest and most pivotal difference between the films is what Morris asks the viewer to do with his demonstrated iconographies of reality and truth. In Gates of Heaven, the focus is introspective and multi-dimensional, personal and indiscernibly touching. It’s the pop-humanistic actualization of “to each his own.” In The Thin Blue Line, conversely, Morris’s intent is defined and abrasive, a reactionary call to arms against the principle that legally ratified truth should be unilaterally accepted as infallible.

 

Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line are two distinctly separate films created by the same man. Both films, however, engage the viewer in an importantly cognitive manner. They are what documentary should strive to be: potent, meditative, visually stimulating, and emotionally exhausting. In some ways, each movie feels like a cross country journey sans either map or purpose. There is only the hope of a destination – somewhere, anywhere – that is beautiful, invaluable, and wholly remunerative. Arrival is not and cannot be guaranteed. If we, as viewers, are to take anything from Morris’s filmmaking, it is that nothing in life is simple. There are no easy answers because there cannot be easy answers. Even when the truth is readily apparent, sirenic and disfranchising forces always exist. Morris reconciles the unknown with the known, empiricism with conjecture, life with death, begging the viewer to not only walk into the wild but to also find his way out again. At the same time, the two films have dynamic and important differences, especially how each pursues the idea of truth. In Gates of Heaven, issues surrounding truth are self-contained. The issue at point – the uncertainty of living and dying- is explicit. In The Thin Blue Line, a case study with apparent sets of truth and falsity is utilized in order to hint at greater point of issue, the legality of truth and falsity and dangers of mis- quantification. In each film, however, Morris transforms a simple story into a dynamically erratic journey that seems so alive that we, as an audience, are left with tangible memories. There are no easy answers, no quick-witted responses that capture life in austere tones of black and white. The human element is totally and completely real- often appearing clumsily chaotic and nakedly egocentric. The viewer is forced to wade through a miasmic swamp of abstruse realities and perceptions, a jumbled and raw series of thoughts and observations that, together, form a pangaea of greater truth.

Sources

 

Adams, Alejandro. Review: Errol Morris Collection. (2005). <www.digitalfilmaker.net>.

Ansen, David. The Philosopher King. Newsweek 20 Oct. 1997.

Bernard, S.C. (2004) Documentary Storytelling For Film and Videomakers Oxford; Focal Press 1-11

Curry, Renee. Errol Morris’s Construction of Innocence. Rocky Mountain Review of

Language and Literature 49 (1995): 153-167.

Conomos, John. Errol Morris and the New Documentary. Senses of Cinema (2000).

Covino, Micheal. Errol Morris: Film Review. Film Quarterly (1980).

Dorst, John. Theorizing the Hybrid Vol. 112, No. 445, The Journal of American Folklore, (Summer, 1999), pp. 268-281

Eitzen, Dirk. (1995, Fall). When Is a Documentary?: Documentary as a Mode of Reception, Cinema Journal 35(1), 81-102.

Ebert, Robert. Review: Gates of Heaven. The Chicago Sun-Times 9 Nov. 1997.

Ellis, J and McLane, Betsy (2005) A New History of Documentary Film. New York, Continuum International

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy (1998). Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Grundmann, Roy and Rockwell, Cynthia. Truth is Not Subjective: An Interview with

Errol Morris. Cineaste Vol. 25 No. 3 (2000): 4-9

Kirtz, Bill. Looking through the Lens of a Groundbreaking Director; Profile / Errol Morris.(Features)(Arts & Leisure) Christian Science Monitor (Dec 31, 1999):17.

Morris, Errol. Interview. 1998. <www.errolmorris.com>.

Morris, Errol. Interview FLM Magazine Winter 2004.

Morris, Errol. Interview. Apr. 2004. <www.believermag.net>.

Nichols, B. (2001) Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington Indiana; Indiana University Press 1-19.

Renov, Michael. (1993) Theorizing Documentary, London; Routledge 1-11

Singer, Mark. “Predilections – Errol Morris: Profile.” The New Yorker 2 Feb. 1989.

Sherwin, Richard K. Framed In: Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts. Edited by John Denvir. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, c1996. pp: 70-94.

Williams, Linda (1993). Documenting the Documentary: Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and The Thin Blue Line. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

08
Mar
08

Isolation and the Short Stories of Raymond Carver


 

“My wife is in the habit of telling me her dreams when she wakes up. I take her some coffee and juice and sit in a chair beside the bed while she wakes up and moves her hair away from her face. She has the look that people waking up have, but she also has this look in her eyes of returning from somewhere.”
– Raymond Carver, “Dreams”

 

Perhaps nothing represents the contemporary perception of Raymond Carver’s anthological body of short stories better than the author’s own autobiographically introspective statement from his 1983 essay, “The Art of Fiction LXXVI,” in which he states: “Years ago I read something in a letter by Chekhov that impressed me. It was a piece of advice to one of his many correspondents and it went something like this: Friend, you don’t have to write about extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary and memorable deeds.” Critically and culturally renowned for his ability to use dialogue to capture the pain and poetry of daily life, Carver’s prose is, today, seen in lambency not unlike the works of Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell. Utilizing economical, oft-barefaced literary archetypes – much in the same manner that Hopper and Rockwell used straightforward imagery to depict the platitudinous nature of living and dying in America – Carver’s short stories were able to capture the joy and tragedy of a prosaic existence, the blue collar actuality of a lesser-America that often sat capriciously suspended on the precipice of collapse.

Carver, himself of veteran of personal decay and proletarian redemption, treated his characters with a great deal of compassion. He chronicled their bedroom arguments, clandestine drinking problems, and petty insecurities with the soothing hand of empathy. In a way, Carver’s characters were an extension of himself. Carver’s truth was found in the minutes, hours, and days between the ostensibly remarkable, the moments of passion and malaise that elusively weave in and out of lives and relationships.

