- Harsh and Hopeful World
Lish's Collected Fictions is comprised of 106 stories from the collections What I Know So Far (1984), Mourner at the Door (1988), Self Imitation of Myself (1997), and Krupp's Lulu (2000). The stories were revised especially for this collection with a forward by Lish himself.
Lish, as Don DeLillo is quoted saying on the cover of this volume, might be famous for all the wrong reasons. As the mythic editor of Esquire and later at Alfred Knopf, he edited works by writers like Barry Hanna, Richard Ford, Amy Hempel, and, of course, Raymond Carver, who owe him much of their fame. For Carver, Lish's involvement was crucial, as the recent publication of the original versions of the stories and the Carver-Lish correspondence revealed. Lish's massive, if not aggressive edits bring up the question so typical of our times: can one consider Carver's stories to be his own considering their intense editing by Lish, who not only erased whole paragraphs and altered names and words, but also utterly changed their character by transforming plots and endings and by diverting lanes of meaning? Or perhaps, in our post-structuralist, post-subject era, aware as we are to the ways culture and language speak through us, are an author's children of spirit not his to begin with?
This question of originality or identity is—not surprisingly—the main issue that comes to mind while reading Lish's collection. The protagonist in many of these stories is a man named Gordon Lish, or someone who shares most of his characteristics—his neighborhood, wife, mother, father, children, etc. This metafictional transgression of narrative levels, à la Borges, Auster, Coetzee, and many others, confuses reality and fiction, narration and story, narrator and author. In fact, the Carver affair could have been borrowed from one of Lish's pieces, whom one can easily imagine implanting himself in another writer's territory. While the characters in the ridiculous, absurd situations he depicts are anonymous (the wife, the child, the custodian) and deprived of any psychological depth, the mimetic power of the stories lies in the voice that evokes them—a voice which confronts the reader directly ("picture this," "or just smell it"), in short enigmatic, aggressive statements, or long meandering, whining stream-of-consciousness monologues and letters. Sol Salinger, the "real life" meat importer of "To Jerome—with Love and Kisses," who begs for a response from his famous son whose number is unlisted, drills in the reader's ear as if it was intended to him/her. Such are also the accusations of the mother and sister, who urge Lish(?) to come to his father's funeral (in "Spell Bereavement").
The narrative in the first (sometimes second, but never third) person, which constricts experience and vision to the boundaries of a self-absorbed "I," is one of the most notorious features of minimalist writing. What has this voice (or focalizer) not been accused of? Of emotional bareness, narcissism, lack of commitment to the society she/he lives in, and of duplicating and maintaining the alienation and reification of the individual in the capitalist way of life. Indeed, the world, as a territory not dependent on the self, seems not to be of Lish's concern. In one of the interviews held with him—a form that in Lish's case seems to introduce another of Captain Fictions's masks—he admits of lacking the talent of DeLillo to describe the pause and flight of a seagull in the word "regardful." He could never "study the object in the form of attention required to produce the word 'regardful.'" Yet on the other hand, "Who needs a seagull? I want to write about what's in my heart and what's inside me. Seagulls are in the world. Anybody can look at it." We are no longer in the realm of the author-narrator who reproduces and builds a world, but in that of the witness, who strives to render what no one but him saw and experienced...