Sympathy and Its Limits

It’s easy to make a very particular, pointed objection to Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’ One of the things I admire about the story, however, is the way in which, rather than shying away from this objection, Carver acknowledges it, seizes it for himself, and thematises it. One of the seventeen stories collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, ‘So Much Water’ depicts the disintegrating marriage of a man named Stuart and his wife Claire. It begins just after Stuart has returned home from a weekend away on a remote fishing trip with a few buddies. On their first night of camping, we learn, he and his friends discovered the corpse of a young woman floating in a river. But rather than immediately filing a report with the police, the men agreed to tie the corpse to a nearby tree, and they only made a move to contact the authorities when they returned to town at the end of the weekend. Now there’s public outrage brewing. Stuart’s name is in the newspapers and he is receiving threatening phone calls at home. His marriage to Claire begins to strain. Claire can’t fathom how he could have so dehumanised the dead girl as to continue casting about for fish as if she wasn’t floating right there in the river.

Yet Stuart is neither the protagonist nor the narrator of the story. Claire is the one who details all these events and more besides, and that’s what lies at the heart of the objection to ‘So Much Water.’ Carver, an upper middle class man, has adopted the voice of a working class woman and attempted to lay bare her inner turmoil. Moreover, he has taken care to alert his readers to the difference in gender between himself and his narrator from the very first line: “My husband eats with a good appetite.” But what could Carver possibly know, authentically, about the consciousness of a woman like Claire? How true to life can Claire’s voice really be, and how condescending must Carver have been for believing that he could faithfully and respectfully channel it? Especially given that Carver decided to conclude the story with the distraught Claire acting on an impulsive hunger for urgent, aggressive sex with the husband she has come to despise, ‘So Much Water’ would seem to be at serious risk of collapsing into the gender divide between its narrator and its author. Is it really just a work of white male fantasy? Is it a facile, failed attempt at domestic realism that misses its mark because Carver knew nothing of the life he sought to depict? Why did he elect to write this story in this woman’s voice? Why not go for the easy option and allow Stuart to speak for himself? Why did he both risk and flirt with this sort of objection to his engagement in such tangled gender politics?

At the heart of this objection is a simple accusation: that Carver’s background, Carver’s being, inevitably forestalls him from being able to sufficiently sympathise with the character he has created in ‘So Much Water.’ Intriguingly, though, the issue of the limits of sympathy, and of real or perceived deficits in one’s ability to sympathise with another person, is precisely what Carver takes as his theme in ‘So Much Water.’ Stuart is able to dismiss the humanity of the dead girl because he is unable to sufficiently sympathise with her, unable to put himself in her place and seriously consider what must have happened to her in order for her to end up as she has done. He is also unable to sympathise with her parents and to wonder how they might hope for their daughter to be treated in the event of her death. But the anonymous callers who abuse Stuart are also unable to sympathise with him. They fail to see why his time away from home might have been so precious to him that he would behave as he behaved; they don’t consider that he is a blue collar worker for whom downtime is hard to come by, for whom reporting the discovery would have destroyed a rare and precious weekend out of town. Claire appears to sense as much, but then she too comes up against the limits of her sympathy as she is better able to sympathise with the dead girl than with her own husband.

In fact, in the story’s most elliptical passage, Claire places herself in the position of the dead girl, moments before she is murdered, without Carver having even signalled a transition into speculation. In a brief scene, Claire announces to her hairdresser that she is preparing to attend the girl’s funeral “tomorrow,” and then, on the morning of the ceremony, she rises from bed to “put on coffee and fix breakfast while [Stuart] shaves.” Finally she leaves a note for her young son so that he can return home from school and know something of her whereabouts, and what follows is a section break before she describes her journey:

I drive through farm country, through fields of oats and sugar beets and past apple orchards, cattle grazing in pastures. Then everything changes, more like shacks than farmhouses and stands of timber instead of orchards. Then mountains, and on the right, far below, I sometimes see the Naches River.

There is nothing in the remainder of that passage to suggest that the “I” of its narrator is in any way distinct from the “I” of the woman who narrates the story as a whole. The only thing that suggests a distinction is the context, and even then it’s ambiguous. Since Claire indicates, in the previous section, that she will travel to the funeral, it’s no surprise for readers to find her driving her car. Only as the passage unfolds does it become clear that this entire section is one long, unbridled act of sympathy, as the narrator has an unnerving encounter with a threatening man, “a crewcut man in a blue workshirt,” who has the air of a potential rapist and murderer.

It’s not enough to say that Carver’s story is simply shot through with deficits of sympathy. Significantly, Carver’s characters engage in certain courses of action — such as when Stuart wakes in the morning and decides to let Claire sleep in longer than usual, or when Claire gives deep consideration to the tone of the word “Love” in a letter she receives from her husband and in the letter she writes her son — which are carried out as confused attempts to compensate for their deficits of sympathy. This is even the case when Claire and Stuart rush into a sex act at the end of the story. Stuart is, in the heat of the moment, attempting to compensate for having angered Claire without knowing it. Claire, offering her body to Stuart without much willingness but also without protest, is attempting to compensate for sympathising more with the dead girl than with her husband, even if the result of their encounter only extends her sympathy with the girl. On the whole, then, while Carver doesn’t quite dismiss the objection to the gender politics of ‘So Much Water So Close to Home,’ he does cast doubts on the act of sympathy in a way that echoes the doubts that underpin the objection. If his readers ask how Carver, of all people, could possibly sympathise with the woman he takes as his narrator, ‘So Much Water’ supersedes that question by instead asking how it’s possible for anyone to truly sympathise with anyone else at all.

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