Hilary Plum on Introduction and Character in Fiction

Meeting the Body in the Body of Language:
Notes on Character

an essay by Hilary Plum

To Introduce

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.
—Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Rose Johnson made it very hard to bring her baby to its birth.
        Melanctha Herbert who was Rose Johnson’s friend, did everything that any
woman could.
—Gertrude Stein, “Melanctha”

We could do with him what we wanted. The old people left and left Goose here and what they left was ours.
—Noy Holland, “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose”

An introduction is an exchange of names: two or more strangers meet and learn one another’s names, offering their names themselves or having their names affixed to them by a third party. The introduced address one another for the first time.

Fiction introduces a reader (let’s note her as a real body) to a fictive body (character) via a fictive introducer (narrator); the only other body, the writer’s, has departed the scene. An examination of the differences among Stein’s, Carver’s, and Holland’s methods of naming and embodying characters in these three stories may shed light on all that occurs when narrator, character, and reader encounter one another in a work of fiction.

Let’s begin with the element of voice. “Voice” is a likeness to speech, to language as used by human speakers in daily life: momentary and leaving only a trace, the nature of which is difficult to describe, within the people who are using or receiving it. Voice seems essential to Carver’s opening, with not only its feel of natural speech, but its narrator recounting the experience of speech. Holland’s opening seems distinctly to offer voice, a speaker with a distinct manner of expressing his/her/themselves; but this speech already seems more internal — thought as speech? — than spoken aloud. What one wants immediately to say of the narrator of “Melanctha” is that this feels like Stein’s voice, unmistakably. [1, notes at bottom –ed.] Conceptions of voice involve not only qualities of speech, but of singularity: voice is the possession of a body; it is essentially individual and embodied, the resonance of body.

Introductions to fictional characters are not, of course, outright facsimiles of real introductions — Reader, meet “me,” who will be addressing you. And on my left, Mel McGinnis. Yet it seems we comprehend the engines of these fictional introductions as though they were this natural, as though we were being directly addressed. Usually the introduction occurs in medias res — the scene exists and the reader is treated as though already present, yet somehow unable quite to see for herself. The reader is not led into the scene; the efficacy of the verisimilitude depends upon the invisibility of its means. From the beginning of the work, the gap between momentary speech and written record is to be bridged by acts of fiction, bridged well enough that we don’t notice the abyss. I meet Mel McGinnis, but he never meets me. The introduction to characters, then, while necessary and identifiable, can also be described as suppressed: the reader must be provided some kind of orientation to the scene and introduction to those who people it, but not so much that it draws attention to the setting as artifice, the characters as fictions.

But let’s back up for a moment, before the beginning. When we meet the name of the author at the top of the piece, we recognize that all the names we’ll meet subsequently are proxies for that name. There is only one person within this fiction, only one voice has ever spoken; myriad characters answer to one body. [2] Yet when we speak in terms of fiction, each of an author’s works may have a different voice, or multiple voices; so “voice” in fiction must resonate from fictional bodies as well. The fiction may speak with an “I” or a “we” but we understand that this speaker too is “only” a character. Thus we begin each story with an introduction that is also an avoidance of introduction: the author does not introduce us to his or herself, but only to substitutes, offers us (only) characters, whom we contract — without speaking, only reading on — to treat as some manner of person, an act of language with some relation to the (idea of the) body, the imaginary body.

To Characterize

The enemies of the novel are plot, character, setting, and theme, you said, but the marquise still goes out at five, and at the stern where we were standing together but separated, it was impossible to hear the engines of the ship.
—Rosmarie Waldrop, Blindsight [3]

Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” continues:

The four of us were sitting around [Mel’s] table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa — Terri, we called her — and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.

Here the reader is introduced to the story’s four main characters, in a manner that is common to fiction, but which on closer examination displays an intriguing hybridity. There are conflicts between what we might call the demands of narrative and the demands of character that the fiction must, without appearing to hesitate or change registers, resolve. Carver’s characters are introduced with something between, or a combination of, a manner of naming that would maximize verisimilitude — these characters’ names as they would be used or understood within the immediate scene, as people who already know each other — and a manner of naming as ideally performed for an outside observer, as though these were people to whom we readers were being or had just been introduced. The use of names must be at once convincingly internal, so that the characters seem to use names as real people, not acts of fiction, would; yet must also be comprehensible to the external observer. The reader is to be treated as already present, not to have to watch herself enter the scene, yet also must be efficiently oriented: so that her impression is of newly witnessing a reality already occurring, rather than a narrative just commencing.

