Minimalism in american literature
MINING FOR MEANING: A STUDY OF MINIMALISM IN AMERICAN LITERATURE by JEREMY ROBERT BAILEY, B. A. , M. A. A DISSERTATION IN ENGLISH Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY Approved Wendell Aycock Chair of the Committee Sara Spurgeon Scott Baugh Ralph Ferguson Dean of the Graduate School December 2010 Copyright 2010 Jeremy Robert Bailey Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to thank my dissertation director, Dr. Wendell Aycock, for the instruction he gave me while a student in his classes and agreeing to work with me on this project. I will forever be grateful for your advice, encouragement and patience. I would also like to thank Dr. Sara Spurgeon, Dr. Bryce Conrad, and Dr. Scott Baugh for their ideas and willingness to serve on my committee. I have appreciated the advice and kind words of many of classmates and friends who have been supportive and excited about this project.
Thanks for listening to my ideas and allowing me to vent my frustrations. I would also like to thank Annie, my wonderful wife, for reading my work and putting up with me for the past few years. I look forward to future adventures with you. Finally, I dedicate this dissertation to my children–Taylor, Connor and Ashton. ii Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 TABLE OF CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ABSTRACT LIST OF FIGURES CHAPTER I.
INTRODUCTION Minimalism in Visual Arts Minimalism in Music Minimalism in Literature Rationale and Methodology II. ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S CONTRIBUTION TO LITERARY MINIMALISM Repetition in “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I” Heavy Dialogue and Ambiguity in “Hills Like White Elephants” III. RAYMOND CARVER: “THE FATHER” OF AMERICAN MINIMALISM A Minimalist Version of the Unreliable Narrator in “So Much Water So Close To Home” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” Silence as a Form of Communication in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love IV.
AMY HEMPEL: A CONTEMORARY MASTER OF MINIMALIST FICTION Metafiction and Minimalist Techniques in “What Were the White Things? ” Repetition and Ambiguity in “The Annex” iii ii v vi 1 3 10 11 21 38 45 52 67 77 89 94 96 104 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 V. CORMAC MCCARTHY: A NEW FACE IN AMERICAN MINIMALISM Minimalist Punctuation and “Short, Declarative Sentences” Narration and Dialogue in The Road and The Sunset Limited A Minimalist Version of the Unreliable Narrator in The Crossing 15 116 121 134 VI. CORMAC MCCARTHY: FROM FAULKNER TO HEMINGWAY CONCLUSION 141 160 167 VII. BIBLIOGRAPHY iv Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 ABSTRACT This dissertation presents a series of readings that exemplify a wide range of important minimalist techniques in American literature. The study stems from my interest in the works of Cormac McCarthy, and particularly the question of both how and why McCarthy has developed into the highly minimalist author that he is today.
My initial plan was to propose a book length study on McCarthy’s latest minimalist works, but my research on other minimalist writers, particularly Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel soon revealed that the technique of minimalism, and particularly how minimalist characteristics can influence and heighten a reader’s understanding of a story, should also be examined in this study. I have included a chapter on works by Hemingway to trace the early roots of literary minimalism, and a chapter on Carver to outline many of the important minimalist trademarks found in works written during the highpoint of American minimalism.
The chapters on Hempel and McCarthy, two contemporary writers that have published a number of noteworthy minimalist stories in the past few years, bring this study into the present day. v Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 LIST OF FIGURES I. II. III. Lever Hanging Structure (with stripes) Fulcrum 5 7 9 vi Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION The term “minimal,” the root word of “minimalism,” is defined as something that exists in the smallest amount or degree.
This simple definition is neither positive nor negative, but in a world where people often consider “more” to be better than “less,” something described as minimal can bring to mind phrases such as “barely adequate,” or “just scraping by. ” For this reason, some authors, including Raymond Carver, “the father” of American minimalism, cringe when classified as minimalist writers. 1 When critics consider the complex, confusing, and at times even derogatory nature of the term as it pertains to written texts, it is not surprising that they have yet to agree on a universal definition of literary minimalism.
This fact complicates matters for scholars attempting to write on socalled minimalist stories, and poses a particular challenge to those interested in examining both how and why authors choose to employ minimalist techniques in their works. Because the term itself is difficult to define, many critics choose to discuss certain aspects or characteristics common to minimalist writers and stories in place of arguing over highly subjective definitions of the term.
For example, in “A Maximalist Novelist Looks at Some Minimalist Fiction,” Linsey Abrams addresses the ambiguous nature of minimalist literature when she writes, “Minimalist fiction, at its best, draws resonance from simple understandings, accumulated into structures where the whole is greater than the In an interview with Mona Simpson, Carver remarks, “. . . somebody called me a ‘minimalist’ writer. But I didn’t like it. There’s something about ‘minimalist’ that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don’t like” (210). 1 1 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 um of the parts. At its worst, those same simple understandings are presented linearly, rendering them simplistic, if not inauthentic” (24). Kim Herzinger examines the reader’s role in understanding a minimalist text in his introduction to the 1985 winter edition of Mississippi Review: “The reader of minimalist fiction is being asked to face the characters in the story the way we face people in the world, people who do not—in my experience at least—ordinarily declare their personal histories, political and moral attitudes, or psychological conditions for my profit and understanding” (17).
Chuck Palahniuk, a contemporary minimalist writer best known for his novel Fight Club, states the following with respect to minimalism: “In minimalism, a story is a symphony, building and building, but never losing the original melody line. All characters and scenes, things that seem dissimilar, they all illustrate some aspect of the story’s theme” (2).