 

It is, however, a misconception that Carver attained his truth, the hard-headed genuineness that encompasses his work, wholly through the overtly conspicuous mechanics of rhetorical composition or dialogue. Carver’s linguistic providence and dialogic practicality were, in fact, mere components of the greater vessel that he used to achieve his endgame – a compassionate and holistic delineation of the quiet moments of personal turmoil and moral decline that are stratospherically pedestrian yet fundamentally character defining. And while it would be laughably naïve to deny that these auspices of literary style and character interactivity played a substantively epigrammatic role in Carver’s unique portraiture of American dysfunction, it is of equal derision to deny that the theme of personal isolation and the pressing energy of self-induced insularity did not also fundamentally affect Carver’s ability to resonate. While Carver described an agelessly photographic – albeit a less-than-photogenic – reality, he clearly and determinedly refused to adopt the post-modern tendency of aesthetic mile-marking. And, as such, the political economy is ignored and character revelation is merely hinted, leading myopic critics such as John Aldridge to label Carver as a mundane aerialist, a depthless and failed social realist with “no political agenda and no understanding of his social matrix whatsoever” (Champion 1999). But Carver did, in fact, understand the social matrices omnipresent in his work. He understood, in ways proving tragically blurred to theorists such as Aldridge, that his “social matrix” was one that existed in a world of utility bills, lowbrow substance abuse, and disconnecting forces- a messy, untidy state of being that subsisted outside the tidy conventions of neo-realistic closure and gratifyingly concrete acquiescence.

 

It would, then, be a shame to overlook the intimate nuances, the fragile literary wisps of benevolent seclusion and character remoteness that waft enigmatically throughout Carver’s anthology of short stories. In fact, to disregard Carver’s axiomatic use of isolation and its role in orchestrating the symphonic synthesis of circumstance and plot is to fundamentally undervalue one of Carver’s most idiosyncratic and comprehensively endearing literary endowments. With Carver, the outside world always existed, burgeoning and crashing on the beaches of cognizance, but the way that world was perceived by his protagonists was almost always constructed, at least partially, within the framework of applied isolation.

 

Before, however, any discussion of the logistical application of Carver’s use of isolator and insular forces, it is imperative to define the scope and goal of this work. Simply, the purpose of this paper is neither to devalue the importance of Carver’s literary style nor diminish his use of the aesthetic. Such aspects do indeed hold a great and immutable weight in any attempt to theoretically understand Carver and his ability to robustly and responsively describe the pastorally ephiphanic moments of fiction that so strongly correlate to our own lives. This paper, further, does not seek to comment upon either the current, de facto understanding of Carver’s anthological body or argue for politic reconsideration of Carver’s rhetoric. Rather, the intent of this work has three ostensible aspirations; first, to define the various isolator mechanisms employed by Carver; second, to discuss the importance of Raymond Carver’s use of isolator forces within his narrative framework; and third, to provide selected examples of the ways that Carver applied and utilized the aforementioned isolator mechanisms. The comprehensive intent of this work, indubitably, is to provide some sort of illumination on Carver’s rich handling of isolator forces and, further, discuss how such handling co-existed within the traditionally commented upon forces of Carver’s literary structure and character delineation.

 

Accordingly, in order to categorize Carver’s use of isolation/insularity, it is paramount to first define the term “isolation.” As defined by Mark Conliffe in his essay “On Isolation,” the word isolation athletically “implies a position separate from and presupposes that a force secludes these things…and clearly, the verb ‘isolate’ is transitive.” Conliffe goes on to state that “the meaning [of isolation] is flexible to allow the agent and the object of isolation to be one and the same or different… The separation is not just physical, but can be social and mental, too” (2006). As put forth by Conliffe, then, “isolation,” can be partitioned into two primary, purified states: situations in which the affecting isolator forces are largely emotional and situations in which affecting isolator forces are primarily physical. As conceded by Conliffe, and utilized by Carver extensively, physically and emotionally tangible forms of isolation are often juxtaposed over each other in order to provide a sense of depth and texture, flexibly interacting and influencing the character, the setting, and the plot in a variety of different ways. Such relationship allows for dynamic and caustic reactivity between the character and the surrounding world, a quiet game of brinksmanship that, with Carver, often seemed to breathily end in hesitant irresolution.

 

Isolation, one should note, carries a definition that is distinct from the conventions of ostracism or alienation. In a sense, isolation is an actualized state of being that results from a manifested desire for separation on the part of the actor. Isolation is reversibly spherical condition that comes into definition precisely because the protagonist has not always been isolated. In a sense, isolation is a life-status change, a purposeful rearrangement of priority and function that is actively sought by the individual. This point is emphasized thoroughly by Conliffe:

 

“If I find myself in the middle of a desert and my car has broken down, I am both separate and separated from my usual wholes, but I am neither alienated nor estranged. I am only isolated. Despite the fact that I am alone, my activities in isolation will be conditioned by what I know, by what I take from my past or my roots, not just by my present surroundings” (2006).

 

Alienation and ostracism can, of course, have a separated element, but such separation is born not out of the desire of the part, but rather the desires of the whole. And, therein, the words alienation and ostracism have an ostensibly negative connotation whereas the word isolation is neutral in connotation. If one is alienated or ostracized from society, he is forcibly displaced from the social contract or otherwise removed. And, while separation is ultimately the product of such removal, the action was forced by an entity outside of the affected “part,” and, as such, is discernibly different than the process of isolation. Simply put, isolation, in itself, cannot be accomplished simply by the “whole’s” desire to separate the “part.” The isolating action must either be the product of a substantiated desire (or, at a minimum, a demonstrated ambivalence), expressed by the part, for separation or come about as a result of situational forces outside the control of society. And while isolation can be a result of greater society’s desire for the removal of the “part,” the affected individual must, at some level, have a vested interest in such separation.

 

Definitions of the previously mentioned constructions of “physical” and “emotional” isolation/insular types can be garnished quite readily, especially in regards to the intents and purposes of this work. The physically tangible form of isolation can be assigned, on its most rudimentary level, to situations and scenarios in which the body (acting as the “part”) is physically separate from the whole. The physical state of “separateness” is manifested through a character’s desire – pursued either passively, aggressively, or both – to be alone. As Conliffe writes, “separation and being alone are priorities [of the acting protagonist]” (2006). However, it should also be pointed out that such desire for separation can be a result of greater society (acting as the “whole”) actively seeking the removal a specific individual. In such cases, the isolation is normally a product of convenience in which both the part and the whole have dependent, if not mutual, goals.