We’re given the full name “Mel McGinnis,” as well as the occupation “cardiologist,” which will help us contextualize the other characters, too, though we’ll be told less about them. We’re offered the name Teresa, though she is known to the speaker and the other characters as Terri. And then “my wife, Laura,” a curious phrase. If this speech were truly “natural” — of and within its moment — the speaker wouldn’t say as though to himself “my wife, Laura”; he already and continuously knows that Laura is his wife, that his wife is Laura. This nonrestrictive description is offered only to the reader, on behalf of the reader: as introduction.

This paragraph includes, then, distinct gestures of verisimilitude: that we would not have a friend Mel whose last name we would not know, particularly if this Mel were a doctor; that we know the full names of those friends whom we nickname; that we nickname our friends. But it also, as though seamlessly, includes distinct departures from verisimilitude: “my wife, Laura”; the announcement that they are in Albuquerque but all from somewhere else, although this would be implicitly known by the speaker, not articulated.

It’s interesting to note that without being told more than a single (Irish-American) last name, an occupation, and a city, we readers almost universally assume—or assume that we are meant to assume — that these characters are (or will be?) white, unless we are soon told otherwise. But do these characters not possess race yet because it has not yet been affixed to them? (One could ask a similar question about gender; in both Carver’s and Holland’s stories, as is perfectly common, there is some delay before the narrator’s gender is definitely established.) Race will never be explicitly announced for all of these characters — only in physical descriptions that circumscribe race, and in other markers of historical context, speech, and class that seem sufficiently (perhaps arguably) racialized. [4] Race arrives, then, in a sideways manner; although a quality of bodies, it seems that other markers — Albuquerque, gin? — not of the body may suffice to describe it, to affix it to a character. The question of race emphasizes how complexly embodiment is enunciated. The character arrives in the fiction by name, under the sign of the name — but the body arrives by some other means of articulation.

Noy Holland’s “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose” is named for four types of bodies, which the story will reveal to be not types but individual characters. In the first few paragraphs, we learn more about the “them” introduced in the opening: that “They’d have taken him if they could” — him being “Goose”; that “they” have taken a number of things from the farm. We learn that on the farm there is “our pa” and “our ma” and a blind pig, a barn and a pond-bridge and a brocade couch in the pond. We do not know who the speaker is yet; it seems to be a child, but it’s not clear on who else’s behalf he/she is speaking. Soon we learn that there is a baby, and a horse. The speaker, we learn, is “Cricket,” or “his girl Cricket,” “his” being “Pa’s.” Then:

. . . I can feel the horse start to pull over the hump of gravel. He lets his long high sound. Pa says it is like a goose so Goose but I never heard a goose as that, so long as that it warbled, not a sound like that and never since from bird nor horse nor man. . . .

You goose. First she called Pa so as to tease him. But then Ma called the baby goose and by and by each name for Pa I used to hear her call him by she picked to name the baby with and mine I had forgotten. Now we are only Pa to her and Pa and his girl Cricket. Moving slowly in the road.

These characters name one another, as Mel and Nick and Laura name Teresa “Terri.” The horse is Goose, but Pa has also been “goose,” and so has the baby. The girl has no other name than Cricket, which it seems Pa has given her — not as one names a child, but more intimately, as one nicknames a child. The horse is named for his sounds (his voice?), which are like a goose, and yet, Cricket thinks, not. Ma, Pa, and baby are never named otherwise. The world of the story is drawn this closely around the speaker: we are not formally introduced.

The prominence of names in the world as we know it has been replaced by a naming system internal to the story, names as experienced by the speaker. The girl “Cricket” has effectively forgotten her own name and it is never revealed to us. The animals’ names are of the same order as at least some of the human characters’ — “Cricket” becomes a human name; Goose is the name of a horse, but has been, at various times, also a name for Pa and for baby. Holland’s approach to introduction is distinctly different from Carver’s; in this story names carefully disorient as much as they orient the reader. “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose” investigates the act of naming itself, its power both to familiarize and distance, to be both prize of and weapon against intimacy.