These statements which highlight important characteristics of minimalist texts can help readers to better understand the literary minimalist tradition, but because a single, all-encompassing definition of the term has yet to be agreed upon, readers are often asked to choose whether or not a particular story fits their own particular definition of minimalism. 2 With such limitations in mind, the following list highlights what may be considered to be the most common and important elements of contemporary minimalist fiction: a) b) 2 Simple, unadorned prose Heavy dialogue with little to no exposition
Kim Herzinger discusses the problematic nature of the term “minimalism” when stating, “The point is that minimalism is not a good term. It is not a useful term. We would like to get rid of it, to replace it with something appropriately descriptive, something not derived from painting nor sculpture nor architecture nor music. It has shown itself to be, at best, misleading, and at worst devaluative. But it is, for now, what we have” (9). 2 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 c) d) e) f) g) h) i) j) k) l) m) n) o) p)
First (sometimes second) person narration Ambiguous (sometimes unreliable) narration Present tense narration Repetition of words, phrases or ideas Informal, relatable and familiar tone Generally domestic and “safe” setting Stories generally include one or two simple, middle-class characters Stories are contemporary and realistic, often dealing with common place subject matter Textual omissions/gaps are used to highlight main ideas and also to create ambiguity Silence used as a form of communication Minimal action and plot Stylistically sparse (punctuation, speaker tags, personal identifiers, etc. re often limited or omitted) Important action often takes place outside the story, or just prior to the beginning of the story Open-ended conclusions Critics Cynthia Hallett, Kim Herzinger and Arthur Saltzman, praise minimalist writers for their ability to do away with all unnecessary information in order to focus exclusively on necessary events and actions. Others, like John Biguenet, Robert Dunn and Raymond Federman criticize the technique, fearing that relatively plotless, formally sparse works must somehow be incomplete.
Because both supporters and opponents of the minimalist tradition make valid arguments, it is necessary to begin a study on literary minimalism by examining both the history of the minimalist movement and the primary characteristics common to most minimalist works. Minimalism in Visual Arts The term “minimalism” is generally used by critics of visual arts and music to describe the technique of “stripping down” a work in order to allow viewers and 3 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 listeners to focus exclusively on important and fundamental elements of the piece. The term gained popularity in the world of visual arts in the early 1960s, approximately a decade before “minimalism” was commonly tied to works of literature. In Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Literature, Warren Motte writes, “Centered primarily in Manhattan, the [minimalist] movement included such figures as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Mel Bochner, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, and Walter De Maria” (1). With the exception of Robert Smithson, who is known primarily as an “earthwork artist,” the men who make up this select list are best known as sculptors.
It is worth noting that paintings and other forms of artwork can also be classified as minimalist, but, as Motte’s list of artists suggests, the definition of minimalism as it applies to the visual arts is most commonly and easily recognized in sculpture. Although a variety of different materials such as brick, plywood, concrete, Plexiglas, styrofoam, fluorescent lights, aluminum and felt are used to create the minimalist sculptures, all of the artists on Motte’s list seem to share a collective goal—the desire to create a meaningful experience in the minds of viewers through simple means.
Because the term “minimalism” was first used in America to describe certain facets of visual art, and eventually led to the term’s adoption and application to works of Warren Motte examines and defines how the term “minimalism” applies to artwork: “Minimal art describes abstract, geometric painting and sculpture executed in the United States in the 1960s. Its predominant organizing principles include the right angle, the square, and the cube, rendered with a minimum of incident or compositional maneuvering . . . In the most radical minimalist experiments, the focus on the thing itself is intended by the artist to clear away all traces of received narrative, metaphor, and figure in order to provide the viewer with an open, unmediated experience” (8, 14). 3 4 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 literature sharing similar dominant traits, it is helpful to begin a discussion on the history of minimalism by examining a few works of minimalist sculpture. Carl Andre is regularly considered one of the founding fathers of minimalist art.
The majority of his sculptures are composed of ordinary materials and characterized by the repetition of shape, size and material and the unique juxtaposition of form (predominantly flat in nature) with open space. His 1966 work, Lever, typifies minimalist sculpture for a number of reasons. The piece consists of 137 firebricks placed side by side in a single straight line beginning at the gallery wall and extending into the open space of the room. In Lever, Andre uses the geometric form of the rectangle, a primary shape used by both artists and architects, to create a clean, unified line on Fig. . Carl Andre, Lever 1966. The AMICA Library. National Gallery of Canada. Ontario, 2003. Web. Dec. 2007. the floor. As with many of his other “floor-pieces” such as Equivalent VIII (1966), 36 Copper Square (1968), and Aluminum Steel Plain (1969), at first glance, Lever almost appears too simple to be considered an actual work of art. Critic David Joselit expresses the following regarding Lever and minimalism in general as it applies to the visual arts: “In Lever as in most 5 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 inimalist works, the ‘ground’ against which forms appear is the actual floor of the gallery, and the viewer is consequently embraced within the ‘composition’ rather than standing outside it” (American Art Since 1945 108). Lever is certainly simple when one considers the material used (industrial firebricks) and the form of the sculpture (a single straight line), but as is true with most minimalist works, Lever forces viewers to actively participate and question whether or not they are missing something.
Joselit continues: “the categorical indeterminacy of such works—their refusal to settle into any particular medium or message—shifts the burden of interpretation onto the viewer who must ‘invent’ a meaning for them” (109). As an art critic, Joselit is primarily concerned with defining certain aspects of minimalism pertaining to the study of visual arts; his definition also supports the argument that readers of minimalist literature must “step inside” the text for true and lasting meaning to occur. Does it matter that Andre’s sculpture consists of exactly 137 bricks? What role does the title of the piece play?