 

Obviously, then, the concept of emotionally tangible isolation refers to the basal idea of mental/emotional withdrawal. The body may be a part of the whole but the intellective/cognitive elements have been withdrawn or are otherwise absent. This scenario does not explicitly mean that these emotionally communicative elements are not functioning or being utilized by the protagonist in question. Instead, emotional sentiments are not being expressed by the part to the whole. Emotional resonance between the protagonist (or affected character), for whatever reason, has broken down and, at the delineated time and place, there exists a real disconnect between the emotions felt on the part of the isolated element and the perception of that element by the cumulative remainder. In certain cases, such as his handling of Dummy in the “The Third Thing That Killed My Father,” Carver utilizes characters who do not outwardly appear to possess the intellectual acuity required of cogently describe their emotional status. However, even in such cases, the character nonetheless demonstrates a considerable desire to remain cognitively and emotionally separate, often finding solace in their own restricted ability to arrest the gravitational forces of communication.

 

These paradigms of emotional and physical isolation, it should be noted, have a tense, near-antagonistic relationship with each other. Carver, in most cases, forces one sense of isolation (be it physical or emotional) to directly impact the other. For example, in “A Small, Good Thing,” the emotional detachment suffered by the parents is directly related to their physical detachment from their son and their subsequent desire to privately mourn. Similarly, in “Cathedral,” the narrator’s eventual “enlightenment” is spurred forward by his fascination with a man who, as a result of a physical disability (and isolated as such), has a transcendent ability to not only emotionally detach himself from the normality of pedestrian thought but also to, ironically, utilize that detachment to form an emotional bond with the narrator. In each story, the two forms of isolation have a co-dependent relationship with each other and it is this relationship that effectively forces the action and pace of the story. As such, Carver utilizes the tenuous marriage of emotional and physical isolation as a catalyst for the over-arching purpose of the story. While the actions of each character drive the plot forward, Carver’s application of separation allow the character and the character’s actions important to the reader. Simply, the specific actions of the narrator in “Cathedral” – smoking dope, watching television, drawing a picture of a cathedral with his eyes closed– have relatively no importance on the story or its emotional value to the reader. The important thing, Carver tells us, is the way that the narrator deals with the incongruity between himself and the largely isolated blind man and how such separation devolves into an ironically touching sense of similarity, commonality, and, ultimately, enlightenment (Leypoldt 2001).

 

Upon the understanding of why Carver’s employment of isolation is important, it becomes pertinent to focus the conversation on the operative, isolator mechanisms that helped shape the functional aspects of his short stories. Of course, the scope of this paper cannot possibly account for each and every one of Carver’s short stories and, as such, it is difficult (if not impossible) to ostentatiously apply a workable sense of standardized classification to the specific vehicles Carver uses to relate isolation on the part of his protagonists. If Carver was anything, he was a writer who constantly sought to fine-tune and rearrange the anatomical components of his prose. There are, however, several cardinal mechanisms that Carver often utilized to establish a tailored sense of isolation. That is not to say, of course, that these components were utilized in any manner that could be construed as formulaic, pre-fabricated, or otherwise manufactured. While present in much of Carver’s prose, these isolator agencies never appeared in the same exact configuration, elusively and respectfully interacting with each individual story in a distinctively conceived manner.

 

Perhaps the most pervasive and obvious of such isolator mechanisms used by Carver can be found in his initial handling of the setting. Suspicious of exposition and respectful of the mysterious nature of story, Carver fundamentally rejected the provision of overtly- bibliographical explanation. As suggested by Charles May, perhaps such suspicion arose from Carver’s acceptance of Chekhovian dictum which stipulated that “In short stories, it is better to say not enough that to say too much, because – because – I don’t know why!” (May 2001). Regardless of origin, however, the fact is that Carver was something of a doctrinaire when it came to setting the expository tone for his stories. He frequently sought, as the first order of literary “business,” to diminish the value and importance of the surrounding world, preemptively dissolving the forces of macro-drama. By isolating the story itself from the synthesizing elements of the surrounding world, characters are only affected by the forces that directly touch and alter their lives. As such, Carver was able to control both the scope and depth of the story and, effectively, avoid the pratfalls of autoerotic efficacy. And, therein, was a large part of Carver’s recipe for success: to accurately describe the circadian nature of daily life, one must first understand that the things that happen to us, in this life, are rarely a product of a crisply defined causal nexus and cannot be rigidly typified or otherwise constrained. Life moves sporadically and unpredictably, rippling and bubbling in series events that have a direct and personal impact. In a sense, this process of isolating the setting and the context of the story allows Carver to create a scenario in which the protagonist can both identify affecting influences and, subsequently, seal themselves off from those influences. The end product is a modestly Sartre-ian outlook on life in which experience is paramount and reality is empirical.

 

In the article “On Small, Good Things,” author Gadi Taub remarks that Carver’s process of cleansing the anthropological panorama allows for the emergence of true emotion, precisely because of its rejection the “luxury of cultivated sensibility.” The point here, of course, is that outside influences can (and often do) act as pollutants, adding unnecessary and trivial details that distract and temper the emotional viscosity of story. With Carver, the true importance of the story lies in the actions, and repercussions of those actions, that directly affect the protagonist (s), not era-defining wars, advertising campaigns, or the conventions of pop humanism. By rejecting the macro implications of society, culture, and media, Carver’s designed focus is determinately micro, a philosophic mantra also undoubtedly gleaned from Chekhov. As commented on by Taub, such rejection is not without consequence:

 

“[Carver] leaves his human landscape diffused, refusing to animate the numbness by inflating it with sentimentality, political agendas, or a sense of great human drama that his protagonists don’t experience themselves. But it is precisely this context that allows for the most basic and ordinary human emotions to emerge with clarity, that reveals we are bound to feel even when feelings in general are numbed” (2002)

 

Carver was, in fact, quite adept at creating a specific sort of sanctuary for his characters, a realm in which their specific situation was not only the focal point of the story, but the only point of the story. There is a distance between the part and the whole, and therein, Carver’s characters exist in world where extenuating circumstances and third party actors are nonexistent. That is not to say, however, that characters are not affected by outside forces, rather that such forces are chalked up to an angrily protestant God extending the clenched fist of arbitrary fate. Social and political analyses and explanations are aggressively and totally avoided. And, while Carver’s expositional handling of isolation outwardly seems to affect only the study of his rhetorical composition, it is important to note that Carver’s rejection of greater, behavior-shaping forces (i.e. systematic poverty) essentially dictates a scenario in which the protagonists bear the responsibility for accosting and remedying the issues that are specifically affecting them (Scofield 1999).

