Writing ‘Realism:’ Lucia Berlin and Raymond Carver

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.

The Ghost Town of Famagusta Bay

Our boat rocked in the wind as we sat in the middle of Famagusta Bay. Remarkably clear, the pastel sky trailed off, bright and gleaming.

There were seven of us on-board: five tourists, the tour guide and the Captain. On my left there was an older couple, a man and a woman around sixty. The old man was unassuming, but with a scrunched-up sort of face, like he was sucking some perpetual lemon. His wife wore an over-sized floral hat, slightly too large for her head. They sat near the edge; he rested one arm on the handrail and she gazed out at the sea. A younger couple sat further along the port side. The woman was beautiful with sun-kissed skin and long, silky brown hair billowing in the wind. She kept brushing hair off of her face, tucking strands behind her ears; the man kept an arm around her and peered through black wayfarer sunglasses. The Captain sat at the helm, wearing summer shorts and a shirt buttoned up to his chest. He didn’t talk much, but just held the wheel loosely, occasionally checking the map on the dashboard. Our guide was hairy and tanned with a wet, clinging yellow t-shirt. He stared out into the horizon, shielding his eyes from the sun.

We stopped moving. The beating sun and turquoise sea dissolved, fading away. There it was, a melancholy mirror: a pale reflection of the vibrant body of Cyprus. Like Alcatraz, it sat as a lonely and remote sinister blemish on the island, hidden away in its furthest corner. I was struck by a monolithic cornucopia of dilapidated hotels and greying horseshoe beach around the water’s edge. Like a resort, but uncanny, ghostly and ineffable. Fences and barbed wire dotted the beach, blocking entry on every side, trailing across the beach and disappearing into the sea. This picture in the distance seemed altogether too still. Dead: it seemed somehow new, and untouched, but wracked with decay all the same. As I stared into this bleak horizon, the guide began: ‘This was once the most popular resort in Cyprus.’

In the sixties, Famagusta accounted for fifty percent of the total hotel accommodation of Cyprus. One of the best-known tourist spots in the world, it accommodated Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot; the biggest stars of their day. Following the post-war ‘package holiday’ boom, thousands of Brits holidayed in Famagusta through the sixties and early seventies. It was Cyprus’s tourist capital. Famagusta had nine nursery schools, seventeen primary schools, and eleven secondary schools. It was a cultural centre too, with a library, an art gallery, a rich archaeological museum and a municipal marketplace. In the sixties, it saw industrial growth fifty percent higher than the rest of the country. Famagusta had a vibrant nightlife, cinemas, restaurants and bars; it flourished in an unforeseen advanced market of international tourism.

We looked out at this strange, unnerving spectre of a resort. Everything looked strangely rotted, even at that distance, a moulding, decayed yellow hanging over the buildings, as if the city’s very existence was choking the life out of it. The old woman with the hat glibly remarked: ‘stunning, isn’t it Richard?’
The tour guide glanced over to a dark, stony guard tower perched alongside the barbed wire. It was far away; he squinted in the sun. Seemingly satisfied, he went on, keeping one eye in the distance.

The Cypriot National Guard received support from the Greek government for a coup against the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. Looking for a greater presence in Cypriot affairs, the Greek Cypriots planned a union with Greece. The Turkish Cypriots (who shared power with the Greek Cypriots since the UK granted the island independence in the sixties) responded by launching a military invasion. The Turkish invading force was code-named ‘Operation Atilla,’ but Turkish Cypriots called it ‘Kıbrıs Barış Harekâtı,’ or ‘Cyprus Peace Operation.’ The Turkish occupied the northern third, Famagusta took a hard shelling during the second phase and, within two days, the Turkish military fully occupied the city.

At this point, the young woman with the brown hair was leaning on the handrail next to me. She’d let her hair flop over her face in the wind, but between the strands sat a hazel iris. I stared through sunglasses at the depth of this colour, for a moment, as she contemplated Varosha.

By August 1974, the Turkish army occupied thirty seven percent of the whole island. The 39,000 or so people who lived in Famagusta (who didn’t perish in the bombing) fled into surrounding fields, believing that, after the initial violence, they could return. The Turkish Army, however, had already cordoned off Varosha for the UN buffer zone. The buffer zone, or ‘the Green Line,’ is gash slicing Cyprus in half: Nicosia and Larnaca on one side, and Kyrenia and Famagusta on the other. Permanently under guard by UN peacekeepers, the buffer zone now comprises three percent of the whole island. Anyone caught in Varosha today risks being shot on sight. In the decades since that day in August, people who made their homes in Varosha could only see the city through barbed wire. Once the modern quarter of Famagusta, Varosha remains abandoned over forty years later.

