So much water so close to home – Carver and writing menace

The short story, So Much Water So Close To Home by Raymond Carver, is told through a woman’s voice as she narrates this story about her husband and his fishing trip with his friends. There is also something else, something seen in the newspaper, about a girl who was found dead (and only later in the story do we see the husband may have been a suspect).

From the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (and an unedited version in Fire and Beginners), this is a story about violence, distrust, doubt, and power. We can sense something is not right. Even feel it from the taught atmosphere in the kitchen between husband and wife because we’re seeing this through the wife’s eyes. The sense of distrust is palpable, the doubt tangible. ‘My husband eats with good appetite but he seems tired, edgy.’ What’s wrong with him? He’s not himself. But you have to trust him, right? This disconnect is the most powerful aspect in the story, and even the way it’s written, which I’ll get back to, disconnects us more so from the husband’s fishing trip story that form an unreliable narrator, as the wife recalls only what she’s been told.

“I think a little menace is fine to have in a short story.”

—Raymond Carver, “On Writing”

But it’s all very telling just from the first paragraph. Just six sentences. He’s eating and he also stares ahead, across the room. She’s watching him do this. ‘Something has come between us though he would like me to believe otherwise.’ Just in the first paragraph, we get nothing exact but just two people in a kitchen, one of whom is just eating lunch. The way he stares into space as he eats implies his deep thoughts, something is on his mind. The way he looks at his wife and looks away, again something on his mind, but a common trait of guilt. What I find clever is how this is from the wife’s point of view, that she’s (and therefore we) observes him doing these actions, it’s that she’s watching him. Her actions are just as telling (we as her) watching him. Why? The immense suspicion of him, and the building subsequent story, leads us to believe – or disbelieve – something isn’t right. It’s trusting your partner or trusting the nuances of reality.

‘Something has come between us though he would like me to believe otherwise.’

So Much Water So Close To Home

As this first scene in the kitchen ends, she’s still watching him. She watches him smoke a cigarette: ‘The wind takes the smoke out of his mouth in a thin stream. Why do I notice that?’ Who’s she asking? Us? Herself? Him? I think she notices the smoke from his mouth because she’s just staring at him, but she’s looking at something she believed was her husband, and now his someone she hardly knows at all. Looking at him, analysing small details about him, she’s looking for something recognisable, something familiar to her. But why does she question herself? She doesn’t know it yet, but she doesn’t believe a word he says.

I think this story is one of the best technically written short stories. Because it’s a story that has already happened, it’s the husband’s story told by the wife, it essentially becomes diluted as we, as the reader, become just as doubtful as she is. It induces the feeling of uncertainty, it makes you wonder. It think it’s an incredible achievement in fiction writing to be able to produce those feelings in the reader, to feel just how the wife is feeling, the not knowing, the worry, the questioning; when you’re doubtful of reality, trust goes out the window.

In the story, the husband, Stuart, goes on a fishing trip with his friends. While there, they discover a dead body of a girl in the lake. What they decide to do is leave it so they can carry on with their fishing trip. Their logic is no harm done, she’s already dead, reporting it will just ruin their trip. So that’s what they do. However, the subtleties and nuances in the actions and dialogue begin to form the doubt in your mind, the way Claire, the wife, tries to go about her day, tries to be normal. It makes you think did they do it? Did he do it? Because of the way it’s written, from the wife’s point of view, there’s no way of knowing.

The omission of violence, of certain details, creates the presence menace, something there but not quite. It’s typical of Carver’s writing to imply, to be as subtle as possible, the let the characters speak and move in order for the story to grow and flourish. The doubt leads to paranoia – the phone had already been ringing, assuming it’s a reporter with questions and accusations – but that could only lead to hysteria with Stuart’s painful and disturbing indifference, but what she is expressing is fear. Stuart’s various yet subtle acts of control over her reveal the type of man he is, and again allows your mind (as the reader and as Claire) to wander, to believe he could be the type of man to do such a thing to a girl in the woods. Claire pulls away from him when he comes near to her and he says, ‘I should be able to touch you without you jumping out of your skin.’ He then proceeds to put on arm around her waist and guides her hands between his legs. She rejects this action – what feels more like an assault than an intimate action – and he says ‘Be that way of you want. Just remember.’ He doesn’t finish what he was going to say. A half threat almost exposing himself as the monster he really is.

Carver, from Oregon, wrote this story in the mid-seventies at a time and place when women were being abducted, raped and murdered. Serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway were active. There is a very real fear expressed in Claire. Stuart is a damning indictment of men, the toxic masculine, those who believe they hold power over women, those who believe they get what they want.

The title implies Claire wishes Stuart never got involved with any of this. If only it could all go away. Why did he have to go fishing? Why there? ‘So much water so close to home. I say, “Why did you have to go miles away?“’ But it also implies the evil is closer than you think. It’s washed up on your doorstep. The wild, evil world is actually back at home. Claire then mentions another murder that happened when she was younger. The Maddox Brothers. ‘They said they were innocent. They said they were crazy.’ This seems to suggest it’s happened before, its something she’s all too familiar with already. But even those men were ‘innocent,’ but not entirely innocent. The power imbalance between men and women is in the structure of culture and society, the fact that Claire knows and suspects, yet Stuart is able to shrug it off with cruel indifference.

‘He says something else. But I don’t need to listen. I can’t hear a thing with so much water going.’

So Much Water So Close To Home

Claire’s detachment from her husband is her own isolation, while Stuart’s apathy is his own possible evil. The final scene is of Stuart’s sexual advance on Claire in the kitchen, a further power-play, ‘I think I know what you need,’ he says, again, a method of control: controlling her thoughts, actions and the situation. Claire’s narration near the end allows the story’s title to flow up to the brim as the doubt, fear and isolation spills over. ‘He says something else. But I don’t need to listen. I can’t hear a thing with so much water going.’ The tap from the kitchen sink still on. Although she seems desperate for some form of human connection, his power overwhelms. Water is a powerful symbol in the story. It’s almost the same water the dead girl was found in. It is everywhere, it spills over, it is both calm and violent.

Michael Holloway

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