 

Carver also utilized a variety of symbolic mechanisms to achieve his sense of character isolation. The symbolic insularity that Carver wove into his prose was presented primarily in the context of a specific character’s physical surroundings. Carver’s use of symbolism corresponds, in large part, to Jung’s conceptualization of symbolism wherein a symbol is “a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning” (1968). Examples of symbolism in Carver’s anthological body are widespread and dynamic, ranging from the presence of endemic alcoholism and misogyny to the ostensible handling of a given character’s surrounding geographical elements (the ocean, the backwoods, summer homes, etc).

 

In utilizing symbolism, especially as a representation of character isolation, Carver was adroit in his ability to use a minimal presence in an effective manner. Take, for example, Carver’s references to alcoholism: instead of merely depicting the intensity of the drug’s vengeful wrath, Carver often employs illustration of alcoholism (and those affected by the disease) as a line of demarcation, a symbolic element that serves to separate one series of events from another” (Champion 1999). Similarly, references to literary and artistic culture – such as allusions to London’s “To Build a Fire” in “Where I’m Calling From,” and Ansel Adams in “Fever” – are not used as markers to designate the story’s place in the space/time continuum, but rather as artistic references whose subject matter corresponds to the issue at hand.

 

The most meaningful of the isolator mechanisms employed by Carver, however, are those which manifest themselves throughout the course of character action, character cognition, and character interaction (or lack thereof) with his or her surrounding elements. This technique, defined by Conliffe as “spatial detachment,” can be boiled down to an essential form in which a character appears to be preoccupied or engaged with issues or elements that are not readily, physically apparent. In defining “spatial detachment, Conliffe writes that “there is something spatial, albeit metaphorically, (even if it is temporary) implied when a person who is lost in thought is referred to as being ‘away with the birds.’ He is not completely there despite his physical presence; he is not interacting as he usually might.” Conliffe then ventures further, stating that “He is preoccupied, perhaps caused to take part in the world differently. An aspect of his functioning self alters his usual consciousness” (2006).

 

And while Conliffe limits his conceptualization of “spatial detachment” to cases in which the physical presence is simply altered, not totally removed, his definition is significant because he valuably touches upon the codependency of physical and emotional isolation. While these two values are not, per se, mutually exclusive, they share a strong kinship in the sense that a normal bi-product of emotional withdrawal is the desire also seek physical removal and vice-versa. In such manner, Carver often treats detachment in a literal sense, painting situations in which the protagonist seeks some sort of therapy by limiting, or restricting in some way, contact with the societal whole. Carver’s characters often possess the dysfunctional inability to fruitfully accost a particular issue and, as such, lack the ability to seek a comprehensive reprieve from their respective afflictions. Begrudgingly and unwillingly, Carver’s protagonists are forced to interact with the outside world while simultaneously expressing a real, viscous desire to be alone

 

Of course, the dimensions, forms, and mediums of inter-personal communication all play an indispensable role in the ability to project the above-defined paradigms relating to isolator mechanisms. In the sense that isolation refers to a character’s unwillingness to participate, “communication” refers to the specific ability to interact. If communicative forms and mediums are, in fact, available to the character and he/she makes a conscious decision to shun those resources, the protagonist can be seen as actively pursuing isolation through a policy of inactivity. Moreover, protagonists can utilize (ironically) pragmatic information transmission – via telephone, letter, etc – to indicate their decision to seek and maintain a course of insularity. As Laurie Champion notes, “While communicating with others helps heal feelings of desolation that Carver’s characters experience, failing to communicate with others parallels or even penetrates his characters feelings of despair” (1997). The ultimate goal of such desire for communicative separation is rehabilitation, the urge to self-medicate in order to achieve some semblance of successful reconciliation between the integer and the sum. Carver’s characters often seek only a brief reprieve from their normal frequency of communication and, as such, they must first indicate to the surrounding world that their intended separation is necessary and purposeful. In the same sense, once the detached part has achieved their desired emotional plateau, they are then forced to communicate to the surrounding world that they are, in fact, ready to resume participation (as exemplified by Myers communicative exhumation at the end of Kindling). The role of these mediums, methods, and modes of discourse is deeply rooted in de facto practicality, a rhetorically necessary component that both helps propel the expositional framework and reinforces the exoskeletal clarity of the story itself.

 

While such rationalization may seem abstruse and inapplicable to the task at hand, consider the following example: in Fever, one of Carver’s most “explicit treatments” of the inadequacy of communication, when the protagonist Carlyle calls his girlfriend Carol, she “says she understands his wanting be alone, adding, ‘I can respect that.’ Momentarily falling into the seductive lure of psycho-babble, Carlyle says, ‘Thanks for being there when I need you’” (May 2001). As illustrated, the actual act of communication- that is, Carlyle calling his girlfriend to state he would like to be alone – did not, necessarily, impact his desire to be alone (at least in the short term), but it did allow Carver a venue for relaying, to the reader, that a certain sense of insularity/separation was, in fact, desired by the protagonist. To maintain such separation, however, Carlyle is forced to communicate his desires to his significant other and, consequently, the reader.

 

A further example of a scenario in which Carver utilizes a specific, communicative medium to serve as his expositional vehicle can be found in the story “Why, Honey.” Utilizing a first person, confessional letter-styled expositional apparatus, Carver speaks from the viewpoint of a mother worried that her politically-powerful but cruel son is trying to harm her. Fearing for her own life, the woman has sought refuge in isolation, when she receives a letter (the initial action leading up to the letter is not remarked upon) from an unknown individual asking about her son. She replies: “I was so surprised to receive your letter asking about my son, how did you know I was here? I moved here years ago right after it started to happen. No one knows who I am here but I’m afraid all the same.” Herein, the woman is clearly indicating her preference for isolation (bourn, obviously, out of fear) yet Carver, ironically, is utilizing that desire for isolation, and the subsequent pragmatic informational communication, to tell the story. As such, the desire on the part of the letter writer has not changed – that is, there is no explicit indication that the woman desires for any one to “know who” she is – yet, at the same time, she is effectively breaking away from her isolation in order to explicate her reasoning for seeking separation in the first place. More importantly, however, is the fact that she is utilizing the letter to describe the circumstances surrounding her isolation and why, exactly, such course of action was necessary.