Why does Andre use firebricks in this sculpture in place of a different material? Instead of providing concrete answers to complex questions, the ambiguous nature of minimalist works invites participants to question seemingly simple, even trivial issues. Cubes and squares play an important role in many of Sol LeWitt’s sculptures. In “Serial Project No. 1,” a 1966 text accompanying a sculpture titled “Serial Project,” LeWitt defines a major element of minimalism when discussing his reasons for using squares and cubes in the work: “The square and cube are efficient and symmetrical . . . A more complex form would be too interesting in 6 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 itself and obstruct the meaning of the whole. There is no need to invent new forms” (373). In his minimalist sculptures, LeWitt relies on the simplicity and uniformity of squares and cubes to create meaning by allowing viewers to experience what he believes to be the most essential element/s of the works.
Similar to Serial Project, LeWitt’s Hanging Structure (with stripes) consisted primarily of cubed, square and rectangular shaped objects. The squares, cubes, and straight lines used in the sculpture are common elements of both art and architecture, but the large number of repetitive lines and shapes used in the work, mixed with the fact that the piece hangs from the ceiling, add a certain level of complexity to what might at first be considered a simplistic Fig. . Sol LeWitt, Hanging Structure (with stripes) 1961. LeWitt, Sol. Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000: 53. Print. sculpture. In a sense, Hanging Structure represents the inverse of Hemingway’s “Iceberg Principle” as seven-eighths of the sculpture is clearly seen, while just the upper eighth of the piece, the part of 7 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 the sculpture facing the ceiling, is actually excluded from view.
Art critic Robert Rosenblum states the following in response to LeWitt’s use of cubes and squares in his minimalist sculptures: [T]he deadpan, inert simplicity of a fundamental component—an open or closed cubic volume, a square plain crossed by parallel lines, or simply a line drawn between two designated points on a surface—is swiftly but logically multiplied by and combined with related components until suddenly the eye and the mind are boggled by the irrational, cat’s cradle complexities that can spring from such obvious foundations. 257) Hanging Structure succeeds as a minimalist work primarily because LeWitt uses simple forms in an interesting yet unorthodox way; namely, LeWitt uses “deadpan” cubes and squares to create a complex sculpture that demands viewers to actively participate as they visually “take in” the work from multiple perspectives. All but the topmost surfaces of the individual pieces are clearly seen, but the repetitive yet jumbled arrangement of shapes and lines make Hanging Structure a visual maze, with deep meaning seemingly hidden in plain view. Richard Serra’s Fulcrum (1987) stands at the west entrance to the Liverpool Street Railway Station.
The term “small” naturally relates to the term “minimal,” but Fulcrum proves that the physical size and weight of an object doesn’t necessarily affect whether or not a work should be considered minimalist. 8 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 The sculpture stands an impressive 55 feet in height and consists of five plates of Cor-ten steel, each weighing many tons. Fulcrum is similar to many of Serra’s other works like One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969), Spin Out (197273), and the once controversial and now dismantled Tilted Arc (1976), as steel is used as the sole material in each of these sculptures.
The massive size and weight of the sculpture is far from minimal, but the common material used in the sculpture and the manner Fig. 3. Richard Serra, Fulcrum 1987. Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Andrew Dunn 17 Aug. 2005. Web. Dec, 2007. in which the sculpture is erected represent certain minimalist characteristics. Prior to assembly, each of the steel plates were intentionally rusted to add a natural color and weathered look to the sculpture. The most impressive element of Fulcrum is that the sculpture is free-standing; nothing but the massive weight of the individual plates keeps the work upright.
Most critics agree that the primary purpose of Fulcrum and many of Serra’s other 9 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 minimalist works is to display in a simple yet creative way the enormous weight and natural strength of steel. Minimalism in Music In 1968, a few years after the term “minimalism” was first applied to works of visual art, composer Michael Nyman used the term to describe a new, experimental type of music. The term directly descends from, and is used in many of the same ways as in the world of visual arts.
Tom Johnson, a composer and self-professed minimalist, defines minimalism as it applies to music in the introduction to his collection of articles on the “new music in New York”: The idea of minimalism is much larger than most people realize. It includes, by definition, any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes, pieces that only use a few words of text, or pieces written for very limited instruments, such as antique cymbals, bicycle wheels, or whiskey glasses.
It includes pieces that sustain one basic electronic rumble for a long time . . . . It includes pieces that slow the tempo down to two or three notes per minute. (2) Johnson’s definition highlights many of the important trademarks that a listener might notice when hearing minimalist music. His definition does not, however, address why certain American musicians, like Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, frequently employed minimalist techniques in their music during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Because that which isn’t included in a minimalist work is 10 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 often as important as what is included, to truly appreciate, or in some instances even begin to understand a minimalist work, a viewer, listener or reader must actively participate in the creative process. Critic Warren Motte supports this notion when writing that minimalist musicians, like minimalist sculptors, painters and writers, “hold the encounter of the audience with the work to be of central importance . . . the subject of the minimalist work is the work itself and the audience’s encounter with it” (21). Without active participation, a viewer of minimalist artwork, listener of minimalist music, or reader of minimalist literature is simply a passive observer who fails to partake in the full and rewarding experience offered by minimalist works. Minimalism in Literature The term “minimalism” was first applied to works of American literature in the 1960s, but a number of prominent writers had previously employed minimalist techniques in both novels and short stories.
