The Book Club

The Pleasures of Narcissism

Dear Chris,

Ah, the Feelies … Chris, I must confess I’m starting to get a little creeped out. Are you my eldritch Republican doppelgänger in some contemporary version of Poe’s “William Wilson” written by the elusive Hiram Moody? Or is the carefully husbanded sense of individuality that members of our generation construct out of the flotsam of pop culture a sham? Does Wilkie Fahnstock represent the allegorical quiddity of our strivings and failures as Willie Loman or Holden Caulfield did for our ancestors? His story is, at bottom, “the tale … of a confused, contemporary young person, a young man overlooked by the public, a person of meager accomplishment, a person of bad temperament, but a guy who nonetheless has a very large collection of compact discs!” This could apply to me, you, everyone we knew. I was born in the U.S.A. I’ve been trapped inside your heart-shaped box for a week. Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone. Ice, baby, I saw your girlfriend she was eating her fingers like they’re just another meal. This is not my beautiful house.

My God, what have I done? If it’s all the same to you, I’ll leave that gauntlet on the ground. Carver’s people seem to me not so much isolated from social contact as abstracted from history and society altogether. They never discuss politics–Vietnam is mentioned exactly twice, I believe; once, as you mention, in “Vitamins,” which also features one of a tiny handful of appearances by nonwhite characters–or movies or popular music. The world around them is blank. The great achievement of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which stitches together about a dozen of Carver’s better stories, is that it reveals this isolation to be a social condition after all, and the movie is terrifying and sad in a way the stories themselves never quite manage to be (and, to be fair, don’t really attempt). The opening shots, if I recall correctly, are of helicopters spraying the endless housing tracts of the San Fernando Valley with malathion, and with them Altman offers an aerial perspective on circumstances Carver insisted on viewing strictly from the ground. (It’s also significant that Altman moved the action from the Pacific Northwest to the more densely populated milieu of Southern California, which enabled him to assemble Carver’s ad hoc explorations of existential drift as a kind of ethnographic sample.)

I still think that Carver’s refusal to extrapolate–his disinclination to know more about his characters than they know about themselves–is a noble ethical gesture. He wasn’t so much interested in representing a social class as in sustaining an allegiance to it–not a political allegiance (since his people lack any political consciousness) so much as a moral one. In “Fires” he declares that he cares more about his characters than his readers, and there’s an element of class resentment in the statement. He’s not–as much as he can help it–going to turn his waitresses and shipping clerks into specimens for the readership of The New Yorker. He won’t allow himself to say anything that might betray a feeling of superiority to the people he writes about. There is something sentimental about this attitude, yes, and something drastically, maybe fatally self-limiting, but also something noble, an absence of contempt, a proud countersnobbery.

Of course, I may be entirely off base. The pleasure I still take in reading Carver may reflect a perverse exoticism, a version of Gerry’s impertinent question to the “staff person” in “The Carnival Tradition.” Moody, in contrast, offers the pleasures of narcissism (and invites defensive criticism based on the narcissism of small differences)–as my first paragraph demonstrates.

One of my favorite moments in his book–a moment of bravura gimmickry–comes in the first part of “Carnival Tradition.” The heroine, M.J., in the midst of a series of disasters–lost keys, wild dogs, barbed wire, near-rape, all in the frenzied minutes before the big opening gala at her Hoboken apartment-cum-conceptual art gallery–suddenly comes unstuck in time, and the temporal perspective zooms forward 15 years to a point at which M.J., having given up dancing and married someone other than Gerry, can look back on her present misery and transform it, through the alchemy of selective memory, into happiness. This passage, as unnervingly precise as the Fahnstock boxed set, made me wonder: What will these stories look like 15 years from now? What, for that matter, would a reader 15 years younger or older than Moody’s target mid-30s demographic make of all this business? Will the story of Wilkie Fahnstock, now so brilliantly self-explanatory that the liner notes seem almost superfluous–the whole story is really in the song lists–require extensive footnotes when our children read it in their AP English classes?

That’s for them to discuss when they get their own book clubs. This one has been a delight, as I knew it would be.

My best,