 

Carver understood, fundamentally, the ways that isolation and literature could be juxtaposed in order to create a dynamic and important product that transcended the simple cause-and-effect scenarios that inundate the works of lesser authors. Exposition can offer a window into the omnipresent, a clear vista overlooking the plateau of introspection. As utilized by Carver, character isolation, in both its emotional and physical manifestations, allows for real time rationalization of the protagonist’s experiences. For example, in Gazebo, the emotional separation between Duane and Holly, brought about by Duane’s infidelity, is progressively delineated throughout the story, effectively enabling the reader to comprehensively understand the layered and textured sense of pain felt by both individuals. In a sense, the couple’s emotional separation from each other has caused them both to become increasingly isolated from the surrounding world. They ignore the hotel’s customers (both are employed as innkeepers) and their own biological need for food and sleep. As such, their marital dysfunction – represented primarily through alcohol abuse and arguments regarding Duane’s infidelity – preoccupies them to the point where the surrounding world is largely forgotten. Furthermore, as the threat of physical separation becomes closer to realization, the reader understands, implicitly, the tragic consequences of such separation, especially when Duane remarks “Holly was my own true love.”

 

Furthermore, the operative mechanisms of literary isolation enable Carver’s readers the ability to establish a sense of intimacy with the protagonist, a balmy, albeit familiar understanding between reader and character that transcends simple exposition. As put forth by Conliffe:

 

“Keying on the isolated individual provides intensive reflection on that specific temperament, on how that individual’s impressions are filtered and his ideas are developed or expressed. Such focus on an individual allows insight to the effect on him of the spontaneous potential of every moment—the chance of mundane routines, unpredictable problems, and unexpected joys—and whether the individual is receptive and empathetic to it. The narrative relays discontent and acceptance and shows how an imagination reacts to such responses. It gives the inner as well as the outer reaction, the individual as well as the general understanding” (2006).

 

This point is crucial in one’s understanding of both Carver and the concept of isolation. By focusing on the individual and allowing life to occur at its own pace, Carver is reaching out to the reader’s own experience with the intrinsically chaotic nature of the mundane. In mapping out his character’s moments of personal introspection – the fragile moments spent alone in which solace seems not only desirable, but digestively ameliorative – Carver is appealing to our own experience organizing and interpreting of the frequent diaspora of logicality and rationality in daily life. Carver’s emotional spectrum, often culminating as a palpably commonplace yet twisting phoenix of epiphany and sudden illumination (Leypoldt 2001), is only marginally unpredictable. And, as such, the outward actions of his protagonists are rarely extreme or blatantly phosphorescent. However, Carver’s treatment of isolation allows for a panoptic view into each character’s internal mechanisms (be it through the third person omniscient, third person limited, or the first person narrative structures), including their situational and circumstantial processes of rationalization. Accordingly, the “more than meets the eye” convention becomes clear in which each character’s spectrum of being is influenced by both daily conventions of normality and Carver’s unique, albeit sheepishly unassuming, conceptualization of existentialism.

 

As stated earlier, however, Carver’s employment of isolation and isolator vehicles elusively eschew any sense of anthological conformity. And, as also previously stated, any catalogue conceived solely in the pursuit of simplistic categorization will not only fail, but do so miserably. Instead, upon defining and outlining the abecedarian elements of Carver’s application of insular forces, one can only hope to provide of pragmatic examples of how such energies have been functionally utilized in specific cases. The cumulative hope is, of course, that Carver’s readers will actively recognize, in their subsequent consumption of Carver, the presence and importance of isolation in the his work, effectively enriching both literary and practical perception.

 

The final aspiration of this work is to analytically comment upon the utilization of isolation in the stories “Kindling,” and “Nobody Said Anything.” Before, however, actual discussion of these texts, it is pertinent to put forth an explanation of the operative methodology behind the selection of these specific stories as representatives of Carver’s idiomatic conceptualization of isolation. As many critics have noted, Carver’s post-“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” work, commencing with “Cathedral,” is substantially less laconic in its iconography, assuming instead an evolutionary cadence that broke from the minimalistic pangaea of his earliest work. And as this author’s intent is to provide a generalized sense of insight into Carver’s manifestation of isolation and not discourse relating to his literary execution, it is necessary discuss Carver in an expansively ranging scope. Therefore, the selected stories have been chosen because, intrinsically, they illustrate Carver at the rhetorically distinctive poles of his published career, with “Nobody Said Anything” appearing in the 1976 “Will You Be Please Be Quiet, Please?” and “Kindling” appearing the posthumously published “Call If You Need Me.” [1] The hope is, of course, that the sample’s wide chronological breadth will establish a sense of completeness and thoroughness as it relates to the isolator presence.

 

InKindling,” discovered in Carver’s Port Angeles, Washington residence after his death, Carver’s first cognizant move is to scrub away any delineation of the outside, “functioning” world while simultaneously establishing the emotional status of the story’s protagonist, Myers. The story’s first line is poetically abrupt, stating, simply: ‘It was August and Myers was between lives.” In such manner, Carver is removing the story’s context from the contemporary world and isolating it to the degree that time and place become irrelevant. Since the idea of lives cannot be quantified in a physical sense – it is, of course, a relative impossibility for one to move between lives in the physically empirical world – the idea of “lives” must be viewed within the constraints of human mortality. That is, the word “lives” is directly referring the emotionally transient process one goes through when approaching his or her life after suffering blunt force emotional trauma. It is a period of uncertainty and tentative acceptance, scarred with ambiguity.