In Minimalism and the Short Story, Cynthia Hallett names five well-known, highly influential writers as precursors to the 1960s minimalist movement. Hallett writes: The seeds of artifice that inform both minimalism and the short story can be traced to such otherwise diverse writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Ernest Hemingway—all of whose conscious codes of omission were designed to make an audience feel more than they understood: Poe’s notion of unity and singleness of effect; 1 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 Chekhov’s maxim that he must focus on the end of a short story and ‘artfully’ concentrate there an impression of total work; Joyce’s minimal dependence on the traditional notion of plot, renouncing highly plotted stories in favor of seemingly static episodes and ‘slices’ of reality; Beckett’s efforts ‘to present the ultimate distillation of his inimitable world-view . . to compress and edulcorate [purify] traditional genres’ (Hutchings 86); and Hemingway’s method of communicating complex emotional states by seemingly simple patterning of concrete detail, what he called the ‘tip of the iceberg’ effect . (12) Following the trends previously established in art and music, writers became increasingly interested in minimalism as a literary technique in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
During this time, the number of writers appearing on scholarly lists of minimalist writers grew exponentially. The names on lists of minimalist writers vary from critic to critic, but the following contemporary writers of American fiction are consistently mentioned and considered important to the study of literary minimalism: Alice Adams, Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Bret Easton Ellis, Amy Hempel, Bobbie Ann Mason, Chuck Palahniuk, Grace Paley, Mary Robison, Elizabeth Tallent and Tobias Wolff.
Although the term “minimalism” as it applies to literature was adopted from the world of visual arts and music, certain differences exist between a “minimalist” story and a “minimalist” sculpture or musical composition. As Hallett writes, “the tendencies with minimalism in the visual arts is to avoid any 12 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 mplications or meaning beyond the subject/object itself and to aim at a kind of phenomenological purity, whereas the tendency in literature is to evoke within a minimal frame some larger issue by means of figurative associations” (1). In other words, where viewers of minimalist artwork, or listeners of a minimalist composition are invited to take a “what you see (or hear) is what you get” approach, a reader of a minimalist text must adopt a “there is more than meets the eye” approach to find lasting meaning in the text.
Hallett further elaborates on the figurative nature of minimalism as it pertains to literature when discussing the relationship between minimalist works and short stories in general: “as a literary style minimalism is as the short story does—at the most basic level and in a leaner format. Both are compact, condensed, and contracted in design; both are especially dependent on figurative language and symbolic associations as channels for expanded meaning” (4).
Hallett later addresses the important role that readers of minimalist texts must play in order to find “rich” and lasting meanings symbolically embedded in the text: “At first reading, many minimal narratives can seem internally disconnected, the sentences detached from one another, the ending as much a beginning as the first line; but when the stories are read closely, oblique references and dim designs combine into a rich texture of trope—exposing a pattern of meaning within the symbolic structure” (12).
Readers of minimalist texts must first discover particular patterns seemingly hidden in the “oblique references and dim designs” true of minimalist texts before learning from, or perhaps even beginning to understand, what the author is suggesting in their story. Once the unique pattern or patterns used in the 13 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 inimalist text are discovered, readers are invited to combine the seemingly “simple” ideas expressed in the story with their own, often complex life experiences, ultimately resulting in a meaningful union between the fictional story and what consists of reality as far as the particular reader is concerned. In Small Worlds, Warren Motte discusses why minimalist writers might choose to address and focus on “simple” things in their works, such as straightforward plotlines, ordinary characters and plain, even laconic dialogue between characters.
Like Hallett, Motte attempts to counter the anti-minimalist argument that “simplicity” in and of itself might suggest that a work is less complete or perhaps even unfinished. According to Motte: Simple things are free from complexity, devoid of intricacy or ruse, unembellished, unaffected, plain . . . . [S]imple things are apparently artless, and indeed the accusation of artistic vacuity is one of the dangers that awaits any minimalist undertaking. It is important to understand, however, that the minimalist aesthetic does not valorize vacuity as such.
Rather, vacuity is the surface effect of a deliberate process of eschewal and restriction intended to clear away conventional rhetoric in an attempt to approximate the essential. (4) As Motte notes, minimalist writers intentionally “eschew” or “restrict” readers from knowing certain facts that would likely be revealed in a “conventional” text in order to bring the most important information to the forefront. The “missing” information might initially confuse readers, or perhaps even be interpreted as a 14 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 areless oversight by the author, but supporters of minimalism argue that skilled writers, including the four whose works are closely examined in this study, purposely use omissions to underscore main ideas and invite readers to use their own knowledge and experience to fill in the blanks in whichever way works best for the particular reader. Motte closes his introductory chapter by examining a few works that he considers important to the study of minimalism, focusing primarily on Breath, Samuel Beckett’s twenty-five second mini-play.
According to Motte, Breath represents “the zero degree of minimalism” (24). Motte cites Breath to show how “simple things” and methods, especially when used by skilled minimalist writers, wield a surprising level of power in that they can have a meaningful and lasting effect on readers. Motte continues, “… for all its insistence upon fragility, Breath itself is a very strong text. In its formal concision, its concentrated laconism, its simplicity, in the way it plays both upon broad traditional thematics and the conventions of the theater, it is in a real sense inevitable and irrefutable” (25).
As early as the mid-1920s, Ernest Hemingway was employing a number of striking minimalist techniques in stories like “Cat in the Rain,” “A Canary for One,” and “Hills Like White Elephants. ” Not until the 1960s, however, was the term “minimalism” actually tied to Hemingway and applied to contemporary works of American literature by prominent literary scholars. In the early 1970s, this “new type” of short story featuring ordinary characters facing commonplace questions and truggles began to appear in popular magazines and well respected newspapers, most notably The New Yorker. Literary minimalism 15 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 reached its height in North America in 1985, when writers such as Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel and Mary Robison dominated the short story market. As quickly as the movement gained in notoriety during the late 1970s and early 1980s, by 1990, just two short years after the untimely death of Raymond Carver, the minimalist trend fizzled to the point of near extinction. It is certainly true that fewer “minimalist” works have been published in the past three decades than were published in the 1970s and 1980s, but during the past thirty years, a number of valuable minimalist works, some of which will be labeled as “minimalist” for the first time in this study, have been written by Mary Robison, Tobias Wolff, Amy Hempel, Cormac McCarthy and other influential contemporary American authors. The omission of seemingly important details is often the first issue opponents of minimalism address when considering works of literary minimalism.
