Sunday, January 31, 2021

"The Student's Wife" (1964)

Although this is a fairly early story for Raymond Carver, published when he was about 26, his elliptical and fragmented approach is already apparent. You keep getting the feeling there are things we're not being told, forgotten by the narrator in his rush to tell it, whatever exactly "it" is. The student in this story might actually be a student but we get little indication of that beyond the title. He is the husband and his wife appears to be a housewife. She has insomnia and comes off as insanely needy. Women might well see it another way. Her husband, it appears, reads poetry to her every night before bed to help her sleep (perhaps the only sign he is a student). But it's not helping her this night, and after a certain point the guy just wants to sleep. She wants him to stay awake until she falls asleep but he can't. She finally gets up and looks at magazines all night. It's a pretty good sketch of insomnia—all the random things you do, thoughts you have, the almost sleeping and then waking, the preoccupation with sleep that is finally preventing it. Her distress grows worse and worse. She experiences the bleakest sunrise of her life, and at the end of the story is seen on her knees beseeching God to "help us" even as her husband "looked desperate in his heavy sleep, his arms flung out across her side of the bed, his jaws clenched." It's quite a crescendo for nothing evidently going on. Something obviously is. This husband and wife may not know any better than us. It could well be their marriage is coming apart, a popular midcentury theme. But we really don't know. Why can't she sleep? Why doesn't her husband care (and why is "jaws" plural)? How bad is it? The story is haunted by a sense of unnamed and perhaps unnamable dread, which also seems about right for its time. It was originally published in the Carolina Quarterly, an academic journal, but it also feels like it could have gone somewhere more commercial, even a women's magazine. Or almost—it might be a bit arty. Even with the gaps and missing information there is always something that feels authentic to me about Carver at these feverish pitches he can reach. With "The Student's Wife" it's like he's exploding the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf dynamic from the inside. These people are too repressed for knockdown battles. Yet at the end of the story they are both clearly knocked down—not by each other but on their own, on separate paths. Carver is good at this even this early.

Note: I started on reading Carver's stories with Where I'm Calling From, the late best-of collection and the last one he had any hand in before he died. That was for convenience because I already had a copy. I still was only dimly aware of the issue of Gordon Lish's editing, but know better now that it most severely altered what is perhaps Carver's most regarded collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The issue of Lish's editing is complicated, but in Where I'm Calling From we see Carver reclaiming and/or reworking himself some of those pieces. The Library of America collection has both versions of What We Talk About—the edited version that was published along with the version submitted by Carver under the title Beginners. I'm going to get to some of that as I go, looking at versions of those stories side by side. For now, I feel pretty good about Where I'm Calling From. It has what we can call Carver's final word on some of the stories from What We Talk About, plus a handful of stories unpublished before 1988 and a solid best-of from the whole of his career. If you don't know him it is probably the best place to start. I'll be using the titles and most of the versions from there.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

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