Nonsense and Moonshine: The Language of Raymond Carver

To say and to speak are not identical. A man may speak endlessly, and all the time say nothing. Another man may remain silent, not speak at all and yet, without speaking, say a great deal.
— Martin Heidegger

If you haven’t seen the movie “Ratatouille,” stop reading this post. Because, one, you won’t appreciate the delicious reference I’m about to serve you. Two, you’re less inclined to believe that a Disney movie is the appropriate way to introduce a principle of literary theory. And three, there’s a gaping hole in your childhood that needs addressing—immediately.

If you’re still here, fly away with me.

The city is Paris, the restaurant Gusteau’s. Linguini, after a night of culinary success, joins Head Chef Skinner in his office to split a bottle of wine. What seems to be a toast to Linguini’s achievements is, in fact, an interrogation. Skinner, having grown suspicious that Linguini is engaged in a strange pact with an extraordinary rat, tries to get the young chef drunk. He wants Linguini to slip up, to admit something he’s been hiding. He wants to hear the truth.

What I want you to believe is that this is what good readers are doing all the time—they are interrogators. They look beyond arguments and examine language more closely. And, by the end of their inspection, they’ve uncovered the rat in the chef’s proverbial hat.
Whereas a gin and tonic loosens someone’s tongue, literary analysis tunes the ear. That is, like drinking, paying attention to language is a path to revelation, a tool for exposing that which a speaker wishes to keep from you.

You’ve probably noticed how writers can sometimes have suspect intentions—read it in the underlying sexism of a Victorian novel, heard it in the hateful rhetoric of a Trump speech. But is even our most mundane language subject to the scrutiny of literary analysis? Sure, we can find the racism in Kipling’s poems, but could we hear it in the way he said “hello?” What can we learn from interpreting the language of our ordinary lives?

A work that’s going to help us explore this question is Raymond Carver’s short story, “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off.” To this you might want to say, “Paul, you just said we were going to look at everyday language. Why are we looking at literature?” And that’s a good question. Carver, though, is obsessed with the quotidian. One critic has called his work “hyperrealism,” another, “superrealism,” and a third “post-Vietnam, post-literary, post-modernist blue collar neo-early-hemingwayism” (Nesset, 30). Carver’s work is meant to resemble real-life and “The Third Thing” is a great example of this: it is set in a rural community in the Pacific North West, has three farm-type, main characters (Jack, Jack’s father, and Dummy—a mentally disabled neighbor), and centers its action around nothing more than an unusual fishing trip.

It is a story about the everyday lives of working class people, people like Jack, the narrator, who are often tragically inarticulate, who “[don’t] know… what to say (Carver, 103). If we can find literary meaning in what we might call the least literary of language—language that is colloquial, terse, and simplistic—then Carver has shown us something interesting: that we can find often unseen truth in not only intellectualized, polished work but in the language all around us as well.

But first, a fundamental question: where is the line between what language states and what it hides? The simplest answer is in the difference between connotation and denotation. In short, every word has baggage—alongside definitional meaning (denotation) is the feeling that a word invokes, the associations it ascribes (connotation). “The Third Thing” is a clear example of this distinction in the split narrative that it offers. In a denotative sense, “The Third Thing” is an American bildungsroman. A boy learns to drive, goes fishing with his father, and experiences death for the first time. But if we look closer at the language, if we analyze the packaging of this home grown, American narrative, we find something darker, something unexpected, a murky spot in the middle of our literary lake. Take, for example, the way in which other men “kid” (90) Dummy because of his appearance, his disability, and, most notably, the infidelity of his wife. The language is important here: the other men don’t poke fun at Dummy, they “kid” him. That is, they infantilize him. Dummy is considered sexually immature because he can’t control his wife. In this way, we begin to see the connotative argument the story is making—growing up means becoming a man and becoming a man means controlling women. Not quite as apple pie-picket-fence-American as it seemed before.

Carver’s writing exemplifies the way in which metonymic meaning permeates our everyday language. Metonym, alongside metaphor, is a fundamental figure of speech. Whereas metaphor communicates meaning by comparing two things, metonym presents one word and allows meaning to pass through the connotative qualities of that word. It is the way in which the men are only “kidding,” not telling Dummy explicitly that he is like a child; the meaning is hidden in the association.

On top of this, Carver’s subscription to the “Theory of Omission” (a philosophy of fiction writing that demands the omission of all unnecessary narrative elements) further reveals the ways in which meaning is hidden in our everyday language. The laconic writing of “The Third Thing” leaves most of the narrative unsaid; the work is “silent” on many of the issues that it raises. It is never expressed, for instance, why Dummy is so obsessed with the fish that he breeds in his pond. Jack, the narrator, doesn’t explain why his father insists that he fish in Dummy’s pond and why that act is so devastating to Dummy.