 

In Meyers’s case, the reader quickly discovers that he is in the throes of disastrous personal turmoil: “He’d just spent twenty-eight days at a drying out facility. But during this period his wife took it into her head to go down the road with another drunk, a friend of theirs.” As such, Myers’s has, seemingly, been emotionally and physically abandoned by his wife. He is isolated from the normality of his previous “life” and set adrift in a situational frame of cognizance where his emotions are still soiled with the recent memory of his past “life” – a living situation that was seemingly defined in equal parts by his drinking problem and his domestic status. In the process of correcting the former, he loses the latter, leaving him with, comparatively speaking, a new “life.” It is obvious form his wife’s decision to “go down the road” with another “drunk” that Myers’s alcoholism was not the genesis for the marital dissolution and while Carver never explicitly provides the reasoning for the wife’s decision, alluding simply to a life of disillusionment (and, perhaps, the fact that Myers’s friend had recently “come into some money), there is a sense that Myers’s previous life had fallen well short of the American halcyon and, for that reason, he is now experiencing difficulty connecting, both emotionally and physically, to the outside world. Accordingly, Myers is cemented in uncertainty, emotionally insulated and between “lives.” He has neither transitioned to his new “life” nor reconciled with his past “life.”

 

Carver then proceeds to use Myer’s emotional status to define his physical status. In the first paragraph, immediately following the assertion that Myers is, in fact, between lives, Carver uses the expositional infrastructure to contextualize Myers’s present physical status, saying “So he [Myers] took a few things, boarded a bus, and went to live near the ocean.” The fact that Carver specifically states that Myers has chosen to live somewhere near the ocean is not trivial. The ocean has long been seen as a symbolic getaway from the tightly knot constrains of jobs, bills, and relationships. The oceanside is a place for vacations, a place for man to marvel at the chasmal enormity of ocean and its reaching desolation. As such, Myers appears to be actively seeking to create distance between himself and the world he has been injured by. As discussed by critic Kirk Nesset, Carver’s characters often “seal themselves off from their worlds, walling out the threatening forces of their lives even as they wall themselves in” (1994).

 

Myers’s living arrangements further isolate him from surrounding society. While he rents a single room from a childless family – a disfigured man named Sol and his fat wife, Bonnie – Myers’s assiduously plans his schedule to avoid contact with his housemates or, as carver states, “he adjusted his schedule to theirs.” While Myers is forced to interact with his surroundings, he does so with great reservation and infrequency, often appearing, as Conliffe states, “away with the birds.”

 

Carver furthers this emotional/physical dynamic when he describes, at various points throughout the story, Myers’s isochronal case of writers block. As evidenced in lines such as “late that night, before going to bed, he opened his notebook and on a clean page wrote, Nothing.” Since Carver clearly indicates a desire, on the part of Myers, to reconcile his marital relationship, it can be concluded that Myers is to the point where he is so emotionally dysfunctional that he cannot communicate what he is feeling to the outside world and, by striving for physical seclusion, no longer has any aspirations of doing so. Myers’s perceived case of writers block indicates a certain disenfranchisement from his normally functioning self, a deviation in which his desire for isolation is clearly reflected in his inability to push past the arid desert of imaginative nihility.

 

“Kindling” climaxes with Myers feverishly splitting wood for his housemates. He does so not out of any realistically appreciable affection for the couple, but instead in the hope that such menial labor will provide him with some semblance of therapy, an ameliorative solvent in which mindless toil will allow him to recoup, to feel alive again, to finally complete the transition from his old “life” to his new “life.” Stuck between lives, Myers floundered hopelessly in the deciduous stickiness of uncertainty and loneliness. His emotional disengagement from life and relationships led to his physical separation from society. He sought refuge in loneliness, isolation, and insularity. He sought therapy in the manually-demanding-but-cognitively unassuming world of hard work and pedestrian accomplishment. And through such process, Myers experiences a metamorphosis of sorts. Carver proceeds to describe Myers breaking through the constrains of his metaphorical purgatory. His writers block is gone and, with a clear sense of purpose, Myers begins to write. The story closes with Carver saying “he [Myers] left the window open when he got into bed. It was okay like that.” Finally, it would seem, Myers has transitioned to his new life. He is “okay” with the future and its welling uncertainty, effectively conquering the urge for detachment that served as the genesis for the story.

 

“Nobody Said Anything,” in contrast to “Kindling,” reveals and effectuates the isolationist theme an enervating stratus that is ostensibly distinct from the implicit and referential forms of discourse primarily utilized by Carver when handling the concepts sexuality and desire. The story, narrated from the perspective of a young boy caught in the sticky throes of adolescence and self-discovery, is inserted within the framework of marital and domestic instability. Published in his first collection, the 1976 “Will You Please Be Quiet Please,” “Nobody Said Anything” relies heavily on minimalist vehicles of discourse and a certain sort of crude language uncommon in Carver’s later works. The sweeping domestic maelstrom of discontent has very obviously distracted the narrator’s parents from their role as caretakers, leaving the boy to feel isolated and unhappy. In fact, the boy’s observational vantage point allows him only participation in the sense that his emerging conceptualization of the world is being dynamically, and tragically, shaped by his parent’s inability to see beyond their marital plight. The boy is further isolation from his younger brother George, who is too young to understand either his parent’s or his brother’s sense of isolation and unhappiness. “You dumb chickenshit,” the narrator says to George, “Their fighting and mom’s crying. Listen.” George, of course, does not understand the gravity of the situation, saying only “I don’t care.” Such attitude, professed on the part of George, leads the narrator to assess his brother as being little more than a “royal asshole.”

 

The narrator professes a significant desire to be alone when he pleads with his mother to allow him to stay home from school. She readily agrees, seemingly unfocused on determining whether he is actually sick (he is very obviously not), replying in an offhand manner: “Stay home, then. But no TV, remember that.” Carver’s minimalist approach to story fights the urge to offer any straightforward moral comment, instead offering perspective only from the boy’s limited understanding of his observation. He is clearly, however, affected by the surrounding domestic chaos and it is this affliction that leads to his desire to be separated from both his family and the surrounding world. As she leaves for work, the mother comments to the narrator that he should take medicine, hoping simply that “Maybe we’ll all feel better by tonight.” By misdiagnosing her son’s “sickness,” the mother’s perception is very obviously limited by her own troubles. Carver’s implication here, of course, is simply that the mother’s preoccupation with her own marital conflict has limited her ability to actively provide any sort of tangible support for her child’s emotional or physical needs.