Without question, minimalist writers consciously omit what they consider to be “bulky,” unnecessary details in order to focus on the most important ideas expressed in a story. In a non-fiction book titled, Death in the Afternoon (1932), Hemingway first introduced his “Theory of Omission,” a theory also known as the “Iceberg Principle. ” According to Hemingway: Roland Sodowsky attempts to trace all of the short stories published in prominent magazines such as The New Yorker from 1970-1990 to find the exact number of minimalist texts published during this time frame.
According to Sodowsky, “The ‘heavy’ years in The New Yorker began in 1981 (12 minimalist stories) when Beattie, Robison, and Mason were joined by F. Barthelme and Carver. Twelve were published in 1982, 14 in 1983, eight in 1984, and nine each in 1985 and 1986. By the time the outcry of writers and critics such as Dunn, Iannone, Bell, Newman, and many others against minimalism had gained some momentum, the phenomenonor literary phase, or fad; all of these terms have some validity—was over: only three minimalist stories appeared in the New Yorker in 1987, one in 1988, and three in 1989. There were none in 1990” (533).
Although Sodowsky’s list is helpful, because the “definition” of “minimalism” differs from critic to critic, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to conclusively list the exact number of minimalist stories published from 1970-1990. 4 16 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. 192) As Hemingway suggests, in well-written stories that which isn’t directly stated is often equal to, if not more important than what actually is stated on the page. Naturally, and as Hemingway points out in his theory, an unskilled writer can certainly damage a story by omitting information that is absolutely necessary for the reader’s understanding of a story. By examining both how and why Hemingway and others use the minimalist technique of omission in their works, I propose in the following chapters that omissions can actually strengthen a story as they invite readers to become actively involved in finding meaning in a story.
Successful minimalist writers often fill the void seemingly left by certain omissions by creating a sense of comfort and familiarity for readers in other ways. For instance, minimalist stories are generally set in safe, domestic places like living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens or even cars. Characters in minimalist stories are often shown eating and drinking while discussing seemingly trivial things. Minimalist writers also tend to employ first-person narrators that speak in the present tense. This particular narrative voice is primarily used by authors to create an informal, “chatty” tone that most readers can relate to in one way or another.
Though seemingly important details such as names, occupations, and perhaps even the very reason why the characters are found talking in the first 17 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 place are commonly withheld in minimalist works, a sense of familiarity is often created by the “comfortable” setting, first-person narration, and even the subject matter itself, inviting readers to actively engage in the story. 5 This argument supports Herzinger’s statement that reading minimalist fiction is “a conjugal act— an intimacy shared.
Both parties must participate wholly, if the act is going to work” (15). Attempting to understand a minimalist story can certainly challenge, and even discourage readers who feel most comfortable when knowing exactly what is taking place in a narrative, but when such readers allow themselves to look past what isn’t included in a text and “intimately” connect to what minimalist writers do choose to express in their stories, seeming “omissions” can strengthen the stories and direct readers toward lasting meanings waiting to be discovered in the text.
Minimalist stories are generally populated with one or two primary characters often depicted as simple, middle-class people struggling to both speak and act. Ironically, most characters in minimalist stories appear to have important things to say, but they regularly choose not to talk, or when they do attempt to speak, their message is unheard, misinterpreted, or even ignored by other characters. For instance, silence is the norm throughout Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a short minimalist novel that William Faulkner Linsey Abrams discusses how readers of minimalist texts can benefit by “encountering the familiar. According to Abrams, “There is a satisfaction, a concurring, in encountering the familiar; we too have watched these same TV shows or used these same products. Either that, or we, along with the author, perceive that if not ourselves, a lot of other Americans are caught in a net of proper names they never even saw get lowered over their heads. As readers, we are in a privileged position, that of a safe distance from this mental, social predicament. Identification on the part of the reader is in this case not the psychological process of connection with an ‘other’ to find shared human ground not previously recognized.
Instead, it is the process of feeling connected to a character perceived to be entirely like ourselves, according to shared surface details” (28). 5 18 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 praised for its “simplicity. ”6 George Willard, the main character, is a struggling newspaper reporter that tends to report on mundane, even meaningless facts. Many of the characters found in the novel enjoy George’s company and talk exclusively to him about their innermost troubles and desires, but speech alone affects nothing in Winesburg.
In the “Paper Pills” chapter, for instance, Dr. Reefy chooses to record his intimate thoughts on tiny pieces of paper, keeping them safely hidden in his pocket in place of sharing his thoughts with others. When Dr. Reefy finally opens up and shares some of his precious thoughts with his wife, she dies shortly thereafter, forever silencing her husband. Similarly, in “The Teacher,” George’s former school teacher looks George in the eyes and makes the following, highly minimalist statement: ‘“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words . . . You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say’” (89-90). Though verbal communication appears important and valued in Anderson’s story, as is true in most minimalist texts, the characters in Winesburg, Ohio are unable to verbally communicate in ways that are lasting and meaningful. Most critics agree that the characters in minimalist stories are contemporary, as is the common-place subject matter examined by minimalist authors. In many of Amy Hempel’s works, for instance, characters struggle to deal with day-to-day challenges such as divorce, living with a serious illness, or See Dallas Morning News 26 April 1925, Part 3: 7. Print. According to Kim Herzinger, “Minimalism’s characteristic mode is realist (even hyperrealist), and not fabulist; its characteristic subject matter is domestic, regional, quotidian, and banal” (23). 7 6 19 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 coping with the death of a loved one.