First-person narrations such as Carver’s and Holland’s share a natural kinship, the voice of the narrator as guide; thus it seems right to consider a third-person introduction as well. After the opening above, Stein’s “Melanctha” continues with the story of Rose Johnson, her baby, and Melanctha Herbert:

Melanctha Herbert who was Rose Johnson’s friend, did everything that any woman could. She tended Rose, and she was patient, submissive, soothing, and untiring, while the sullen, childish, cowardly, black Rosie grumbled and fussed and howled and made herself to be an abomination and like a simple beast.

Within the first two pages these descriptions appear:

Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled. . . .
        Melanctha Herbert was a graceful, pale yellow, intelligent, attractive negress. She had not been raised like Rose by white folks but then she had been half made with real white blood.

This narrator explicitly, even belaboredly, introduces us to the character of her characters: character as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” someone’s “distinctive nature,” the quality of individuality, people’s “strength and originality” as individuals. [5] Stein’s descriptions suggest a moral dimension and trajectory to the fiction: one character is introduced immediately as lazy, another intelligent. Such descriptions are not a “naming,” as such, but introduce a typology. These descriptions denote types of people (or “kinds,” Stein’s oft-used word) as fictive.

The term “character” is also defined as “a person seen in terms of a particular aspect of character.” Characteristics such as “lazy” and “intelligent” assert both an individuality — these aspects must belong to, be embodied by, individuals — as well as a broader dimension, in which the qualities of individual characters will assume an order of meaning. Named with qualities whose meaning will manifest in the larger narrative, these characters are marked as fictive. The verisimilitude that appears in Carver and Holland is noticeably absent.

In contrast to Carver’s characters, the characters in “Melanctha” are racialized immediately, and in a manner that suggests a value to degrees of whiteness and blackness (although whose value, and whether it will be undermined, is not yet clear). But otherwise, it’s interesting to note, Stein’s descriptions move fluidly between characters’ outer appearances and inner qualities: “Gertrude Stein, in her work, has always been possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude in the description of inner and outer reality,” as Stein has it in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. [6] In “Melanctha,” characters’ actions are often general or abstract, as though summaries of actions or conclusions about actions rather than what could be called realist descriptions of events in time — examples include keeping a house neat, taking care of an invalid, or “us[ing] her power as a woman.” Stein’s descriptions blend the several senses of “character”: the physical with the moral; scene with exposition of the narrator’s values; the world external to a character with something of what’s internal, a kind of psychology:

[Melanctha] was a graceful, pale yellow, good looking, intelligent, attractive negress, a little mysterious sometimes in her ways, and always good and pleasant, and always ready to do things for people.

Carver may describe characters’ physical appearances (up to a point) but will offer next to nothing about the “character” of the characters. We learn that “Mel thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love” — a deliberately evasive description — and that “When [Mel] was sober, his gestures, all his movements, were precise, very careful” — a description of the physical that only gestures toward “character.” Any other question of these characters’ “qualities” (and the value thereof) is left to the reader to deduce. The importance of such psychological or ethical qualities is not even asserted clearly by, nor articulated within, the fiction itself. [7]

What We Know When We Know a Name

Sometimes the most banal word grips me in a strange attitude of admiration. There are gestures or tones of voice over which I’m lost in astonishment and imbecilities which I find dizzying. Have you ever listened carefully to people speaking a foreign language that you don’t understand. That’s the sort of state I’m in.
—Flaubert, in his letters [8]

The word “character” also denotes what are in non-phonetic alphabets not letters, quite, but symbols representing letters or numbers. Those of us who only read phonetic alphabets perhaps cannot fully imagine what it is to read symbols that function as words (as in Chinese) or letters (as in Hebrew). The concept is — to echo Flaubert — foreign.

But maybe this sense of the word “character” casts a shadow whenever we encounter a fictional “character.” Do “character” (“a person in a novel, play, or movie”) and “character” (“a printed or written letter or symbol”) and even “character” (“chiefly Biology a characteristic, esp. one that assists in the identification of a species”) have the same relation in any other tongue? When I use the word “character” to discuss Mel McGinnis — when I encounter Mel McGinnis, knowing him to be a “character” — these other senses of the word are somehow present. I read Mel McGinnis as a symbol, a depiction of an idea, a unit representing meaning of another order. Perhaps these qualities of my reading are not just a consequence of the history of fiction in the English tradition, but of the word “character” itself.