The guide suddenly stopped what he was saying, raising a hand to his brow. He stared at the guide tower and, after a nod, dismounted the bow. He explained: ‘that’s the UN telling us to go back.’ It appeared that, in agreement of making these trips possible, organisers pre-arranged some signal with the UN to indicate when we’d come close enough.

The fact that Varosha had remained exactly the same, completely frozen in time, struck a chilling note of the spectral in me. According to rumour, there’s a car dealership on Leonidas, Varosha’s leisure street, with a brand new set of 70’s Toyotas put out just before the invasion, still parked exactly where they were on that day. One wonders exactly what level of deterioration they’ve endured in all that time.

I stared for a further moment, as we headed back towards Larnaka Bay. In forty years, nothing had changed for Varosha. It remained an anomalous, dusty painting; a capsule floating through the winds of time. I looked back at the city, fading further and further from view, and spied a tower crane hanging over the skyscrapers, seemingly mid-swing, stuck in the seventies and beyond escape. I wondered how long it would take for all the old iron and steel to rot away, for the foundations to collapse, and for all these old, dying buildings to fall like dominoes. Perhaps then, in the crumbling and decomposed ruins, nature will fully reclaim the quarter, and it will stand as a monument to lost civilization, to the immovable immutability of man’s self-destruction and the ever-present cyclical return of the natural order. All that remained for now was an empty vessel.

this side of the mattress is not the sleeping surface

This began as a poem, and I’ve since re-purposed it as song lyrics:

I can’t feel the very bones holding me together,

the wobbling skeletal gel

of congealed soul-juice.

Or

The cantankerous, sickly curvature of a face with

eyes that see too much, like a shibboleth

of the 21st Century dream.

The yellowed white sheets are made up

of burns and wounds, decomposing remains, disregarded

in the rising smoke.

Its plumes of retreat and remand.

M.V. (music writing)

There’s a monolithic tick of bass, anarchically simple; throbbing. There’s a sudden contorted, crackling death rattle permeating the room, hanging in the air like smell. It’s the sound of choking, murderous fumes blown through a nose. It’s the picture of a smoking bull squaring up to the matador with a dead-eye.

Without warning, in an instant, that plodding bass tap is transmogrified. Atop the naked ear: a new beast astride. By the alchemy of overdrive, from a cocoon of spitting, spluttering, immutable distortion emerges a primal, guttural lashing of power-chord violence. In the indecipherable hiss, from the depths: from the smoky din of the mundane… There rises a scratchy-throated warrior, one who rasps indignant to whomever will listen.

And listen they will.

Praying to the sky. (character prose)

Plumes of smoke lift into the air with a delicate floating symmetry, seeming to kiss the sky before sailing away, traversing rooftops with gentle ease. The sky is black. The stars pierce through the veil of blackness, punctuating the night with a natural light-show, seeming far away but, at the same time, very close.

The boy’s eyes are candy-red, peering out from a thick fringe with odd strands quivering in the wind. His head is craned skywards, eyes fixed on a distant star. Cramped together on the short wooden plank framing the foot of the garden, his elbow rests on his knee while his hand wields the thick brown joint steadily dissipating into the air around him. From baggy lounge-bottoms, dirty old trainers jitter in that night chill over cracked-white concrete.

Smoke bellows out of his nose, rising up and choking his eyes. He squints and shakes – carefully and quietly – in that deadened night. Staring at the pattern of those concrete slabs for a minute, he is disturbed by the wheels of a car screeching away in the distance. An abrupt, rousing shriek that echoes through the cul-de-sac before tapering off and finally fading away.

Looking at the joint between his fingers, his eyes glaze over. He focuses on the long arms that are too skinny, the delicate wrists that are too thin; the fingernails grown slightly too long… girlish. His eyes itch and his throat aches. The night is running thin… as is the potential for a good night’s sleep. Pursing his lips, he blows out a broken jet of smoke and looks around the garden. Gingerly, all sound has ceased. The wind is utterly muted. Tranquil. For a moment, nothing exists but himself and the ground.

The birds of the coming sunrise sing a fortuitously ominous signal, and the silence breaks. Morning is coming. Soon everyone will be awake. Soon he will have to get up, and shower, and eat, and dress, and walk to school. He stubs out the joint, wipes his fingernails on the grass, and stands up to leave. As he pushes the porch door shut, his eye catches a glint of the final fragment of that evening’s pale moonlight. He stays for a moment, before flicking up the lock and heading inside.