In her highly regarded and frequently anthologized story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” the unnamed female protagonist spends a number of difficult weeks in an intensive care ward with her terminally ill friend. Although the narrator wishes to comfort her friend in any way possible, she isn’t allowed to discuss the actual illness. Instead, the dying friend makes the following request in the opening lines of the story: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting. . . . Make it useless stuff or skip it” (29).
Because the narrator is asked not to discuss the illness with her friend, it soon becomes impossible for the narrator to accept the fact that her friend is about to die. When the friend ultimately does die, the narrator describes the event in the following way: “On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried, I enrolled in a ‘Fear of Flying’ class” (39). Because the narrator had not been allowed to vocally express her worries and fears with her friend leading up to her death, the narrator ultimately speaks of her friend’s death as if it were little more than a temporary move from one locale to another.
On the surface this contemporary and highly realistic story appears to be about illness and dying, but as Hallett notes, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is really about the “language of grief. . . about those left behind when someone dies—the yet living and yet grieving—trying to deal with what is now the past” (92). Hempel’s story succeeds primarily because she uses the minimalist technique of silencing the main character throughout the story to remind readers that the act of talking about sickness and death is often as difficult, if not more difficult, than witnessing the actual events leading up to the death of a loved one. 0 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 The physical structure of a story must be considered before determining whether or not a work should be classified as minimalist. In “A Few Words About Minimalism,” John Barth divides his “definition” of minimalism into individual parts. He first writes of “minimalisms of unit, form and scale” which would include both “short-short stories” and how short words, sentences, chapters and titles are commonly used by minimalist writers (Section 7; Page 1).
Many of Hempel’s stories, including “In a Tub,” “San Francisco,” and “A Man in Bogota,” qualify as structurally minimalist as they are extremely short, around just four-hundred words in length. Barth also speaks of a “minimalism of material” which addresses issues such as minimal plot, minimal action, and minimal exposition (Section 7; Page 1). Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” two of the minimalist stories examined in this study, fit this classification. In both of these stories, dialogue dominates and little to no exposition is provided by the narrators.
There are certainly additional factors to consider when defining, classifying, or simply discussing a minimalist text, but the technique of using heavy dialogue and minimal exposition in a story is one of the most important and regularly used minimalist techniques as it invites readers to rely heavily on their own personal experiences and knowledge when attempting to understand the work. Rationale and Methodology In Chapter II I discuss Hemingway’s “Theory of Omission” and provide detailed readings of “Big Two-Hearted River,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and 1 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 The Old Man and the Sea to establish a foundation on which to build and expand the current argument pertaining to literary minimalism. Hemingway was a prolific writer of both novels and short stories, but only a small handful of his works continually surface in discussions on minimalism. As mentioned earlier, “Cat in the Rain,” “A Canary for One,” and “Hills Like White Elephants” are the three works most commonly classified as minimalist texts.
These works are labeled as minimalist for different reasons, but they share striking similarities in terms of how dialogue functions in the stories. With the exception of the short, expository paragraph introducing the setting and situation, dialogue is used almost exclusively in “Hills Like White Elephants. ” Robert Paul Lamb notes that on at least six different occasions in the story, the unnamed American man repeats close variations of the statement, ‘“I only want you to do it if you want to,’” to his lover, Jig (11).
To some readers, this vague statement (“it” refers primarily to a possible abortion) might appear as chivalrous. However, the minimalist techniques used in the story suggest that the man wants Jig to abort the baby for purely selfish reasons. According to Lamb, Jig understands that the man is not at all concerned about her personal interests with regards to the baby, so she responds by either repeating his words back, “things will be like they were,” or through self-deprecating statements such as “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me” (11).
In these instances, and as is often true of minimalist stories, the way things are said, and not the actual statements, is what matters most. Jig’s final statement, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (278) further supports this argument. Considering the 22 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 frustrating and extremely vague nature of the conversation which dominates the story, Jig’s concluding remarks couldn’t be further from the truth. Ultimately, Jig’s statement forces readers to question whether or not she will follow through with the abortion.
Without extensive reader participation, not only might the primary topic of discussion be missed since the terms abortion, baby and pregnancy are never actually used in the story, but the feelings and motives of both characters might be misinterpreted as well. A study on literary minimalism would be incomplete without a chapter dedicated to Raymond Carver, the man commonly referred to as “the father” of American minimalism. Carver lived a short, fast-paced life. He married young and worked a number of menial jobs to support his wife and two children.
Many critics attribute Carver’s early minimalist stories to the fact that he was given limited amounts of time to write, due in part to his new-found familial responsibilities. 8 To further complicate matters for the aspiring writer, Carver became an alcoholic during his twenties and battled the disease throughout most of his adulthood. Not only did alcohol and other forms of substance abuse lead to Carver’s early death, substance abuse also destroyed his first marriage. Though Carver considered the 1960s and most of the 1970s to be his “dark years,” some of his best and most loved stories were produced during this
In an interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, Carver discusses how “daily distractions,” “family responsibilities,” etc. limited his writing to short periods of time: “When I started out as a writer, I was moving around a lot, and there were daily distractions, weird jobs, family responsibilities. My life seemed very fragile, so I wanted to be able to start something that I felt I had a reasonable chance of seeing my way through to finish—which meant I needed to finish things in a hurry, a short period of time” (72). 23 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 challenging period of his life. 9 Carver’s minimalist stories which often feature middle-class characters struggling in the same ways that he and many others were struggling during the 1970s, gained instant popularity. Chapter III examines how Carver uses a minimalist framework in many of his stories to tackle difficult issues such as failed or failing relationships, alcoholism, stifled speech, middleclass working conditions and even feminism.