In other words, all characters have a name that precedes their own (character), a name that has a character of its own. Consider Flaubert’s use of the word foreign [9] above in describing something to do with character — Flaubert, of whom James Wood writes:

Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. . . . Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. [10]

And of whom Gertrude Stein says, in regard to Three Lives: “Everything I have done has been influenced by Flaubert and Cézanne, and this idea of composition. . . I began to write Three Lives under this influence.” [11]

In the quotation above, Flaubert describes not an aspect of character but a state in which his perception had an altered character: in which banal expressions became mesmerizing, the people before him transformed until they seemed to become foreign. This state is described positively and apparently inspired composition in the style that not only distinguished Flaubert but casts a shadow on modern and contemporary fiction, more precisely (in Wood’s phrase) “modern realist narration.” Wood describes modern realist narration, as it follows Flaubert, thus:

that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the authors fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. [12]

The word foreign is key: it suggests that it is when people become inscrutable, their speech momentarily unintelligible, the everyday foreign, that the dimension of fiction manifests. The “character” is the embodiment of this possible foreignness: the writer may become unlike herself, inhabit bodies and speak in voices that are her own but not her own, of other times, genders, races, classes, locations. When Flaubert experiences other people as foreign, paradoxically, the characters of these others in resisting comprehension deepen, extending into unknown and spellbinding life. The word “character,” in this sense, represents a process of foreignization, a process by which a known or familiar word (the name) represents something unknown and complex, represents a complex system of representation.

Stein’s naming and description in “Melanctha” begin as though in the manner of the “modern realist narration” described above but exaggerate, until the forms of verisimilitude have been stretched beyond what falls within Wood’s description.

Melanctha said there were some old papers in the house, perhaps Dr. Campbell could find something in them that would help pass the time for a while for him. All right, Dr. Campbell said, that would be better than just sitting there with nothing. Dr. Campbell began to read through the old papers that Melanctha gave him. When anything amused him in them, he read it out to Melanctha. Melanctha was now pretty silent, with him. Dr. Campbell began to feel a little, about how she responded to him. Dr. Campbell began to see a little that perhaps Melanctha had a good mind.

Note how often the phrases “Dr. Campbell” and “Miss Melanctha” appear — used even when there is no doubt about who is present and who is addressing whom. Perhaps this repetition is meant in part to represent the speech of these characters, a reminder that these characters would address each other with this propriety. But perhaps it’s also meant to represent naming as an ongoing process: naming does not occur merely in the act of introduction but is, and must be, continuously reenacted. The composition of the character occurs continually under its moniker. As Holland’s story also illustrates, the power of names can fade, irrevocably; the girl, called for too long only Cricket, no longer knows herself nor is known by any other name.

Consider how different writers deploy names versus pronouns — a choice that, as Stein resoundingly illustrates, need not answer only to clarity. Characters are commonly renamed within the course of a paragraph, over sustained passages in which they are the only actor; characters re-name one another in dialogue when there is no doubt to whom they’re speaking. Look at “What We Talk About”:

Mel let out his breath. He held his glass and turned to Laura and me. “The man threatened to kill me,” Mel said. He finished his drink and reached for the gin bottle. “Terri’s a romantic. Terri’s of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school. Terri, hon, don’t look that way.” Mel reached across the table and touched Terri’s cheek with his fingers. He grinned at her.
        “Well, Nick and I know what love is,” Laura said. “For us, I mean,” Laura said. She bumped my knee with her knee. “You’re supposed to say something now,” Laura said, and turned her smile on me.

Carver’s use of names is not as exaggerated as Stein’s, but still exceeds what clarity or verisimilitude alone would demand. Mel is already acting and speaking when we are told again, “Mel said,” then “Mel reached…” Similarly, Laura is already speaking, but then twice we have “Laura said.” This occurs in these cases nearly invisibly (in Carver’s deft hands) but serves a purpose: the name summons the character (back) up much more powerfully than a mere pronoun. “He” could be anyone; Mel is Mel. These acts of repetition answer to something of the awareness that Holland’s story suggests: that perhaps characters are in danger of drifting off, blurring, becoming nameless, when a name, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, doesn’t anchor them.

The definition of the word “character” that concerns the fictive begins “a person in a novel, play, or movie,” then “a part played by an actor.” In drama, the actor’s body represents the character; whether the character is named is immaterial; he or she will exist as independent and embodied regardless. Characters in fiction, however, are made of only words, and must continually distinguish themselves from the landscape of words around them, insist on themselves as of another order, a meaning pertaining to an individual (fictional) body. They must become “characters,” foreign to the words around them. They must claim their relationship to the physical body, and reassert their embodiment, or their relationship to embodiment, continually. This must happen under the sign of the particular nouns and pronouns that name the character.

