Thirty Days of Stories: Day Six

Title: Leviathan

Author: Tobias Wolff

Appears in: Back in the World [1986]; Our Story Begins: New & Selected Stories [2008]

Premise: A pair of coked-out couples do lots of blow and tell each other stories.

Thoughts: The great American short story writer Raymond Carver gave a lot to American letters, but no contribution has been pilfered quite as wholesale as his story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  If the title isn’t being re-appropriated by everyone from Haruki Murakami to Nathan Englander to…well, me, then the structural conceit of two couples getting messed up and telling stories that quickly make the proceedings awkward.

Tobias Wolff, a Carver friend and colleague [and author of one of my favourite stories of all time, Bullet in the Brain] takes Carver’s formula and makes it is own. Instead of a civilized evening overrun by melancholy and despair, Wolff’s couples come across like a quartet of fuck-ups already sinking deep into debauchery, celebrating one of the women’s 30th birthday by snorting excessive amounts of cocaine, crying, gossiping and insulting each other.

The story’s centerpiece comes when Helen [the birthday girl], sick of the downers her friends and husband are becoming, gets the idea for each of them to share a moment they’re proud of.  She goes first and tells the story of when she took a neighbour of hers growing up, a boy with Down syndrome, whale watching along the coast of California.  After an afternoon of no sightings, a huge, barnacle-encrusted whale surfaced along the side of the boat and began rocking ir, brushing against it, over and over again.  As the crew of the tiny boat try to determine how to extricate themselves from the situation, Tom, the neighbour boy, begins mewling and growing agitated.  Helen, fearful that Tom might go berserk and throw himself overboard, talks him down, just puts her arm around him and acts as though she finds this monster hitting the boat fun and exciting, calming Tom down.  The whale tires and takes off, and the boat returns to shore.

Her friends are touched by the story, her husband falls asleep during it, so the three of them do some more coke. The end.

I’ll leave it to a million graduate seminars to dissect and break apart all the symbolism, the biblical undertones of whales and other monstrous giants submerged in black waters.  Anyone who knows me knows whales and other sea creatures are not something I care to think about for very long.

What I am thinking about is how we can take the things that influence us, the things that impress us, and imprint our voices on them.  I certainly can’t prove that Wolff was trying to ape Carver’s style [the two were friends, Carver was still alive when Leviathan was published, Wolff would certainly have read What We Talk About.. when published five years before], but the similarities are there, and they are strong, and it doesn’t matter to Wolff. A good idea’s a good idea, and aside from the two couples and the storytelling, they could not be more different.  One can borrow from their fictioneering idols and still make work that stands on its own as a representation of one’s own voice.

Lesson: You dont have to kill your idols. Don’t be intimidated by borrowing from things they’ve done, but ensuring your own voice is paramount.

Favourite line: This time it was Ted who was talking Bliss down. “You’re beautiful,” he kept telling her. It was the same thing he always said to Helen when she felt depressed, and she was beginning to feel depressed right now.

Next time, women!  I promise.

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