Discover more from Art / Life: Scribblings by Michael Bryson
Raymond Carver (1993)
In which the author finds a path, learns to say YES and dance at the carnival (believe it or not)
This coming week would be the 15th anniversary of Kate's and mine marriage. Instead, we made it to four in 2011 before the cancer took her (four-and-three-quarters, but who's counting?). One of the songs I suggested we play at our wedding was The Band's Life is a Carnival (Believe It Or Not) (1971).
This didn't happen. I got vetoed, though I still think "the carnival" is a good frame for the beginning of any relationship. For the beginning of any endeavor, any day, really. When Kate and I met in 2006, she was sorting the debris of her marriage, which had recently ended, and I was trying to track a path through my own fragments of ambition and tragedy.
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We'd each experienced too much darkness to be blindly hopeful, but we were hopeful. We were purposeful. Yes, sometimes things were very hard. Other times, things were very good. Life was a carnival, believe it or not. We recognized the range of experience encountered in, or illuminated by, another phrase I liked, the title of R.E.M.'s 1986 album: Lifes Rich Pageant.
Though it’s actually based on an old English idiom, R.E.M. reputedly first encountered the phrase “life’s rich pageant” through watching the 1964 film A Shot In The Dark, starring Peter Sellers as the hapless fictional French detective Inspector Clouseau. In the film, Clouseau opens a car door and falls into a fountain. In response, the movie’s female lead, Maria Gambrelli (played by actress Elke Sommer) says, “You should get out of these clothes immediately. You’ll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.” To this, Clouseau replies philosophically, “Yes, I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know.”
From the vantage of the present, it might seem strange that I continue to hold dear "the carnival" image, but I do. (One example of it might be the fact, newly learned, that it was Sellers as Clouseau who hipped R.E.M. to the phrase, something both dark and hilarious.)
The carnival—or more precisely, the carnivalesque—became a foundational idea for me during my years in Saskatoon, 1992-94, an idea I encountered in Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel (1986). "The carnivaleque," however, doesn't belong to Kundera; it belongs to the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), articulated most prominently in his book, Rabelais and His World (1965). Another notable Bakhtin title is The Dialogic Imagination (1981). Sadly, I never picked up Bakhtin directly and can only report encounters with his ideas via Kundera—and later in the essays of novelist and short story writer, Douglas Glover, notably in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon, 1999). Plus some rummaging around in the work of authors Bakhtin and others cite: Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, for example, the pre-modern post-modern precursors.
The carnivalesque (Oxford Reference):
Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian linguist and literary critic writing in the first half of the 20th century, used this term to characterize writing that depicts the de-stabilization or reversal of power structures, albeit temporarily, as happens in traditional forms of carnival. Although this may take the form of writing about, or otherwise representing (in film, painting, sculpture, etc.), actual or imagined carnivals, for Bakhtin it was important that the work itself should come to embody the spirit of carnival too. It can do this, as Bakhtin shows in Rabelais and his World (1968), by mobilizing humour, satire, and grotesquery in all its forms, but especially if it has to do with the body and bodily functions. François Rabelais, a French author from the early 1500s, is regarded by Bakhtin as an almost perfect exponent of carnivalesque writing. His most famous work Gargantua and Pantagruel is a vivid illustration of Bakhtin's thesis. It shows a world in which transgressive social behaviour thrives beneath the veneer of social order, constantly threatening to upend things. Conceived in the dark days of the great purges and the Second World War, Bakhtin's concept is often read as a utopian antidote to repressive forms of power everywhere and a celebration of the possibility for affirmative change, however transitory in nature. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986) by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White makes a very strong case along these lines, as does Robert Stam in Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism and Film (1989).
I began to read the work of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) in earnest following Christmas 1993, when friends gifted me the anthology of Carver's short fiction collected in support of Robert Altman's 1993 film, Short Cuts.