The characters in Carver’s stories generally choose to deal with difficult challenges in a passive aggressive manner, and often speak in short, simple sentences. When Carver’s characters actually decide to act, the action is quick and generally shocking. The actions themselves, however, just like the failed attempts to speak and communicate, usually result in nothing worthwhile. The 1974 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is Carver’s minimalist masterpiece. In part, Chapter III aims to further establish a solid, historical framework with respect to the American literary minimalist tradition.
For this reason, I include various approaches to Carver’s well-known stories “The Bath” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in this chapter. Because one of the primary intents of this study is to bring both “new” and “less-mentioned” stories into the current discussion on minimalism, I conclude the chapter by analyzing a number of “lesser” known, but highly minimalist stories found in Carver’s collection. A year before his death, Carver stated in the McCaffery/Gregory interview, “My life is very different now than it used to be, it seems much more comprehensible to me.
It was previously almost impossible for me to imagine trying to write a novel in the state of incomprehension, despair, really, that I was in. I have hope now and I didn’t have hope then— “hope” in the sense of belief. I believe now that the world will exist for me tomorrow in the same way it exists for me today. That didn’t used to be the case. For a long time I found myself living by the seat of my pants, making things terribly difficult for myself and everyone around me by my drinking” (64). 9 24 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010
Fourteen of the seventeen stories in the What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection deal in part with alcohol or substance abuse, and all of the stories in the collection revolve around failed or rapidly failing relationships. In “Why Don’t You Dance? ” the first story in the collection, the protagonist pours himself a glass of whisky in the opening line and continues to drink throughout the story. Alcohol abuse certainly plays a prominent role, but readers are never told whether or not the man’s alcoholism is to blame for the couple’s apparent separation.
Readers next learn that the man has moved both his and his wife’s primary belongings, including the bed, television, couch, record player, and a number of lamps into the front yard, only to reorder the belongings and connect the appliances as if nothing had changed but the physical location. A young, married couple arrives on the scene and the trio discusses prices as if the man were holding a garage sale. After selling a few items, the protagonist puts on a record and asks, “Why don’t you dance? The story ends with the girl telling friends and co-workers about the man and the impromptu garage sale, yet her attempts to learn more about the man and episode are futile. In this highly ambiguous story, the girl’s final attempt to talk through the events fails to shed further light on the strange occurrence. As in most of Carver’s minimalist works, the characters in “Why Don’t You Dance? ” appear highly realistic, but a discernable plot is virtually nonexistent. Readers, like the young woman, are left to decide what to make of the man’s strange actions, as all of the seemingly important questions remain unanswered. 5 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 Because opponents of literary minimalism often favor stories containing traditional plotlines, they are often quick to attack relatively “plot-less” stories like “Why Don’t You Dance? ” Without question, the success of many literary masterpieces such as Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is due in large part to the strong and compelling storylines. For minimalist writers, however, plot is never the primary concern. Why Don’t You Dance” may not be Carver’s best or most well known story, but it succeeds as the opening work in his most minimalist collection for a number of reasons. Carver concludes the story with the narrator speaking the following lines on behalf of the bewildered female character: “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying” (10). In “Why Don’t You Dance? ” and the other sixteen stories that follow, Carver suggests that “talking it out” is often a useless endeavor.
Rather than filling in the blanks and providing readers with a simple alternative to talking, Carver challenges readers throughout What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to ponder life’s common yet difficult questions in an attempt to better understand certain experiences and situations that all people face at some point in their lives. Verbal communication is again stifled throughout Carver’s “A Serious Talk. ” In the story, a man returns home for Christmas, hoping to spend a few quality moments with his wife and children.
The “couple” eventually exchange presents: the man gives his wife a cashmere sweater, and in return, she gives him a gift certificate. The symbolic nature of the gifts suggests that the man’s 26 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 feelings for his wife are deeper than her feelings for him. To further complicate matters, the man’s Christmas visit is cut short by an unnamed visitor who calls and later arrives to visit the wife. Upon learning of the mysterious visitor, and also angered by his wife’s lack of attention, the man returns the next day with plans to have “a serious talk. For the second consecutive day, the man attempts to share his feelings and perhaps begin some sort of marital reconciliation, but his attempt is again interrupted and ultimately thwarted by a phone call. When the wife demands that he hang up the phone so that she can take the call in the other room, the protagonist hastily responds by cutting the phone cord. Although this telling and unexpected act initially startles the wife, instead of sitting down and having the much needed “serious talk,” the man abruptly leaves the house and the story ends.
As is often the case in Carver’s minimalist stories, the relationship appears doomed as communication and any chance at reconciliation between the characters appears impossible. I conclude Chapter III by examining “One More Thing,” the final story in Carver’s 1974 collection. In the story, a woman named Maxine returns home from work to find L. D. , her inebriated husband, verbally abusing Rae, their fifteen-year old daughter. Much like the vague discussion between Jig and the American in “Hills Like White Elephants,” Rae and L.
D. argue about some mysterious, unnamed problem, said to be “all in his [L. D. ’s] head” (156). Because she is both exhausted from her day at work and emotionally fed up with L. D. ’s words and actions, Maxine decides that she has no choice but to throw L. D. out of the house: “L. D. , I’ve had it. So has Rae. So has everyone who 27 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 knows you. I’ve been thinking it over. I want you out of here. Tonight. This minute. Now. Get the hell out of here right now” (156).
Both drunk and angry, and perhaps knowing that a verbal response will get him nowhere, L. D. responds to his wife’s demands by picking up a jar of pickles and throwing it through the kitchen window (157). The story and collection ends with L. D. facing his wife and daughter a final time just moments before leaving the house: He put the suitcase down and the shaving bag on top of the suitcase. He drew himself up and faced them. They moved back. “Watch it, Mom,” Rae said. “I’m not afraid of him,” Maxine said.
