Menace and Dread: Raymond Carver's "So Much Water So Close to Home."
by Jon Nehls
“I think a little menace is fine to have in a short story.”
—Raymond Carver, “On Writing”
In Raymond Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” menace stalks like a shadow, in the words of V.S. Pritchett, “glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” The story’s told from the point of view of Claire who, by the end of the story, comes to interpret the looks and gestures, the actions and words, of all men, her husband most of all, as an implication of violence, a barely restrained instinct to destroy what can’t be possessed or controlled. It’s through omission, details implied but not stated, a presence felt but not seen, that Carver creates a warping menace, a monster that looms off of the page, in the mind of the reader.
The story opens as husband, Stuart, and wife, Claire, eat breakfast, and the phone won’t stop ringing.
Strangers call to inquire, to level accusations, to curse out Stuart for what he’d found. Earlier that morning his name appeared in the newspaper. In the days prior, he and some buddies had gone on a fishing trip, and made a grisly find: a girl floating face down, naked, snagged by branches near the shore. What didn’t appear in the paper was the fact that the men waited two days before reporting the girl’s body. They had excuses for their callousness: they’d made a long trek, it was late, they had one chance each year to get away, and in any case, the girl “wasn’t going anywhere.” They decided to stay, tying the girl’s arm to a branch so she wouldn’t float away. The story’s menace stems from this revelation, that her husband could drink and fish and have a good time, while yards away, a girls mutilated body floats on the water’s surface.
For Claire, something has changed, something “has come between us though he [Stuart] would like to believe otherwise.” Stuart, for his part, shows no remorse, and can’t comprehend her disapproval. When the men finally called the police, as he tells his wife, “they had nothing to hide, they weren’t ashamed of anything.” And when his wife presses him, Stuart snaps back, asks her to tell him what he did wrong. “I don’t see anything wrong,” he says, and later: “I have nothing to be sorry for or feel guilty about.” He gives her an ultimatum: [she] “hadn’t better get worked up over this.” He seeks her assurance, wants her to believe him—demands she believe him. Her continued doubt sparks a rage that seems out of proportion, even suspicious.
What disturbs Claire more than Stuart’s indifference to the girl’s death is his insistence he’s done nothing wrong. While his defensiveness betrays a troubled conscience, his actions lay bare a cruel apathy. The night he arrives after reporting their find, he tells his wife nothing of the girl, and he might have said nothing at all if he didn’t have to explain the phone calls and his name in the paper. That night he puts his hands to her, they have sex, in Claire’s words, “I turned slightly and then moved my legs,” a mechanical instinct to an act devoid of feeling. Stuart’s insistence—everything is fine—grows more forceful, even vaguely threatening. The morning after, over breakfast he says, “Be careful now, I mean it.” The following day, he takes her hand and puts it to his crotch, and when she pulls away, he says, “Be that way if you want. But just remember,” never finishing the thought, letting the threat settle in her mind. Claire’s apprehension agitates Stuart, and each of their conversations end with a vague threat of violence or abandonment. Later, when she decides to sleep on the couch, Stuart says, “Suit yourself, then. I could give a fuck less what you do.”
For me, the menace of “So Much Water So Close to Home” is only fully realized with the knowledge of context, where the story took place and when. During the time Carver wrote the story, the mid seventies, and in later versions, the early eighties, the Pacific Northwest was in a state of paralysis. Women were being hunted down, kidnapped, raped, murdered and disappeared. Hunters and hikers made grisly finds of young women, mutilated and showing signs of rape, on a regular basis along mountain roads and riverbanks, discarded in thick forests throughout Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, were still years from being captured. None of this is mentioned in the story, and so it seems, Claire is overreacting, being hysterical, that Stuart has reason to question her remoteness. Though, in consideration of the circumstances, Claire’s growing unease, her dread, is not hysteria, but a fear based in something very real.