Filmed from a screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, it is inspired by nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver. The film has a Los Angeles setting, which is substituted for the Pacific Northwest backdrop of Carver's stories. Short Cuts traces the actions of 22 principal characters, both in parallel and at occasional loose points of connection. The role of chance and luck is central to the film, and many of the stories concern death and infidelity (Wikipedia, accessed August 21, 2022).
Sound carivalesque? Maybe so. There is a veneer of social order, sure, and the constant threat of things being upended. Carveresque, absolutely, though what that signifies can depend on who's saying it. Once I read that there's a dash of Kafka in Carver, and I thought that a good insight. The world of Carver's stories is often out of control, or controlled by mysterious forces, though the world is commonly upended by alcohol or addition or poverty or family dysfunction or just plain people behaving weird. The lightening bolt for me, immediately, was how the stories had good structure (beginning, middle, end), yet the characters often made no progress. These were stories of trapped characters, captured by circumstance or powers beyond their control. I had been trying to write stories, over and over, and often found my characters were trapped, and I was struggling with how to free them. Reading Carver, I realized I didn't need to free them, the tension of their being trapped, which could move to some kind of awareness (comic or tragic) could be the story.
I also saw, in retrospect, that the exercises I'd written for Barbara Gowdy's class in the summer of 1992 (before I'd read Carver) were Carveresque. The language was simple and direct, and also it hinted as mysteries that would remain unexplained. Early on, I'd absorbed Hemingway's metaphor of writing: the iceberg. Ninety per cent of what was happening wasn't on the page. But I'd wanted to move past Hemingway, and in Carver I saw new strategies built on the old ones. Hemingway could be stark and relentless, which Carver had, too, but Carver had empathy and less self-heroism. Working through the 12 Steps, for Carver, probably had a lot to do with that. The acknowledgement that life was beyond one's control.
I read everything by Carver I could get my hands on. I read interviews with him, where he talked about craft, about the tension within and between sentences. I became a student on his opening lines, how simple they were, and also how they set the terms of the confusion. What was going on? Each sentence opened to the next, pushing for a clarity that they also resisted, even complicated. The stories were, in effect, talking to themselves, creating and positioning different voices in argument, pushing for a stability that it the story would also undermine. A narrative in dialogue with itself: the dialogic imagination (Bakhtin).
This was a real shift in perception for me. So much of literary studies had upheld the Victorian novelists as they prime examples of good literature, and what those novelists had achieved was unity of voice, unity of purpose, all elements of the story working together towards a common end. How British, how imperialist. But the more I tried to write, the less I seemed able to pull that off. Being introduced to Bakhtin and Carver blew up any remaining ambition I had to seek unity of purpose. I should also note here Thomson Highway. In a foreword to Geoffrey York's The Dispossessed (1989), Highway contrasts the Cree Trickster "with the central hero figure from that other mythology—Christian mythology," and got me thinking in new ways about, well, life and its rich pageant, beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche says, and what Thomson says the Trickster says, "that we are here to have one hell of a good time."
What this meant in part, was that no story was ever done, every story opened into other stories, every dialogue opened into other dialogues. Monologues, seeking unity, seeking singularity, was done. Writing short stories remained a struggle. I was still searching for a momentum, but I'd found the entry portal. I was on a path, at last, and I had a sense of where I wanted to go.
Here’s Salman Rushdie (from Imaginary Homelands, 1991) on Carver’s last poetry book, A New Path to the Waterfall (1989):
The bottom line, for Ray, was lung cancer. The last group of poems in this volume, poems strong enough to turn the inevitable death into art, have a simple, declaratory honesty that make them almost unbearable to read. This is the beginning of “What the Doctor Said”:
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on
one lung before
I quit counting them
And the ending is, if anything, even more shocking: “I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me / something no one else on earth had ever given me / I may even have thanked him habit being so strong.”
… Read everything Raymond Carver wrote. His death is hard to accept, but at least he lived.
Meanwhile, what was going on in my life?
