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Narrative 12.2 (2004) 178-194
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Carver and Conversation
Frank Bramlett and David Raabe
Raymond Carver's short story "Intimacy," a poignant exploration of the relationship between an ex-husband and ex-wife, paints for the reader a picture of this ex-couple's rocky history and their current estrangement. The ex-husband narrator, a relatively well-known writer of fiction, arrives unannounced at his ex-wife's home, and she lets him in. While this scene is ordinary enough, Carver's telling of the story is unique. The story itself consists largely of dialogue; there is precious little in the way of action, setting, or exposition. In comparison to most fiction, the proportions of this dialogue are highly skewed: the ex-wife unequivocally dominates the story's conversation, and the ex-husband initially appears to be a victim of her verbal abuse. Accompanying the distorted dialogue, the dearth of concrete objects gives "Intimacy" an empty, vague atmosphere in which readers get few details with which to kindle their imaginations.
Carver crafts "Intimacy" by mapping out the ways in which deep, detailed knowledge of someone leads to enduring intimacy while at the same time it causes that intimacy to be kicked, dissected, strewn about, and gathered up again. To understand how "Intimacy" enacts this (de)/(re)construction, we take an interdisciplinary analytical approach: the relationship and interaction between the ex-husband and the ex-wife is best understood through a confluence of linguistic discourse theory, conversation analysis, and narrative theory.1 The "conversation" between the narrator and narratee contains the one between the ex-husband and ex-wife; the homodiegetic narrator, in spinning this tale, develops a narratological intimacy with an unnamed [End Page 178] narratee at the same time that he conveys the incident with his ex-wife. It is the blend of unprecedented extremes—a merger of minimal and maximal elements in a single narrative—that gives "Intimacy" a pivotal place in Carver's canon.2 In this essay, we argue that Carver redefines intimacy through disproportionate dialogue, a paucity of concrete objects, and nonverbal communication—uniquely demonstrating the fundamental need for human beings to narrate meaning into their lives.
Conversation and Interpersonal Relations
In his work on linguistic discourse analysis, James Paul Gee discusses the relationship between current conversations (what is now being said) and past conversations (what was once said) through two concepts.3 One is intertextuality, that property of texts that links them to previous texts, those that have come before (55). The other idea is one of Gee's own: he conceptualizes "little-c" conversation to specify the current dialogue/interaction and "big-c" Conversation to specify the history, development, and dynamism of ongoing conversations that have led up to the current one (13, 34-37).4 The verbal interaction between ex-husband and ex-wife in Carver's story is their "little-c" conversation:
I'm listening, I say. I'm all ears, I say.
She says, I've really had a bellyful of it, buster! Who asked you here today anyway? I sure as hell didn't.
The way that people make "little-c" conversations is always affected by their previous "little-c" conversations, the sum of which equals the ongoing "big-c" Conversation (this is intertextuality). In the case of strangers meeting for the first time (perhaps at a cocktail party, on a blind date, or just sharing a taxi), the conversation participants often rely on "tried and true" conversation routines that provide ways of opening up individual histories that begin to become a part of their ongoing Conversation ("Can you believe how hot it's been lately?"; "The Mets can't seem to win, can they?"). If the participants in the taxi ride never meet again, then their "little-c" conversation is virtually equivalent to their "big-c" Conversation. If the blind date turns out to be a smashingly successful relationship, then that very first "little-c" conversation serves as the beginning of the ongoing Conversation, as a text to which all subsequent "little-c" conversations may refer.