Friday, August 31, 2012

T. C. Boyle’s “Birnam Wood, “Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House,” and Ian McEwan’s “First Love, Last Rites”—Memory Piece vs. Meaningful Story

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


Jon said...

Well, first off, since I introduced the concept of "flesh and blood," characters, I have to say I meant something different than what is being discussed in this essay. And in terms of the specific issues raised here, I'd just say that Boyle's intent is just very different than Carver or McEwan's (and I'm not really a Boyle, or McEwan, fan). To me, Boyle produces something akin to pop music--his story is fun partly because it need not, and doesn't try, to resonate too widely. I don't see Boyle's characters as "flesh and blood" in that they're not fully realized. They're "types" who serve mainly to propel the story forward and serve as a conduit for Boyle's clever writing. The whole point seems to be to appreciate the author's energetic inventiveness (like the point of listening to pop music is to just carried away in the fun, creative energy.)
To clarify what I did mean by "flesh and blood," I'd like to mention a story by Lydia Davis, titled "They Take Turns Using a Word They Like." The story (in its entirety): "'It's extraordinary,' says one woman. 'It is extraordinary,' say the other."
This short story depends on our capacity as readers to empathize, and identify, with recognizable human behavior--in both the two women in the story and with the author/narrator. We recognize that that's how people bond. We appreciate that the author is wittily observing this interaction and conveying it to us as a "work of art" in a lean, pure form. There are no metaphors and deliberate efforts to signify, but the story does resonate because it's depicting something elementally human.
One could compare this to, say, the novel "Amsterdam," by that McEwan fellow. To me, everything in the book felt white-boarded out. Every character in the book was also unlikable and the overall story was dark and enervating, leaving the author's dry cleverness as the only meaningful theme one could take away.
Lydia Davis gets last word with her story "Away from Home": "It has been so long since she used a metaphor!"

Jon said...

P.s., just to compare the Carver and McEwan stories. I agree that "Chef's House" succeeds at evoking "a painful sense of loneliness." And it does this partly through its style and language. I'd just argue these elements are successful because they evoke a human situation we can all imagine, in the same way Carver made an imaginative effort to relate the event from his ex-partners' perspective.

In contrast, to me McEwan is not as successful because you feel the young author self-consciously choosing an evocative metaphor (informed, one imagines, by his reading widely of other authors.)

Theorbys said...

Birnam Wood has its faults, it seems overwritten, narratively forced at times, and graceless, but reading it out of the very genre of the short story is a bit drastic.

Thematically it is very similar to Chef's House. Both stories suggest that despite favorable physical circumstances (the symbolic good weather) and material circumstances (a nice place to live in peace) people are unlikely to change who they are, even if it poisons their lives. The said poisoning being represented by their relationship with a beloved woman.

In Birnam Wood the narrator's character is poisoning his life, and his narration of that poisoning is a somewhat graceless mix of remembered events, (mainly his angry, resentful, immature behavior) and his own present time reaction to them, characterized by increasing self dislike. This indeed ends in a predictable catastrophe in his relationship, but the story logic makes it nearly inevitable.

At first reading I thought that Nora's saying she wasn't tired would have been a better place to end the story, and it would have been a complete story, at least to me, with a clear meaning and theme, leading to a clear and carefully crafted consequence. I don't believe Keith was having a Gatsby-like experience at that window in the actual ending. Boyle perhaps attempted to bring Keith to some kind of possible means of distancing himself from himself, as an immature, angry, and confused person, destroying his own chance at a loving relationship, and at the same time Boyle is himself looking back, and into, his life then from a present perspective. But it's a short story not a novella and that's the end of it.

Chef's House is more poignant, intimate, wistful, and written with more grace and economy, but then Wes is not narrating, and alcoholism, in remission for a brief summer, is not something whose ugliness is apparent on a day to day basis, although there are indications that Wes has something of an ugly personality: his calling his benefactor's daughter Fat Linda, his children don't love him, his wife, even though she loves him, could not live with him. Of course we can believe that if the summer had gone on forever Wes would have stayed sober, but I don't think that is the idea. Wes says it himself "... I'm who I am."
Middle-aged Wes has lost the battle Keith is still fighting for himself. Chef's House has a softer, more regretful tone, partly made possible by its brevity, and enhanced by being narrated by the tender, loving, understanding Nora. And it can afford brevity because as Carver writes, "What do you want? he said. But that's all he said." There is nothing else to say, it's not even what might have been, the battle was lost before it began and we all knew it. It's story logic was every bit as predictable as Birnam Wood.

At least it seems like that to me, and I just can't think Birnam Wood is not a meaningful story or thematically less significant than Chef's House.

I don't think there is any question that it deploys mood, character, atmosphere, style, and so on, or that it is a fiction, whatever the autobiographical elements. Nor do I think that it will even occur to the readers of the New Yorker, or readers of some future anthology that it is not a short story. The distinction you are making between memory piece and short story, at least here, does not seem justified at all to me, and distinguishing Birnam Wood out of the genre will get you into a big boiling cauldron of theoretical toil and trouble.

PS my name is Eric.

Charles E. May said...

Eric, I am not really worried about getting into a big boiling cauldron of theoretical toil and trouble. Sounds like a Macbeth adventure.

If you want to call Boyle's piece a short story rather than a memory piece, I have no problem with that. Maybe the distinction is just between what C.S. Lewis calls "good art" and "bad art" (See my next blog entry.) Maybe it is the difference between what my colleague Mary Rohrberger called a "simple narrative" and a complex short story.

I like your discussion of the similarity between Boyle's story and Carver's, but I am more interested in what their differences mean.

Thanks for taking the time to join this little conversation.

And if it is the modern theorists who make no distinctions between "good art" and "bad art" that might want to boil me in the oil of theoretical toil and trouble, I have always rather suspected their concoctions to be more like weak tea.