But are these names really “particular,” singular? A character named Terri, a character named Nick… The reader may well know a Terri and a Nick herself; she may be able immediately to summon up an image of a real person in response to these names. (Or as Stein says in Lectures in America: “People if you like to believe it can be made by their names. Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul and call anybody Alice and they get to be an Alice.” [13]) Carver relies on this familiarity, choosing what would have been for his audience nondescript, everyday names. Stein’s are less common — Melanctha, for instance, but also first and last names used together repeatedly, which are more distinctive, insistently unique.

Carver’s realism here could be risky. For every Nick he summons up, readers may summon up a bevy of Nicks of their own, nothing like the Nick he intends. In choosing such a common name, Carver seems comfortably to suggest a relationship between his Nick and his readers’ possible Nicks, to allow these Nicks a certain common reality. In exchange for his character’s lack of “distinction,” his character may be immediately more plausible as a real body, imaginable. In other words, most of Carver’s audience, he may assume, already knows what it is to know a Nick. We are a little less sure of knowing a Melanctha Herbert (less sure even than we’d be of simply Melanctha). And as for “his girl Cricket” — while not seeming necessarily confusing or unimaginable as an appellation, this requires a little further explanation, contextualization. Holland seems to reserve, even intensify, her characters’ foreignness, works to keep them from diffusing into the familiar. We encounter the name “his girl Cricket” with a sense that we do not know enough yet to know what it “means.”

To Be Named Mortal

Whoever receives a name feels mortal or dying, precisely because the name seeks to save him, to call him and thus assure his survival. Being called, hearing oneself being named, receiving a name for the first time involves something like the knowledge of being mortal and even the feeling that one is dying. To have already died of being promised to death: dying.
—Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am [14]

. . . I can feel the horse start to pull over the hump of gravel. He lets his long high sound. Pa says it is like a goose so Goose but I never heard a goose as that, so long as that it warbled, not a sound like that and never since from bird nor horse nor man. Not even when Pa hit him.
        He hit him in his head. Then was a sound a girl-girl lets, queerly sung and pretty. But that was some time after. That was when we shod.
—Holland, “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose”

That the horse’s sound is like a “girl’s” ties the horse to “girl Cricket,” the narrator. This is noted again later: when Pa blinds the horse in one eye, with a rasp, the horse sounds “Quick a girl’s sweet wurbled note.” The horse is named by his suffering: he is named for the sound he makes when he suffers — a sound that makes him like both a girl and a goose. The name Goose, interestingly, insists on the horse’s difference from himself, his connection to other characters, other (types of) bodies.

Holland’s approach to naming here displays a different kind of hybridity than we saw in Carver. It is not quite clear that the horse was Goose before he was hit — we think so, but it could be that this name only came to be his as a result of these events, then was used by Cricket to narrate. The name Goose has moved, after all, character to character — ominously, given its connection to pain. By the end of the story we will feel confident that the “we” that opened the story is Cricket and Pa, or rather, Pa and his girl Cricket. When Ma leaves with “her boy” (the baby is almost always named as solely the mother’s — the reason for this clear once she leaves with him), Pa and Cricket stay behind, become a “we.” The naming here occurs “backward”: we meet the names before meeting the naming, before knowing when the naming occurred in the story’s chronology.

But doesn’t this “backwardness” seem truer, more like the naming we know in the world? Most fiction introduces us to names, but not naming; the naming has already occurred, off-stage, and readers are offered its results, no explanation. Holland, it seems, will not name without also noting the act of naming. This seems like a slant kind of verisimilitude: an emphasis on names as created by other people (characters), rather than by an outside presence. When we meet real people, we know that they have not named themselves; their names have been given to — imposed upon? — them. (Carver reminds us of this when he offers us both Terri’s name and her nickname.) Most fiction, however, does not focus on internal acts of naming — fictions of being named — to the degree Holland does. This particular act of verisimilitude is usually suppressed. Dickens can provide, for instance, the convenient opposite end of the spectrum: his characters are often named didactically, to instruct the reader what role they’ll play. But we are usually closer to Dickens’ mode when we encounter names in fiction: characters’ names act like names, but call out an external point of origin; above all they signify the character’s role in the fictional work. We read them as of the author, not the fiction.

