The works of Lucia Berlin and Raymond Carver represent two different types of Realism in short fiction. As a writer of autobiographical short fiction, it’s difficult not to catch myself tackling the dueling legacies of these two great writers.
Lucia Berlin’s style; conversational, free-floating, ‘you feel as though you’re gossiping with her at the table;’ seems to be less of a construction than Carver’s tightly minimal, savagely edited prose, but both aim to reach, albeit with different methods, a type of ‘Realism.’ I will look at Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ and Berlin’s ‘Angel’s Laundromat’ to explore these two distinct styles.
‘Carver’s fabled ‘Dirty Realism,’ often focusing on the everyday problems of blue-collar workers (including drug abuse, alcohol abuse and divorce), reflected his own life experiences through a form of minimalism which reduced prose and focused on surface descriptions. Oliveira describes a ‘voiceless desperation’ in Carver’s characters who, representative of a lower, desperate social class, are ‘not happy or satisfied with their social position.’
While this can be seen all over Carver’s work, a quick example from the story in question would be: ‘the man sat on the sofa, leaned back, and stared at the boy and the girl.’ In this line, we see Carver’s restraint, his absence of adverbs, almost reflecting a sort of journalistic objectivity which Kita has called, a process of ‘giving all his attention to the concrete and avoiding all possible abstractions.’ Later on in the story, Carver describes the man dancing with the girl on his porch: ‘the girl closed and then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s shoulder. She pulled the man closer,’ the spare descriptions leaving us to read the subtext, or text, from our own perspectives. One feels compelled to talk about aging, or the generational passage of time in relation to this story, but Carver remains ruthless in pushing a certain ambivalence on his readers.
As Kita summarizes ‘Carver leaves the reader to decide, who, if anyone, is truly a victim or villain,’ and this method of ‘three-dimensional’ character sketching confirms Carver’s commitment to the realistic with a striving for a faithful depiction and exploration of the complexities and battling narratives in ‘real-life.’ In this sense, returning to Oliveira, Carver’s focus on the nuances of the everyday creates a space where ‘blank spaces are as important as the spaces filled with words.’
This Realist ‘ambiguity of interpretation’ is near-perfectly exemplified by Carver himself in the closing paragraph of ‘Why Don’t You Dance?:’ ‘She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.’ Just like the characters in the story, we are unsure of its exact ‘meaning,’ but, with Carver, what Oliveria described as that sense of ‘voiceless desperation,’ and the insecurity inherent to it, may, pointedly, be the defining consistent motif. We could almost interpret what Kita referred to as Carver’s successful employment of omissions, using ‘the spaces between the words to give a sense of evanescent and elusive feelings,’ lending his work the air of an anti-surrealist, blue-collar version of what David Lynch’s films tell us about the Suburban middle-class; there is always more to it. That beneath the veil of certainty and security, there is, in fact, ambiguity and insecurity.
Contrasted with Carver’s ‘dirty,’ spare Realism, Lucia Berlin’s claim to the ‘Realistic’ is conversational, confessional and free-floating, tending to lurch from recalled images and memories, emerging as a kind of cohesive whole by the end. In ‘Angel’s Laundromat,’ this can be seen in the first paragraph: ‘A tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt. His hair white and long, knotted with raspberry yearn at his neck,’ the image springing from nowhere and providing a ‘root’ for the rest of her recollections. Like most of her stories, ‘Angel’s Laundromat’ follows an addict of some kind, an alcoholic Indian in this case.
Geoghegan writes that Berlin’s stories echo memoir writing; often being based on her own life, and her style of recollection resembling a particularly idiosyncratic, free-wheeling autobiography. As Geohegan notes ‘like most great storytellers, Lucia was a first-rate gossip. But her gossip was never banal. The best of it always connected to her life.’
This free-wheeling, recalled quality is characterized well by Power: ‘the waves of memory crash again and again in Berlin’s work,’ creating a string of associations and compacted narratives. Such an effect can be seen when, between describing the Indian who forms the subject of the story, Berlin returns to an earlier recollection of her elderly neighbour: ‘The only time I had spoken to Mrs. Armitage outside of the laundry… She gripped my arm with her cold dying hand,’ making us think of aging and fragility, pertaining to the following story of the Indian as though we can see the connections being made in her mind, roughly as if the reader truly were ‘gossiping with her at the table;’ albeit a somber, and profound, gossip.
Power notes that Berlin is a close relative of Carver’s ‘Dirty Realism;’ and indeed we can see that, similarly to Carver, there is always a certain ambivalence to Berlin’s work. The Indian depicted in the story is described as ‘very drunk, mean drunk’ but Berlin qualifies this with a very humanistic sense of sympathy when the ‘Angel’ of the title says: ‘I know just how you feel,’ causing Berlin’s narration to retort ‘anybody says he knows just how someone else feels is a fool.’ This faithfulness to complex human characters, to a world where, like Carver’s, ‘no one is wholly bad,’ approaching what Power calls a ‘universal empathy,’ shows a commitment to the Realism that both Berlin and Carver are indebted to.
Berlin’s personal narrative adds a more subjective and, thus, more honest dimension to Realism than Carver’s precise, snooker-cue pauses and spaces. Berlin doesn’t limit surface descriptions like Carver, describing Fourth Street as a landscape of ‘shabby shops and junkyards.’ Though she does limit herself, her limits appear to extend only to the nature of recalled narratives. Berlin does not over-saturate us with information, she does however try to accurately follow the rhythms of human recollection and interactions, which gives the impression that no included detail is irrelevant. As Geoghegan summarises: ‘The moves she makes in her fiction shadow the peripatetic nature of intimate conversations.’
In choosing my style, I gravitated more to Berlin’s peripatetic, loose prose than Carver’s delicate constructions. Being that my story was married to a highly subjective first-person narration, I found Berlin to be a perfect influence, encouraging me to draw connections between memories and images, accurately portraying the ‘scattered’ quality of a stream-of-consciousness, and the complex nature of human interactions/perceptions. I do however think that it is always conducive to bear in mind Carver’s ‘loaded’ pauses for tension and ‘secret longings,’ particularly when dealing with the unique status insecurities of blue-collar characters.