Silence, though, is at the center of fiction. A work can’t recreate the world, it can only appeal to our metonymic understanding of language, appeal to the associations we readily make, to fill in the gaps of a story (Nakjavani, 49). Carver takes this idea a step further. By writing about characters that struggle to express themselves, he draws special attention not to the words his characters say, but to how those words are an avenue into the unutterable—an unutterable realm that we, as readers and listeners, have access to. We hear the unsaid when Jack’s dad remarks of Dummy, “You’d reckon the fool was married to them fish, the way he acts” (94). We realize that, to Dummy, the fish are a substitute for femininity. We see how the fish are the foundation of Dummy’s masculinity: he can control them and keep them from other men—unlike his wife. We, again, discover meaning below the surface when Jack goes to fish on Dummy’s pond. He notes that the “[fish] were asking for it,” invoking the language of rape, turning the simple act of fishing into sexual assault. an ultra-masculine rite of passage. And our subterranean suspicions are confirmed when Jack, fishing “pole” (97) in hand, describes himself as “shaky with excitement” (97)—evoking thoughts of virginity and sexual conquest. Literary analysis lets us see this scene for what it truly is: an ultra-masculine rite of passage. The silence of language makes ideas that are too taboo for Carver’s characters to mention available to us as readers.

Moreover, when people have the least to say, it is the literary qualities of their words that carry the most meaning. What little language we can hear in the story and the silence it guides us to (that is, the unsaid meaning that it guides us to) reveal the values of Carver’s characters: to be a man is to dominate woman; in order to become a man, Jack rapes Dummy’s symbol of femininity and, in the process of doing so, emasculates Dummy.

What we learn from reading Carver is that there is literary language all around us, even if we’re not aware of it. When Jack looks back on the story he’s told us, he isn’t quite sure what to make of it. He can’t pin down what eventually caused Dummy to murder his wife and commit suicide, he isn’t sure what really caused his dad’s life to say “so long to good times and hello to bad” (103). All he knows is that for some reason that day fishing on the pond changed them all. But we, the readers, see what really happened. We know that it was Dummy’s failing masculinity that led him to end his life, that is, his inability to control femininity. And we see that it was Dummy’s death and the realization of his own corrosive, hyper-masculinity that shook Jack’s father’s identity. Carver shows us the brutal reality hidden in the silence of our everyday actions; the cultural forces (sexism, hyper-masculinity) that are at play in our lives and alive in our language. It is metonym—that pair-less association—that allows us to say things without saying them, to quietly further our own causes, to hide our true intentions, most often from ourselves.

Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Nakjavani, Erik G. The Aesthetics of Meiosis: Hemingway’s “Theory of Omission” Diss. 1985.
Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio UP, 1995.

History and Hesse

History and Hesse

            My dearest coddled Millenial, if you weren’t aware, this is what Herman Hesse thinks of our generation:

[The Age of the Feuilleton] appears to have had only the dimmest notion of what to do with culture… It was, according to Ziegenhalss, an era emphatically “bourgeois” and given to an almost untrammeled individualism. (10)

I forgot to mention, though, that Hesse is writing from the perspective of a twenty-third century scholar who’s taking his stock on the general development of intellectually history over the past 500 years. That said, I still think there are some grounds for offense here, or at least for some disagreement.

We have museums in every city, music in our streets and theaters. Art is free and open to all. Bob Dylan just won a Nobel Prize for Pete’s sake. Don’t try and tell me we can’t put culture in its proper place (dissenters hold your peace). As to the “bourgeois” claim, our neoliberal framework of stratified economics, expensive legislation (read: campaign financing and lobbying run amuck), and intellectualized technocracy appears to be anything but middle class. And last, as far as “untrammeled individualism” goes, well, Herman, I think you might have us there.

But why is it that we can have such opposing views on the status of our time? Are we not looking at the same thing? To ask a more general question, why is it that historians can hold defensible yet opposing views of historical issues? Is history a purely relative matter? Dare we say that history is in the eye of the beholder? Surely not. Stand up, Millenials. Prove him wrong. Show us that history has lessons yet to tell. Do it for our generation, my fellow spoiled brats.

A book that we’re going to find useful in answering this question is Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. And what makes this book so relevant to our question is its genre: fake historical fiction. Please suspend disbelief for a moment, there is a way out of this double negative. Historical fiction is a genre in which plot takes place in the past. That is, a work of historical fiction takes established history and fictionalizes it, allowing us to analyze historical figures more closely, to understand historical narratives more deeply, and to learn in ways we possibly couldn’t without fiction. The Glass Bead Game takes this genre one step further: it pretends to be written by historians of the future. That is, the history these characters write about doesn’t actually exist yet. In reality, it’s a possible future, while in the book, it’s already the past. This unconventional framework let’s us directly address the relationship between fact and fiction. Which is to say, the book itself is a question of history. It asks what we value more, facts or the stories we tell to relay those facts.

But before we jump into that let’s ask the fundamental question: why is history not simply a relaying of past events, why is their historical disagreement in the first place? Well, we have to acknowledge that whenever we write history we are bridging a gap – the gap between events that actually happened and language. Please sit down and welcome to Literary Theory 101. As much as we might hate to admit it, language cannot express things in themselves, it is only a way of describing our perception. And this goes for the past as well. So, let go of that ideal. It’s not out there. All we have is what we think we know and our best guess at expressing it.