I had been a big fan of the Blue Jays since the early 1980s, and now that I had left Ontario they won two World Series. Fate was good to me, though, in 1993 my employer sent me to Toronto for a conference that overlapped with the final games of the Blue Jays versus the Phillies: Joe Carter versus Mitch "the Wild Thing" Williams. I watched that home run in my parents' living room and everything in the universe made sense. I walked with friends out into the night, along Danforth Avenue, where people piled into the streets by the hundreds and thousands and the world radiated joy. A year earlier, when Toronto won the 1992 World Series, there had been a "riot" in Saskatoon, vandalism along a suburban mall-lined street. Toronto seemed to flash a universal peace sign.
My employer, Saskatoon Community Mediation Services, had asked me to raise their profile in the community. In the summer of 1994, we received a grant to run a puppet show in playgrounds around the city, written in a way to illustrate approaches to conflict. I wrote a news release about the play, and I was interviewed by the local television news for one evening's broadcast. We also managed to get a story on the front page of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper, but I can't remember what for. It might have been the "conflict in the church" conference we organized as a fund raiser. We coordinated multi-day event, bringing in a trainer from Chicago, and managed to promote the event across denominations and had a real, substantial ecumenical—can I say polyphonic (?)—learning event.
Most fun, though, was the improv theatre troupe we put together, mostly from our own staff. We work shopped a show and held a dinner theatre as a fundraiser. I don't remember any of our routines, except in the show I was blindfolded at one point and in the dinner theatre show I nearly walked off of the stage. The improv training, though, has stayed with me to this day. The first role of improv is to always say YES to any suggestion by your colleagues. Don't shut down the story. Take whatever they give you and add to it. This is great advice for relationships of all sorts.
For about a year or so, I had a show on the local community radio station. A friend of mine told me they needed volunteer DJs, so I went with him to the training and signed up, no questions asked. I started doing one-hour a week, then got asked to increase to two-hours a week. At the beginning I was diligent about planning my show. The station had a large record collection, and in the both the DJ would line up the track, then flip the audio from one turntable to the other and introduce the songs with chatter. I tried to chatter as little as possible. I also became less diligent over time and sometimes came to the studio with no plan whatsoever. I would pick random records from the shelves and play random tracks. The station asked me if I would stand for election to the board of directors. I did so, but didn't survive the election process. It seems incredible that any of this happened, looking back, but it did.
Another surprising but true thing I did related to uranium mining. "Northern Saskatchewan has the largest high-grade uranium deposits in the world. This region is the source of almost a quarter of the world's uranium supply for electrical generation." My memory is fuzzy about what actually happened, but there was some kind of public hearings. People I knew were critical of uranium mining, and a number of them made presentations taking that position. They asked me if I would make a presentation. I made a presentation, focusing on the nuclear industry and its effect on culture, notably growing up in an era saturated with fears of apocalypse. I noted I was not presenting any scientific detail, and I was asking the panel to reflect on the general cultural environment and the choices we collectively make about what kind of world we want to live in. I included a quote from Albert Einstein. As I prepared for my presentation, I watched others present and almost everyone made some kind of reference to Albert Einstein. When I started my presentation, I noted: "I, too, will be using the words of Albert Einstein." I received one question to my presentation, from the panelist from France, but I don't recall what it was. It was critical, but good natured. The uranium mining continued, contrary to the wishes of my friends.
I was a frequent visitor to Amigo’s, especially if The Rhinos, Bob Wiseman, or The Rheostatics were coming through town. The Arrogant Worms at the Fringe Festival were also a favourite.
What was I reading?
I remember reading Evelyn Lau's Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989) after the CBC broadcast the made-for-TV movie based on the same (March 13, 1994). Lau writes about many hard things, life of the streets, prostitution, etc., but it was a conversation with her therapist that stuck with me. Lau ran away from home to get away from her parents, yet even on the street her parents haunt her. Her therapist says we have two sets of parents: one in real life, the other in our heads. The ones in real life we can't change, but the ones in our heads we can manage. A year later, I interviewed Lau at a hotel in Toronto and wrote a profile for ID Magazine, focusing on her new novel, Other Women (1995).