Consider the action of the name “Goose”: the horse’s suffering propels the trajectory of events that is also a narrative of naming. Cricket’s alliance with her father is secured by her presence when he blinds the horse; by her presence this becomes her violence, too. The horse is excluded from the “we” from which she narrates, by her guilt, by her shame at the horse’s suffering and the mother’s departure in the wake of it (the violence against the horse implicated in her leaving, to a degree that remains ambiguous). Cricket stops visiting the horse, and in time he dies, the death with which the story ends. The story narrates the naming of its characters, their naming of one another; naming here is dynamic as it is not in Carver or even in Stein’s repetition. The narrator is “Pa’s girl Cricket” because this is how it turned out: Cricket is left with Pa. Goose is most wholly Goose once he has been struck and cries out. The baby, too, is not named, at least for some time: “Boy, she called him. Goose, you goose, and mister — Ma thinking not to choose a name to have to have to call him by should he be taken from her.”

The baby’s namelessness is as though a charm against mortality — not to name him so that he will not be taken, buried under a name — and also testament to his mortality: they had not thought he would live, and so did not have a name ready for him. In this story naming is yoked to mortality and suffering. Of Goose’s pain when struck, Cricket says:

His burblings — mine — my cross to bear, my thin bitten birdish shrill he let, my name though Pa had thought it — Goose. Goose and also Cricket. We were named for the sounds thrown from us yes for a dream’s long soured tongue.

Naming is not Edenic, but happens continually, consequence of the actions of man. Holland’s naming is more like the naming we know: character naming character and individuals coming to terms with bearing (theirs, others) names. Bear in the sense of a title; of something carried with one; a burden; something given birth to; something endured. Names mark us as individuals born of others and to be addressed and then memorialized by others. Our names come from outside of us, but only from one another.

In Holland’s story suffering is made palpable not solely by description — or not even primarily by description — but by this dynamic of naming. The descriptions of events themselves often seem shrouded in memory. Holland’s prose perhaps departs most from “modern realist narration,” as outlined by James Wood above, in its lack of emphasis on the visual. Cricket tells us explicitly, “I am not cut to picture. To stand at the bank and puzzle out I am cut to cut and run.” The narration offers imagery and visual elements, of course, but these appear almost as symptoms affecting the voice, traces the speech bears of what has been seen. As readers we never feel we are witnessing a drama enacted before us — we do not see four characters, for instance, sitting around the table drinking gin, or anything like. As in Stein, the narration is less concerned with describing any specific event and more concerned with the accumulation of events in memory.

The story concludes with this idea of “picturing.” Cricket remembers the horse Goose, now dead: “I lie in the field and picture it. Who have come to be one to picture it. How long it was Goose hung there. Such a time it was he hung there pawing softly at the stars.” From beyond the narrator, the author enters quietly here, reminding the reader that all this narrative is artifice, acts which would not be recalled were they not meant to be witnessed (pictured). This speech functions both as Cricket’s in this moment, and on another level as about the story itself: a description of the story as a “coming to picture,” a narrator as one who is “com[ing] to be one to picture.”

This is a story, then, that through its intense focus on language — the privileging of sound that distinguishes its style — continually draws attention to the distance between written language and experience. A horse is blinded by a rasp (a word that is a sound, after all), and named for the sound he makes in his suffering. The girl who witnesses this considers what it is to witness, and to have witnessed — to narrate, to “come to be one to picture” what once occurred, but can now only be remembered.

The introduction to this essay discussed how the difference between the introduction in fiction and the introduction as lived is born of and tied to the difference between spoken and written language, between the moment and the record. A fictional introduction is always only a “picturing.” The real introduction is reciprocal, is both seen and heard. The fictional introduction cannot be reciprocal, can only be “seen” (in being read), but isn’t truly experienced. Narrative only “pictures” the visual. Even in its silence, written language must offer an experience of sound before it can offer a visual image. The bodies summoned up as characters are somehow easily called out of language — by a name, by a handful of pronouns—and yet are so far from being truly present; the impression of their presence is diffused throughout the text, achieved mysteriously.