 

The desire for isolation expressed on the part of the narrator is not merely limited to his unwillingness to attend school. As with all children, school is a burdensome, unpleasant task which unfairly consumes time otherwise reserved for allocated for play and discovery and, as such, there is no specific reason to view the narrator’s initial inclination to feign sickness as anything other than a “boy being a boy.” Carver, understanding this, athletically utilizes two further vessels to juxtapose the expositional architecture and climatic action of the story with the constraining forces of isolation.

 

The first of these isolating forces is manifested in the boy’s gravitational momentum towards the pastoral. Not unlike the forces of rural separation employed by Hemingway in his Nick Adams stories, the young narrator in “Nobody Said Anything” rebukes both television and literature (effectively making a conscious effort to disengage from the societal conventions of media) to instead go fishing. “I thought I would get dressed and walk to Birch Creek. Trout season was open for another week or so, but almost everybody had quit fishing. Everybody was just sitting around now waiting for deer and pheasant to open.” Accordingly, the isolation of the natural world is attractive to the boy as it offers a certain sense of perceived relaxation and, ultimately, escape. This idea is further corroborated when the narrator hitchhikes with a middle-aged woman who remarks “I keep saying that one of these days I’m going to take up fishing. They say it’s very relaxing. I’m a nervous person.” Carver’s employment of isolation is further heightened by his description of the geographical spot along the creek in which the boy decides to cast his line. “”I went up to the embankment and climbed under a fence that had a KEEP OUT sign on the post. One of the airport runways started here.”

 

Whether or not fishing has ameliorative qualities is unimportant to both the story and the reader’s understanding of the narrator. Instead, Carver is methodically indicating the existence of a desire to be alone and then reinforcing that desire with the physical description of a time and place in which the narrator and the outside world (and, subsequently, its emotionally propulsive qualities) are definitely separated. The capitalization of the KEEP OUT sign places a clear and outward emphasis on its importance. At the same time, Carver symbolically alludes to the airport, which, despite its brevity, is important to the understanding of the use of isolation and insularity within the greater story. As the KEEP OUT sign represents a sense of exclusivity between the boy and the natural world, the airport represents escape, a way to insert physiographic distance between the boy and the negative influence of his domestic environment.

 

Furthermore, Carver’s pronounced employment of sexual fantasy has a dramatically energetic implication as it relates to the functional utilization of isolation as an affecting force. The narrator’s misunderstanding and crude rationalization of both sex and sexuality initially appears to be little more than a Freudian conceptualization of sexual identification whereupon the young narrator is simply discovering his instinctual, albeit youthfully lustful, desires in spite of the societal forces that preach restraint and active limitation of those desires. The fact, however, that Carver is prolific in his cultivation of such fantasy essentially dictates that the reader must look at the uses of fantasy as more than a mere indication of youth. As such, the narrator consistently uses his sexual fantasies as an escape from the forces of conflict that frame his life, clearly indicating that Carver is using the boy’s sexual desires as a stabilizing mechanism. The ways that Carver reinforces the idea of sexual fantasy as an escape are externalized primarily in the boy’s crudely juvenile conceptualization of the act of intimacy. He snoops through his parent’s drawers, hoping to find something indicative sexual activity. He masturbates incessantly. The woman who gives the boy a ride is described as wearing a “brown sweater with nice boobs inside.” The boy thematically fantasizes about the woman, saying “Suddenly we are in my bedroom under the covers. She asks me if she can keep her sweater on and I say its ok with me. She keeps her pants on too,” and, later: “We were French-kissing on the couch when she excused herself to go the bathroom. I followed her. I watched as she pulled down her pants and sat on the toilet. I had a big boner and she waved me over with her hand.”

 

The crude language that Carver uses is employed, in part, to reflect the age of the adolescent narrator. However, it would be a mistake to subscribe to the belief that these boyish fantasies are merely utilized in order to reflect the boy’s pubescence outlook on the world around him. While, surely, such idea is, in fact, relayed from Carver to the reader, his fantasies provide him with an escape from the quotidian routine that seems to be dominated by the symphonic interplay of marital disharmony. It’s an easy, inefficient escape from his world, spurred forward the boy’s empirical inexperience. As such, Carver contextualizes his language without removing the presence of isolation from the story. Accordingly, the climactic action of the story – the process of capturing the large fish – is structured by the narrator’s desire to for separation. As the narrator leaves the creek, he notices another boy frantically trying to catch a large fish with his hands. Intrigued, the narrator throws his lot in with the boy in order to capture the fish. However, the narrator is suspicious and aggressively distasteful in both his description and interactions with boy, describing him as looking like “a rat or something,” and calling him an “asshole idiot” on more than one occasion. Initially, the narrator came to the creek in order to disengage from the troubling and complex world swirling around him. And once this sense of insularity is shattered, the narrator reacts in a passive-aggressive manner. His demeanor is restrained in part because he sees the other boy as a means to his end – which is, of course, capturing the fish.

Upon the apprehension and killing of the fish, the narrator and the other boy came to a crossroads: who will keep the catch. Each has a legitimate claim to the fish. The narrator knows that he could physically intimidate the boy in order to keep the fish but he instead chooses to compromise and “half him.” This point bears significance to the story because Carver is demonstrating that despite his difficult home situation, he is still a rational, average boy. In turn, this suggests that the domestic discord experienced by the boy was not endemic to the entirety of his life, instead assuming an ephemeral, transient value. As such, Carver’s minimal rhetoric hints at a temporary sense of isolation. The narrator, despite his delineated desire for separation, has the ability to successfully interact with those around him. Unable to understand why he cannot penetrate the cognizance of his parents, he turns to isolation and insularity (manifested by physical separation and youthful fantasy) as coping mechanism.

 

When the narrator returns to the house, his parents are, again, arguing. He observes them through the window and sees a pan burning on the stove. “Smoke was all over the kitchen,” Carver writes. “I saw it coming from a pan on the burner. But neither of them paid any attention.” The pan, it would seem, is representational of the narrator: unnoticed by the parents despite the very definite indication that attention is, in fact, required. Attempting to bayonet his way into their consciousness, the protagonist opens the kitchen door and states: “Look here. Look at this. Look at what I caught.” His parents react angrily, perhaps at his intrusion into their spherical world of anger. As Carver writes: “I held the creel out to her and she finally looked in. ‘Oh, oh, my God! What is it? A snake! Please, please take it out before I throw up.” The exchange concludes with the father plainly telling the boy “I don’t want to look…What in the hell is the matter with you? Take it the hell out of the kitchen and throw it in the goddamn garbage.” As the story concludes, the reader sees that the boy is unable to penetrate his parent’s spectrum of cognition and, just as the story began, is on the outside, looking in. The world his parents exist in is one he can observe but never assimilate and, as a result, his paternal needs are left largely unfulfilled. The boy clearly desires his parent’s acknowledgment but his attempts to achieve such attention are fruitless. As a way of coping, the boy seeks a simplistic conceptualization of separation – consummated through his physical and mental detachment from the obese unfairness of his reality – that is, ultimately, deemed to fail.