For some reason, I pursued an obsession with Dylan Thomas. Book store after book store I searched for Dylan Thomas and, finding little, concluded literary culture was dead. Still, the Saskatoon Public Library had a copy of Caitlin Thomas's darkly hilarious Not Quite Posthumous Letter to My Daughter (1963). Among the advice given, don't marry a poet. I later found a hard cover copy of Caitlin's book, which I continue to hold with eternal happiness.
I read Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) and The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals (1978), after having read Rosemary Sullivan's biography of Smart and written a review of it from the University of Waterloo student newspaper, Imprint, May 29, 1992.
I read Martin Amis, the early novels. More Philip Roth. And Robert Kroetsch, The Words of My Roaring (1966) and The Studhorse Man (1969). I made an enigmatic reference to The Words of My Roaring in my story "Beginnings & Endings," first published in Event (1999) and included in Thirteen Shades of Black & White (Turnstone Press, 1999). The phrase "beginnings and endings" is repeated in The Words of My Roaring. From my story:
I was sitting in one of the cafes, sipping a beer, reading that Kroetsch novel. Beginnings and endings. I had them on my mind.
I waved at her to come join me.
"You want something to eat?" I asked.
"Sure," she said.
I gestured to the waitress to bring a menu. The waitress was from Ireland. She was in Toronto for the summer on an employment exchange program.
"How have you been?" I asked.
"Good," she said.
She picked up the Kroetsch novel, flipped it over. On the back cover was a photograph of Kroetsch from the 1960s. He looked awful, like a real suit. Some kind of McCarthyesque dinosaur. He wasn't like that at all, I knew. But that's what he looked like. Like a university lecturer. A real drag.
Darlene pointed at the photograph.
"Creepy," she said.
"Isn't it awful?" I agreed.
She set the book back on the table, photograph side down.
In 1993-94, I was sending short stories out to magazines (Blood & Aphorisms, subTERRAIN, Malahat Review) and getting rejected. My contract in Saskatoon was scheduled to end in September 1994, and I intended to return to Ontario. It had always been my plan, and I started to look for a job "back home." In 1993-94, my brother was the editor of the University of Waterloo student newspaper, Imprint, but he was wrapping up his time in Waterloo, just as I was planning to return. He and my future sister-in-law announced their wedding would be in September 1994, and I accepted a part-time one-year contract job as editorial assistant with the Mennonite Reporter, starting the same month. I planned to work part-time and write part-time, freelance journalism and as much fiction as I could pump out.
Other things happened that summer, involving other people, but I've decided not to write about them.
One story I want to recount happened when I first arrived in Saskatoon. The director of Saskatoon Community Mediation Services was explaining to me what the agency did and what I hoped to accomplish. I sure she didn't use the term "culture shift," but this is what she was talking about. Changing how people think about conflict, changing the way people undertake conflict, changing behaviours. Improving the outcomes of conflict, everywhere, as much as possible. One example she gave, in the negative, was Oprah.
"Oprah?" I said. "Everyone loves Oprah!"
But, no, she didn't love Oprah. She thought Oprah was an example of how not to address conflict. Force people into confrontation and highlight their differences. Makes for great television. Makes for horrible conflict resolution. That compare-and-contrast has always stayed with me. In a nutshell, it highlights everything that is wrong with the world, everything that the internet, especially social media, has made worse. So much focus now on how people are different from one another, so little energy put into finding what's held in common and building on that. And I don't mean ignore root causes. Conflicts cannot be addressed by finding common cause alone. Root causes are fundamentally important, but conflicts resolved by confrontation create losers and future conflict. Domination does not bring peace. Also, peace is not a static state. It require work, work, work. Lots of fun, too.
Life is a carnival, after all, believe it or not.
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