Field Notes: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Death In A Tenured Position



SYNOPSIS: Raymond Carver’s landmark 1981 collection of bleak, gritty, sparse stories about the life of the blue-collar American male.

CONDITION: Bought used from Value Village in September.

THOUGHTS: About time, right?

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two times I’ve listened to podcasts about Raymond Carver short stories, and zero times that I’ve actually sat down and read the stories themselves. This was long overdue. After reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, though, I’m surprised to report that one of my preconceptions about Carver’s writing has been completely validated.

Namely, the fact that I have a nearly irresistible urge to make fun of it.

Why is this? I blame the titles. They’re so no-nonsense, so surgery-with-no-anaesthetically masculine that they cross over, almost instantly, into self-caricature. “Tell The Women We’re Going.” Following the titular story with a final one called “One More Thing.” And, my favourite, “After The Denim,” which sounds like a really great Springsteen concept album.

Of course, the characters stomping through the territory are similarly grizzled and un-self-conscious. These are men who steal ashtrays and hurl things through windows. They get drunk in broad daylight. They think a lot about making their point. These men are unmistakably from a generation that is not my own—for lack of a better term, they’re like a fleet of dads.

I don’t know the whole story behind Carver’s relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish, aside from the fact that Lish basically seized editorial control: chopping stories (sometimes nearly in half), changing character names and endings, and adding brand-new elements. So I can’t say for sure who has done what here, or to what effect.

But if we think of fiction anatomically, Carver’s stories (bearing Lish’s heavily felt co-sign) have some of the strongest skeletons I’ve ever seen. You can press down as hard as you want—and in many ways, that’s precisely what the world is doing to these characters, for a host of undefined reasons. They won’t break. The structures are immaculate.

The uniformity of tone doesn’t really bother me, either, though I think Carver is at his best when these man’s men are viewed through fresh, curious eyes. Many of the stories feature a long-suffering wife or best friend as the foil, and I don’t think these quite connect as hard as the ones featuring, for instance, a travelling salesman (“Viewfinder”), a young son (“The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off”), or even passersby on the street (“Why Don’t You Dance?”).

And thank god that Carver (or Lish) has the decency to put a story featuring a redemptive view of parenthood, “Everything Stuck To Him,” after the one where a baby is literally torn in half.

This latter instance is the one time Lish put his red pen away too soon. We get it: angry parents destroy their kids. You don’t have to go all King Solomon on us.



SYNOPSIS: Part of her Kate Fansler series of literary mysteries, the pseudonymous Amanda Cross’s 1981 novel about the mysterious death of the first female professor in Harvard’s English department.

CONDITION: Bought used, for a dollar, from the new Untitled Bookshop in Edmonton.

THOUGHTS: In my ongoing devotion to the campus novel, I will leave no stone unturned. Somewhere along the way this slim mystery novel made its way onto my master list, and when I saw it among the stacks at a recently opened used bookstore here in town, I knew what I had to do.

I’ll admit I have a hard time getting past things like that horrendous cover. Are those tree shadows meant to be ominous? Then again, any book can look like garbage once it’s gone through the mass market paperback machine.

Better still, Death in a Tenured Position turned out to be exactly what I needed: a quick, wry, charmingly ridiculous whodunit. (Especially considering that I was coming off of reading a punishing Holocaust memoir—more on that tomorrow.)

The novel takes place in the late 1970s, in a world that will make even the mildest progressive’s heart skip a beat. The women’s movement has just started to take root in academia, but the boys’ club that is Harvard’s English Department will have none of it: it takes an anonymous million-dollar grant to force them to hire even a single female professor.

At least until she gets murdered. This is the fracas that academic-turned-private-detective Kate Fansler gets dragged into, and the way the case unravels, with dashes of wit and high-minded reference points (most mysteries don’t come equipped with Gertrude Stein epigraphs and arguments over Joan Didion essays), I wonder if Jonathan Ames didn’t have something like this in mind when he came up with his story and subsequent TV show Bored to Death.

Granted, Death in a Tenured Position isn’t a comedy, but there’s a looseness to the story and an awareness of the rules of the genre that makes for very satisfying reading. The strains of political correctness (or what passed for it, anyway) are put to particularly good use. Heaven forbid you get accidentally lumped in with the “libbers”—it’s the equivalent of waking up one day with a Crips logo tattooed across your eyelids.

And sometimes those rules seem to get thrown out the window entirely. For instance, why is Kate’s husband out of the country, doing philanthropic legal work in Africa, for the entire book? There’s a scene where I think she sleeps with her old college crush, but it has nothing to do with the story and is never even alluded to again. There’s no way to know for sure. But I did a little detective work of my own, and really: “Come to my place, we’ll drink whiskey and I’ll play you a song on my guitar”? In college-speak, how does that not mean sex?

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