 

Obviously, the ways that isolation is represented and handled in “Kindling” and “Nobody Said Anything” are comparably different. While both protagonists seek separation from the whole as an ameliorative solvent to their affecting problems, the outcome is significantly different for Myers than it is for the narrator in “Nobody Said Anything.” Myers achieved a sense of closure, a pragmatic resolution that although relatively inconclusive, offered great hope for a better future. The narrator, comparatively, faced problems of less intensity than Myers but achieved no resolution. Furthermore, the desire to isolated, to be distinctly separate from the whole, is far more pronounced in “Kindling” than in “Nobody Said Anything.” Despite the use of a dream sequence, the use of fantasy is largely ignored in “Kindling.” In “Kindling,” Carver’s fixative use of the emotional aspects of loneliness and separation is developed the bulwark of the story whereas the emotional acuity of the protagonist in “Nobody Said Anything” is mostly uncommented upon.

 

Of course, the reasoning behind the comparison was partly to pragmatically demonstrate Carver’s variegated use of isolation and isolator techniques. Like the schematics of his rhetoric, Carver’s use of isolation evolved and grew throughout his career. He utilized different isolator methods in different degrees in each individual story. In some stories, the focus was the tangible process physical and/or mental isolated while in other stories, isolation played a more peripheral role. Surely, the role that isolation and insularity played in different stories is not heterogeneous by any stretch of the imagination. Such insular forces play less pronounced roles in stories such as “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes,” and “Boxes” than they do in “A Small, Good Thing” and “Fever.” The concept of spatial detachment is more significantly applied in later stories while the use of symbolic isolation is significantly more fragile in earlier stories. The true importance, however, is the presence of isolation throughout Carver’s anthological body, the fact that, like his style and cadence and diction, Carver altered the way isolation was used without extracting it.

 

Carver’s legacy is inherently tied to his ability to depict the everyman with bright notes of complexity and compassion. As Irwin Howe noted, Carver drew “upon the American voice of loneliness and stoicism, the native soul locked in this continent’s space” in an uncommonly alluring manner (Nesset 1994). Like Hopper and Rockwell, Carver’s method of correspondence was unambiguously and unapologetically pedestrian. His stories exist as miniature portraits within the patchwork neurology of greater Americana. Flawed and incomplete, Carver’s characters are pettily and selfishly incognizant of any looming reality that exists outside of what they can hear and smell. They are often lonely and unhappy, bitterly unable to summit the American dream. But always, there is hope. The depressingly absinthian battles fought within the constraining forces of breathing and dying are debilitating but never encapsulating. Carver’s ability to resonate, however, was not and is not tied solely this lucidly magnanimous depiction of the sub- bourgeois. Loneliness and separation, while possessing the potentiality of further catastrophe, can help prepare the mind to accost and cope with the engagingly abrasive phantasms that haunt lives and relationships. It is of no coincidence that Carver’s characters often seek private sanctuary as an alternative to their alcohol and drug abuse. And, herein, Carver saw the monumental power of reflection and the constituent paramountcy of the pacific moments of introspection and digestion that amorphously and succulently offer reprieve from personal tragedy and discontent. With Carver, the emergence of a personal sense equanimity that seeks to overcome the quotidian genocide of the past is often manifested within the constraints of isolation and separation. Self-enlargement is hinted at but never actualized, loftily perched just over the looming horizon. Perhaps mirroring the trials that dotted his own life, Carver recognized that the epiphanic freedom of solitude and self-realization is the fertile geography in which hope is unassailably preserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Carver, Raymond. “Fever.” Where I’m Calling From. New York: Vintage Contemporaries/Random House, 1989.

Carver, Raymond. “Kindling.” Call If You Need Me. New York: Vintage Contemporaries/Random House, 2000.

 

Carver, Raymond. “Nobody Said Anything.” Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? New York: Vintage Contemporaries/Random House, 1991.

 

Carver, Raymond. “The Art of Fiction LXXVI.” The Paris Review (1983).

 

Carver, Raymond. “Why, Honey?” Where I’m Calling From. New York: Vintage Contemporaries/Random House, 1989.

 

Champion, Laurie. “So Much Whiskey So Far From Home; Misogny, Violence, and Alcoholism in Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From”” Studies in Short Fiction. Vol. 36 (1999).

 

Champion, Laurie. “”What’s to Say”: Silence in Raymond Carver’s “Feathers”” Studies in Short Fiction. Vol. 34 (1997).

 

Conliffe, Mark. “On Isolation.” Midwest Quarterly (2006).

Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell, 1968.

Leypoldt, Gunter. “Raymond Carver’s Epiphanic Moments.” Style. Vol.35. No. 3 (2001).

May, Charles E. “”Do You See What I’M Saying?”: the Inadequacy of Explanation and the Uses of Story in the Short Fiction of Raymond Carver.” North American Short Stories and Short Fictions. Vol. 31 (2001).

 

Nesset, Kirk. “Insularity and Self-Enlargement in Raymond Carver’s Cathedral.” Essays in Literature (1994).

 

Raabe, David. “Carver’s “a Serious Talk”” Explicator. Vol 62. No 4 (2004).

 

Scofield, Martin. “Story and History in Raymond Carver.” Critique. Vol. 40 No. 3 (1999).

 

Taub, Gadi. “On Small, Good Things: Raymond Carver’s Modest Existentialism.” Raritan Quarterly. V22. No.2 (2002).


[1] “Call If You Need Me” was published in 2000, 12 years after Carver’s death in 1988. The winner of the 1999 O. Henry Award, “Kindling” is largely viewed as one his final works.

03
Mar
08

Pastoral Genocide