detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Sunday, July 07, 2002


: . Playing in the Dark:

Raymond Carver in one respect is like the working class Woody Allen: both very rarely include black characters in their work although both almost always invoke settings whose real life counterparts are crowded with blacks. Carver's fictional working class suburbia like Allen's fictional New York are therefore blindingly white, relentlessly bleached out places. (I know, there aren't that many blacks who moved on up to the East Side but still...) Except in a few rare cases. A few years ago, I used to focus my summer reading on the complete works of one author: I started out with Isabel Allende, then Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then E. M. Forster (yes, all those Merchant Ivory films got to me), then with Ernest Hemingway and so on. I know, its a predictable list and I now cringe at my lingering fascination with those author's works. Looking back, I should have read the works of lesser known writers but I was in high school and didn't know about the finer discriminations of the true literary snob. Anyway, the last author I obsessed over was Jamaica Kincaid but immediately before that summer, I thought I read every story published by Raymond Carver. Except for Vitamins. Here Carver invokes the disenchanted world of the 1970's, a decade marked, as even the most mediocre history textbook will tell you, by deindustrialization, sexual license, war, the self-conscious politicization of identity by some and the retreat from politics by others. Carver doesn't do this through the conventional methods of social history but through the equally conventional use of literary blackness. In Vitamins, blackness is put into play as a sign of menace, of an estranged domesticity, and the blurring of boundaries between the home and the world:
    'Ain't it your turn to talk now?' Nelson said. 'I just teasing you. I ain't done any teasing since I left Nam. I teased the gooks some.' He grinned again, his big lips rolling back. Then he stopped grinning and just stared.
    'Show them that ear,' Benny said quickly. He put his empty glass on the table. 'Nelson got himself an ear off one of them little dudes,' Benny said. 'He carry it with him. Show them, Nelson.'
    Nelson sat there. Then he started feeling the pockets of his topcoat. He took things out of the pockets. He took out a handkerchief, some keys, a box of cough drops.
    Donna said, 'I don't want to see an old ear. Ugh. Double ugh. Jesus.' She looked at me.
    'We have to go,' I said...
    He found what he'd been feeling for. It was a silver cigarette case which he worked open. I looked at the ear inside. It lay on a piece of cotton. The ear was brown, like a dried mushroom. It was beginning to curl. But it was a real ear and it was attached to a key chain.
    'God,' said Donna. 'Yuck.'

I found Vitamins while visiting the Granta website. Someone must have done some serious updating since the last time I paid the site a visit (six months ago, I think). Here is a related passage from Lorrie Moore's hilarious Agnes of Iowa, also from Granta:
    Agnes stayed after one night with Christa, the only black student in her class. She liked Christa a lot—Christa was smart and funny, and Agnes would sometimes stay late with her to chat. Tonight Agnes had decided to talk Christa out of writing about vampires all the time.
    'Why don't you write about that thing you told me about that time?' Agnes suggested.
    Christa looked at her sceptically. 'What thing?'
    'The time in your childhood, during the Chicago riots, walking with your mother through the police barricades.'
    'Man, I lived that. Why should I want to write about it?'
    Agnes sighed. Maybe Christa had a point. 'It's just I'm no help to you with this vampire stuff,' Agnes said. 'It's formulaic genre fiction.'
    'You would be of more help to me with my childhood?'
    'Well, with more serious stories, yes.'
    Christa stood up, perturbed. She grabbed her paperback. 'You with all your Alice Walker and Zora Hurston. I'm not interested in that any more. I've done that already. I read those books years ago.'
    'Christa, please don't be annoyed.'
    ...'You've got this agenda for me.'
    'Really, I don't at all,' said Agnes. 'It's just that—you know what it is? It's that I'm sick of these vampires. They're so roaming and repeating.'
    'If you were black, what you're saying might have a different spin. But the fact is you're not,' Christa said, and picked up her coat and strode out—though ten seconds later she gamely stuck her head back in and said, 'See you next week.'

Other highlights from Granta, all non-fiction:
  • James Fenton's The Snap Revolution, on the events leading up to People Power I
  • Amitav Ghosh's Dancing in Cambodia, on how Pol Pot's sister-in-law kept classical Cambodian dance alive even in a time of war
  • Hanif Kureishi's Erotic Politicians and Mullahs, on the hearts and minds of the beleaguered Pakistani bourgeoisie
  • And Weightless, on flight, space exploration, and endless human possibilities, one of the last pieces Primo Levi wrote before his suicide.

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