“So Much Water So Close to Home” first appeared in the story collection Furious Seasons, and a significantly altered version was later published in What We Talk about When We Talk about Love—a story collection in which Carver stripped and revised many previous stories, stories considered minimalist to begin with, to the barest skin. Carver put into practice Hemmingway’s Theory of Omission: “If you can take anything out, take it out, as doing so will make the work stronger. Pare, pare, pare and pare some more.” In the essay “A Few Words about Minimalism” John Barth describes minimalist writing as "terse, oblique, realistic or hyperrealistic, slightly plotted, extrospective, cool-surfaced fiction." All of this is to say, that while the story remains at the level of reality, relating only what can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled, a great pool of emotion resides below the surface.
In both versions, Carver’s minimalist style has a disturbing effect. Claire as narrator relates mostly action, and her thoughts are based in large part on observation, derived from the physical world. She gives very little insight into what she is truly thinking and feeling. In terms of story, that is, chronological time, she no doubt would have spent hours doubting and agonizing over the girl’s murder and her husband’s involvement and indifference, but as far as plot, little of this is included. The absence of these thoughts disturbs, becomes menacing because her actions seem extreme, removed from the circumstances, and even more so in the shortened version. When her husband needs support, she rejects him, shrinks from his touch, as if he is the murderer, but we’re given little insight as to why. In the longer version, it’s revealed the husband once threatened, in reference to their marriage, that “This affair will end violently.” Other than that, the only real insight into what torments Claire is her identification with the murdered girl. More than once she imagines herself as the girl, dead, face down in the river watching through the murk as the river bed passes below. She identifies to such an extent that she drives alone for hours to attend the girl’s funeral, risking a trip through the same terrain where the murderer may still be lurking.
The reader is left to ask why. What could she be thinking? We know nothing of what happens along the Natches river but what Stuart reveals, and it’s clear, Claire questions his account. Though this is never stated, it’s implied by her actions. Stuart’s latent threats must arouse her suspicion. There is little doubt that Stuart is capable of violence. Perhaps she suspects these men—her husband, in the killing. Near water so far from home, in the wilderness, they shed the restraints of civilization. They encounter no witnesses, no moral judgment, feel no need for shame. With nothing to restrain them, they may do what they will. She might have asked herself: Did they rape the girl? murder her?—or worse, defile her dead body—necrophilia, no doubt, was mentioned in news reports of the time. Did they seal their unspeakable act through a pact of blood and seed? A pact that demands silence. A pact of mutual incrimination. Claire must ask herself, if Stuart would threaten her, someone he claims to love, and given the opportunity, under circumstances that would afford impunity, what would restrain his violence? In such an atmosphere, where the murder of dozens of girls goes unsolved, when the threat of rape and murder pervades, Claire must at least have doubted. When a murderer lurks, everyone becomes a suspect.
Of course, none of this speculation appears in the text. At the surface, both Claire’s fear and Stuart’s rage seem out of proportion, that is, unless, what’s omitted, what the reader must fill in, could explain their behavior. Something must have happened in their past relationship to suggest to Claire that Stuart is capable of great violence, and something must have happened along the river, the possible revelation of which causes Stuart to lash out. It’s Carver’s selection of events and the exclusion of others that causes this tension. Below, Carver comments about plot in his essay “On Writing”:
There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion…What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly a way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.
Much of the power of Carver’s minimalism lies in doubt, in the possibilities the reader must provide. What’s under the surface of “So Much Water,” what’s only hinted at between Claire and Stuart, creates a feeling of menace—the whole truth is never revealed. It’s the implication of something far more nefarious.
In the end, Claire may be driven by little more than disgust. She feels a moral obligation to the girl. While her husband shows little concern, she must affirm the girl’s life—she must affirm her own value. Claire comes to a realization: “Two things are certain: 1) people no longer care what happens to other people, and 2) nothing makes any real difference any longer.” That by accepting, reconciling the cruelties and violence of the world, you condone it, by ignoring it, acting as if it never happened or happened somewhere else, to someone else, you become a perpetrator of the violence. She must atone while others refuse to even take notice. At the very least, Claire struggles with the realization, that for her husband, she may be little more than a body. When his will to possess, to control her every last suspicion, fails, she must ask herself, what’s left?