Dissecting Blackbirds

So far I do not like Blackbirds by Raymond Carver. It is one of his later stories, and I don’t think I’m strong enough. I want to like it, but its center of gravity is elsewhere in comparison to the style he had built to this point. Yes, a lack of strength. Thin genes are to blame. Nights of sleep when there should have been words. I never grew big, not big enough. I was stronger in college. With a meal card and a 24-hour gym, I could bench press Kafka and curl Dostoevskij at the drop of a hat. It helped to have no social life. I was thick with it. I could feel the blood coursing through, especially in summer when classmates have you flexing against the weight of better judgment. My arms were brown. I slept well at night. I wrote letters to myself in a foreign hand.

Right off the bat, the guy doesn’t think it’s her handwriting. It is a letter that has been slipped under the door of his study. The setup is good. Mystery in the familiar home. What’s not to like? He pauses to venture down a side narrative about his memory, filling some lines and questioning the questionability his own narration. He lapses into an inner monologue fans of Carver recognize, only to return to the present and begin to transform the simple act of receiving a letter into a muted psychological thriller. Returning to confusing letter, and a noise down the hall, his house – this place of comfort and a buttress against the outside world – is suddenly a place not entirely known, a distrusted other. All the lights are on, but soft, subtle noises are slowly transfiguring it from a place of solace to a reluctant funhouse, something he must confront. But too soon the jig is up, and we see the letter is, indeed, of his wife’s hand. Like the protagonist, I am distraught as the story strays further from me, soon just outside my reach and pledging never to return. It is of no use, I fear. Like his wife, it has decided and is already walking away. I want to stop it, but I am not strong enough. If I could only call on others to help.

With Barth, the house would become the thing, a true funhouse, a backdrop brought forth and converted, imperceptibly at first, into a catalyst. To venture down the hall, not in fear, but as an act to challenge the bravery of the mind. Corner shadows harbor cave entrances to worlds, not monsters. Shut doors are reasons to wait for the colored lights to snap on at dusk. The memory of the moment in the den connects to the same of 8 years ago, understated to the point of being nearly hidden from sight, muted, like reluctant phone calls – the news of death, the beginning of an affair.

Maybe Calvino. Yes, the hall, the murderous phone, not some inner angst to turn inward and double with his own. No, rather the walk outside to see his wife standing there – the crux of the piece, not postponed but met head on – flattened and again only to be layered within itself as he recalls a play he once read that unfolded the same way. The line of oak in the distance blurring to include editors’ marks, on the leaves – page numbers tentative at best. His wife stands by the clothesline. She doesn’t see him yet. He watches her talking to herself. As he closes the gap to confront her about the letter, she retrieves a packet, reads some lines , then repeats them looking up. “Oh, I didn’t hear you come out.” She repeats them verbatim to him as she turns to see him. First, a suspicious letter, now scripted lines to guide the evening’s discussion? His knees weaken. Not merely confused to the bone, but the scene unfolds precisely as it does in the play he remembers, from which this scenario has undoubtedly been lifted. He would have thought it Gadda, had her cousin, or his, suddenly died at this very moment of a heart attack, after seeing this very scene transpire in the swirls of her coffee.

But not, we are already at reality, the mystery diluted by the deft strokes of Lish. He has his reasons, as he always does. As I write this I am convinced they are tied to this very attempt to remix his world of constricting possibilities. Like replaying the night she broke your heart and changed the way you view the future, it has happened. The letter was hers. Magic dies. The real world floods the remaining passages to ensure all embers extinguish before sunrise.

by Michael K. Gause

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