The NY'er is hedging its bets w/ this week's publication of Raymond Carver's story, "Beginners," which became "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love," the title story of his second collection. The magazine leaves to Tess Gallagher, C's widow, the assertion that "Beginners" is a better story than the one that emerged from Gordon Lish's editing.
I think she's both right and wrong. (Hedging my bets here too.)
What's astonishing about "Beginners," for starters, is that it's a single block of text; the sectioning was Lish's work, and he did it in really interesting ways, sometimes beginning sections w/ sentences that had been in the middle of paragraphs. He also did the usual -- taking out reactions, connections, expansions, etc. The resulting story is a more 'gripping' read in the literal sense. It's like trying to get a radio station in a car in the middle of the night. You're aware of not getting everything, so you listen harder to what you get. In "Beginners," which is more than a third longer than the final edit, there are sentences that just don't hit as hard as they do in "What We Talk About..." You just don't read as carefully -- or I don't.
The NY'er calls "Beginners" a "more conventional" story than "What We Talk About...." They're probably right. But "Beginners" is also a more complex story, and a better one, I think, in this sense: it's more particularly about something, and more successful in being about what it's about. It's more of a real story, in other words. I remember reading "What We Talk About..." for the first time and thinking, Well, definitely not my favorite Carver story. As the NY'er highlights, Lish cut a whole lot from the ending and added his own final paragraph:
"I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."
With the Lish version, you're not as sure what the story is about, and neither are the characters; they're in the dark.
But the Lish version has got to be about something, right? Here's what I'm thinking. Lish was primarily a cutter, but w/ the ending and in two other places he added his own material, and that material is hugely revealing. First of all, the intro. Carver had his story begin like this: "My friend Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking..." Lish takes the appositive out and forms a new second sentence: "My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right." The other substantive addition: Lish switches the gins. In Carver's story, they're drinking Beefeater; in the Lish version, Mel M. calls the gin 'cut rate'.
I'm going to venture something here: Lish wants the story to be about class. In the original, "cardiologist" is just developmental material; still, it places the characters for us: they're all people who could socialize w/ a cardiologist -- all able to move freely enough within the upper-middle class, we might think. Lish's new second sentence does more to set the cardiologist apart from the others in the story. It makes him an evident exception to a rule that's not stated. In the Lish version, Mel M. is in the other characters' world, as Lish's other additions make clear: the cut-rate gin, and the fact that Mel M. -- a "mechanic" of the heart, after all -- gets sloppy in more than an emotional way, knocking his glass over on the table instead of leaving to take a shower. The Lish version of the story is a closer cousin to the stories in Carver's first collection: we're voyeurs, sort of, peeking in at helpless, fucked-up working-class life.