But there’s still a bigger question at play because historians do more than just name events – they tie them together. And they can tie things together in whatever way they want. The Glass Bead Game is a great example of this. Early on in the book, our fictional historians state what they deem valuable in historical investigation:

We moderns are not interested in a hero’s pathology or family history, nor in his drives, his digestion, and how he sleeps… For us a man is a hero and deserves special interest only if his nature and his education have rendered him able to let his individuality be almost perfectly absorbed in its hierarchic function without at the same time forfeiting the vigorous, fresh, admirable impetus which makes for the savor and worth of the individual. (5)

What our fictional friends are saying is that they have a historical worldview to which they subscribe. To them, the individuals who matter most are the ones who can discover their purpose and submit to it. They are the heroes of our story. No time for rebels, no need to investigate the idiosyncrasies of our characters, we only need to understand how individuals successfully interact with hierarchies. The theme is individuality vs. unity and that’s the framework around which we build our story. The lesson is clear: when we make history we make narratives, and it is these narratives, not events themselves, that determine our conclusions. Let that sink in. It’s not that through history we make stories, but that through our predisposition for storytelling we make history. Literally make it. The historians in The Glass Bead Game know what story they’re going to tell before they’ve told it.

This point goes further. When we subscribe to a narrative, we shape events to fit our historical mold. We can see this again with our academic amici in the Kingdom of Castalia. The life of Joseph Knecht, the protagonist of their story, is defined by the dialectic between individuality and compliance. Take, for instance, his decision to step down from the position of Magister Ludi (the most renowned title and important role in Castalian society). Another set of fictional historians could easily view this as disastrous moment in the history of the kingdom and thus delimit it in terms of its political consequences. Yet, our fictitious fact finders understand the event as a personal struggle, and therefore define the moment in terms of its relation to Joseph, its impact upon his life, and its value as a symbol of individualism and growth. Yet, both sets of thinkers would be talking about the same event strictly speaking. Historians place markers on the continuous flow of time, they define the boundaries of causality, and shape real moments in the past to their fancy. Moreover, their pre-established beliefs provide not only the structure for the story they want to tell, but also the evidence.

Up until this point we’ve been thinking about history from the perspective of those who write it – the ways in which historians fashion narratives and why this makes history literary and even fictitious. But on the other side of this equation is a very important audience: you and me, the readers of history. And from this vantage we have to introduce a new question: as readers, how do we tell the difference between history and fiction?

The honest answer is we can’t tell the difference because we read both genres in the same way. History is based on real events but translates those facts into verbal propositions, and literature is nothing but verbal propositions. How on earth, then, are we the readers (and feeble, millennial readers at that) to be expected to tell the difference between a work that claims to be historical and one that claims to be fictional? The most common difference between the two genres is one of style, but there’s nothing stopping a piece of literature being written with a historical focus (as The Glass Bead Game shows) nor a work of history being written in a traditionally literary sense. The greatest difference to us, the readers, is that when we read history we put our faith in historians, even though historians have failed us before. We forget about the gap between language and the past, the deterministic power of narratives, and the moment morphing ability of discretion.

And The Glass Bead Game really does make this point clear. By acting as if the plot of the book is real historical material, Hesse’s novel teaches us real historical lessons. The book analyzes the rise and fall of a non-existent civilization, it evaluates the history of western intellectualism from its post-creative viewpoint, and it explores the relationship between individuals and hierarchical powers through fake institutions. Which is all to say that we don’t actually have to know any historical facts to learn historical lessons. Fake history can provide the same foundation to narrative as “real” history. The narrative trumps all. And so both history and literature, in this way, say the same thing: “if you’re willing to accept our terms here is what we have to offer.”

At this point does history really retain any merit? When history becomes like literature our concern is no longer with truth – we let go of the true historical object as soon as we put pen to paper, as soon as we spoke, as soon as we even considered speaking. Good history is now a matter of “consistency, coherence, and illuminative power” (4) as Hayden White put it. Our concern is less with the events that happened and more with how we present what happened to happen. That is, things could’ve happened differently and we could still present them according to our agenda.

The Glass Bead Game, though, offers an interesting escape to this historical problem. The book ends by telling the story of Joseph’s escape from Castalia in a highly literary style in a section called “The Legend.” This chapter is scattered with verse, poetic language, and surreal imagery. The idea being that the now mythical story of Joseph’s final flight from academic hierarchy was one so well know that there was no point telling the story any other way.

This unique approach offers a new perspective on the value of history because instead of demanding that the reader believe its verbal claim, the story panders to its audience. The history-as-myth approach submits to the power of narrative and in doing so reveals what an audience believes in and what they value. This style of history admits to its fictive nature and uses this to its advantage. We see history not as a deceiver but as a window into a culture’s ethics. And so, history, although dressed in new clothes, remains a valuable source of knowledge, if not so much in what it says but in what it reveals about its believers.



Hesse, Herman. The Glass Bead Game (London: Vintage 2000, 1970).

White, Hayden. Metahistory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).