If we consider what it is to treat a character’s name as a foreignized word, as above in the discussion of Flaubert, we can then consider how every word can be said to have something like a “body” — its own “character,” sound, connotation: a life beyond and radiating out from our momentary use of it. When we listen to Holland’s prose, or to Stein’s repetition, where the sequence of sound seems as important as meaning, we may experience something like Flaubert’s state, in which we are “listen[ing] carefully to people speaking a foreign language that you don’t understand.” Or, as Keith Waldrop describes Stein’s approach in Three Lives: “Struck by ‘the rhythm of each human being,’ [Stein] attempts to combine the description of character with the presentation of the character’s rhythm.” [15] Characters are embodied in language — but language has its own characteristics of embodiment, which the text both employs and is subject to. Each word has its own characteristics, of another order than its literal meaning.

This last may seem a meditation more suited to writers such as Stein and Holland than to Carver — but look how “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” ends:

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

As in “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose,” Carver closes with an image that serves the fiction perfectly, yet is also a commentary on it. The narrative has been “this human noise we sat there making” — an idea we readers come to with an essential sense of the sounds “human” and “noise,” nasal and diphthongal, contrasting with the gentle assonance of “heart” and “dark.” At the beginning of the story the introduction to these four characters was performed quietly, discreetly, so that the curtain would open without drawing our attention. Now, the performance ended, the writer directs our gaze — our ear — back toward the fact of the world. The room has gone dark, silent; we can no longer pretend to see or hear what illusion had been there. The characters are gone; the reader is alone again in the room.



Warm thanks to Chris Bachelder, Pam Thompson, and Daniel Pritchard for their help with this essay.

Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” was first published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981). Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha” is from her Three Lives [1909] (New York: Vintage Books, 1936). Noy Holland’s “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose” is from What Begins With Bird (Tallahassee: Fiction Collective Two, 2005).

1. As Alice Notley has said, “There is nothing in Stein but—I’m tempted to say—voice; hardly ever anything but” (“Voice,” in Coming After: Essays on Poetry [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005], 153).
2. Discussing Carver here opens a window in the argument: can Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” be most accurately said to be the work of one body, or two (given the debate over Gordon Lish’s editorial involvement, and the posthumous publication of Carver’s manuscript version of the same story, “Beginners”)?
3. From the poem “Jack in the Box” by Rosmarie Waldrop, in Blindsight (New York: New Directions, 1998), 103. The quoted passage collages two different statements on fiction by John Hawkes (to whom the poem is dedicated) with one by Valéry. Many thanks to Chris Bachelder for this observation.
4. As Chris Bachelder observed, elsewhere in Carver’s stories, his narrators are more than explicit about race — this passage in “Vitamins,” for instance: “There was a place I went to after work. I’d started going for the music and because I could get a drink there after closing hours. It was a place called the Off-Broadway. It was a spade place in a spade neighborhood. It was run by a spade named Khaki” (from Cathedral [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983]).
5. The dictionary referred to throughout is the New Oxford American Dictionary (version 2.1.3, available as part of the MacBook suite).
6. Quoted in Lyn Hejinian, “Two Stein Talks,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 89. This essay is deeply indebted to Hejinian’s writing on Stein.
7. Oddly, this seems similar to the manner in which the reader has had to read race, a definitely physical quality, in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” as discussed above.
8. From Jonathan Culler in Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (London: Paul Elek, 1974), 207. Quoted in Lyn Hejinian’s “Three Lives,” in The Language of Inquiry, 288.
9. I should note that more accurately this is Jonathan Culler’s word, not Flaubert’s.
10. James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 39.
11. From her 1946 “Transatlantic Interview” with Robert Bartlett Hass; quoted in Hejinian, “Three Lives,” 287.
12. Wood, How Fiction Works, 39.
13. Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” in Lectures in America [1935] (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 210.
14. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 20.
15. Keith Waldrop, introduction to Gertrude Stein’s Useful Knowledge (1928; Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, 1988), xx. The quotation from Stein is from her Lectures in America (1935).

Hilary Plum is co-director of Clockroot Books and received an MFA in fiction from UMass Amherst. Recent prose and criticism have appeared in DIAGRAM, the Kenyon Review Online, and the Quarterly Conversation.

in this article

What We Talk about When
We Talk about Love

by Raymond Carver
Softcover, $14.00
Vintage, 1989

Three Lives
by Gertrude Stein
Softcover, $13.00
The Grafton Press

What Begins With a Bird
by Noy Holland
Softcover, $19.95
Fiction Collective Two