L. D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase. He said, “I just want to say one more thing. ” But then he could not think what it could possibly be. (159) As is often true of Carver’s minimalist stories, the final lines of “One More Thing” can be interpreted in a number of ways and the episode leaves readers with more questions than answers. It is certainly possible that L. D. fails to remember the “one more thing” that he wishes to share with Rae and Maxine simply because he’s drunk.
It is also possible that the mental condition that is still a mystery to readers causes L. D. to forget what he had wanted to say to his wife and daughter. Or, in a fitting conclusion to a masterfully written collection full of troubled relationships peopled with alcoholic and tongue-tied characters, perhaps 28 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 the final lines of the story are written not only to conclude the story, but also to echo the lines first stated in the opening story of the collection: There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying” (10). Perhaps more than any other short story collection, the fruitless conversations which dominate Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love express that in minimalist stories, problems are rarely, if ever, simply “talked out. ” Contemporary short story writer Amy Hempel continues to make a number of important contributions to the study of literary minimalism.
Although two of Hempel’s stories “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” (1983) and “The Harvest” (1998) are regularly anthologized, with exception to Cynthia Hallet’s work, Minimalism and the Short Story—Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison, few critics have written extensively on Hempel’s works. Furthermore, Hempel has recently published two short story collections, Tumble Home (1997) and The Dog of the Marriage (2005) which include seventeen “new” minimalist stories that are not mentioned in Hallet’s study.
Because one of the goals of this study is to examine contemporary minimalist works which are either under-represented or not previously mentioned by literary scholars, in Chapter IV I place a heavy emphasis on the stories found in Hempel’s two most current collections. Not only is Hempel a gifted and intriguing writer, but stories like “In a Tub,” “The Annex” (1997), “Jesus is Waiting” (2005), and “The Afterlife” (2005) exemplify how the physical size of a work has little to do with the overall complexity of the story. Because Hempel “strips” her stories to a much greater 29 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 xtent than the other writers examined in this study (many of Hempel’s stories are less than two pages in length), readers must pay particular attention, and often read sentences, paragraphs, or perhaps entire stories a number of times to find lasting meaning. Chapter V, the final chapter in this study, examines how minimalist characteristics influence a number of works written by American novelist, Cormac McCarthy. Prior to 2006, the year in which McCarthy published both his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, and a screenplay, The Sunset Limited, the works of McCarthy were rarely abeled minimalist by literary scholars. However, with these recent publications, and to a lesser extent the publication of No Country for Old Men, McCarthy has begun a new and radically different chapter in his complex and impressive writing career by continuing to employ increasing amounts of minimalist techniques in his stories. The overwhelming attention given to McCarthy’s latest works by both literary critics and mainstream readers supports my argument that when used by skilled authors, minimalist writing can have a profound effect on readers.
The Road and The Sunset Limited are McCarthy’s newest and most minimalist texts; therefore, I focus much of my attention in Chapter V examining both how and why minimalist characteristics are used in these two works. The Road can be classified as a minimalist novel for a number of reasons. The novel consists of just two primary characters, a young boy and his father; neither of the characters is given a name in the work. Furthermore, readers never learn the exact ages of the characters, and because former education, work status, and 30
Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 other historical information no longer matters in the post-apocalyptic world of the novel, such personal identifiers are also omitted. Readers learn a great deal about the father and son by watching their actions, observing memories of the past related by the narrator, and also through a number of dream sequences expressed by both the narrator and the father, but as is common in minimalist stories, the frequent bursts of dialogue between the father and son are always abrupt and to the point.
Early in the novel, for instance, the following lines comprise an entire short section of the work: He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said. Yes. Of course. Are we going to die? Sometime. Not now. And we’re still going south. Yes. So we’ll be warm. Yes. Okay. Okay what? Nothing. Just okay. Go to sleep. 31
Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 Okay. I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay? Yes. That’s okay. And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something? Yes. Of course you can. What would you do if I died? If you died I would want to die too. So you could be with me? Yes. So I could be with you. Okay. (10-11) Reminiscent of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” this particular section of the novel consists almost exclusively of dialogue.
The father answers his son’s questions during the brief discussion, but his responses are short and to the point. The dialogue is certainly used to inform readers that the man and son are suffering as they travel south in search of a warmer climate, but more importantly, the minimalist technique of omitting all unnecessary information invites readers to focus their attention on what is stated between the lines and matters most in this particular novel—the father and son share a deep and loving bond that can never be broken.
Unlike traditional minimalist stories like Hempel’s “Rapture of the Deep” or Carver’s “They’re not your Husband,” which generally take place in comfortable indoor settings, The Road is set in a number of different venues because the characters are constantly on the move and struggling to survive. In the story, the 32 Texas Tech University, Jeremy Robert Bailey, December 2010 protagonists travel through mountains, sleep in dilapidated houses and vehicles, and eventually make it to the beach, their final destination.
Although minimalist stories are generally set in a single domestic space to create a feeling of comfort and familiarity, the mix of desperate, even deadly indoor and outdoor settings employed in The Road in a sense still classifies as minimalist because no matter where the journey takes the characters, the world is burnt, dying, or dead. Gray is the primary color used in the story as ash covers everything in sight. Also common to minimalist works, the main action that destroys the world in which the boy nd father live takes place before the novel begins. Furthermore, the act itself is mentioned only a single time in the novel and not until the novel is well underway. The devastating event which leads to the apocalypse is related by the narrator in just two vague sentences: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (52). This short description seems to suggest a series of bombs, but because nothing more is mentioned about the incident, a careless reader might miss this vital detail altogether.
The physical structure of The Road is also minimalist in nature. The title itself is extremely simple, yet it suggests a myriad of possible meanings. Does the title simply refer to the actual road on which the father and son travel? Does the title perhaps metaphoric