The Bath by Raymond Carver, 1981
The magic trick:
Keeping even the most dramatic action in the realm of the implied
Today we address the great controversy surrounding Carver’s work. Was he a genius of minimalism or a product of Gordon Lish’s expert editing? Something in between? Much of your answer can be traced to the published versions of this story, first the Lish edit as “The Bath,” and four years later as the Carver text, “A Small, Good Thing.” Let’s start with “The Bath.”
I love this story. I loved it the first time I read it. I loved it even more, rereading it after having read it’s wordier, younger brother, “A Small, Good Thing.” Carver – or was it Lish? – tells a very dramatic story full of tragedy and big human emotions. But nothing about “The Bath” feels bloated. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, as even fundamental details about the action are only hinted at, leaving the reader to do much of the work. I like that style a lot.
Consider the section in which Scotty is hit by the car. The story’s pivotal scene is described in just two sentences: “At an intersection, without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb, and was promptly knocked down by a car. He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall.”
The reader knows it’s bad but little else. When the boy gets up and walks back home, we think maybe the car accident was not as serious as we first assumed. Most writers would lay out such a situation, so inherently extreme, plainly and let the reader drink in the drama. Carver instead turns the drama on its side, or maybe it’s that he extends the drama one notch further, so that the reader is not only concerned about this extreme situation, we’re also captivated by the mystery surrounding the nature of the event itself. Is the boy OK? Was it not serious? Was it bad and it’s about to get worse? Carver has us on the hook.
Amazingly, the story doesn’t stop there. The would-be resolution to the tension is even more brilliant in its elusiveness. “The birthday boy told his mother what had happened. They sat together on the sofa. She held his hands in her lap. This is what she was doing when the boy pulled his hands away and lay down on his back.” It is only then that the reader starts to get some questions answered about the nature of the accident, and the story can proceed to its next section. And what a brutally beautiful description of the boy falling into the coma.
Consider now the same scene as written in “A Small, Good Thing:” “But after the birthday boy was inside his house and was telling his mother about it- she sitting beside him on the sofa, holding his hands in her lap, saying, ‘Scotty, honey, are you sure you feel all right, baby?’ thinking she would call the doctor anyway-he suddenly lay back on the sofa, closed his eyes, and went limp When she couldn’t wake him up, she hurried to the telephone and called her husband at work. Howard told her to remain calm, remain calm, and then he called an ambulance for the child and left for the hospital himself.”
Twice the words; half the impact. I’ll go into far more detail tomorrow with “A Small, Good Thing,” a story I liked very much, for the record. But there is no denying the power of the editing job in “The Bath.” By leaving so much untold, the story puts the reader to work, which in turn forces us to put ourselves in the place of the grieving parents. And that’s quite a trick on Carver/Lish’s part.
The doctor came in. He looked tanned and healthier than ever. He went to the bed and examined the boy. He said, “His signs are fine. Everything’s good.”
The mother said, “But he’s sleeping.”
“Yes,” the doctor said.
The husband said, “She’s tired. She’s starved.”
The doctor said, “She should rest. She should eat. Ann,” the doctor said.
Thank you,” the husband said.
He shook hands with the doctor and the doctor patted their shoulders and left.