That summer Wes rented a furnished house north of Eureka from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Then he called to ask me to forget what I had going and to move up there and live with him. He said he was on the wagon. I knew about that wagon. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called again and said, Edna, you can see the ocean from the front window. You can smell salt in the air. I listened to him talk. He didn’t slur his words. I said, I’ll think about it. And I did. A week later he called again and said, Are you coming? I said I was still thinking. He said, We’ll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me. Name it, Wes said. I said, I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married. Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions. So I said, All right, I’ll come up.
This story was first published in The New Yorker in November 1981, and subsequently in several Carver collections.
Happily, it’s available online (though the original paragraphing is not preserved). [no longer available] If you’d rather listen, there’s a terrific TNY podcast of David Means reading the story and discussing it with Deborah Treisman. In addition to discussing the story, they discuss the relationship between Carver and Gordon Lish, and the relationship between writers and editors in general. Means also makes this stunning observation about writing (approximate quote):
Style is a maneuver around what you can’t do linguistically, and the things you can’t deal with. People think fiction is a way of confronting, but it’s a way of working around – if you went right into the Sun you’d probably destroy yourself.
I decided to read this story after becoming aware of it via Prof. May’ s blog post on “Birnam Wood,” which includes a comparison to “Chef’s House” as well as to Ian McEwan’s “First Love, Last Rites” (which I also
hope to read have read).
I see a great deal of similarity between “Chef’s House” and “Birnam Wood.” So much so, I even wonder if Boyle perhaps had this in the back of his mind when he was writing his story. Both involve couples who’ve reconciled for a summer then break up at symbolic residences. But the difference in style is apparent.
It’s a story jam-packed with little textual nuances that seem very important, similar to Alice Munro’s “Amundson.” Because it’s such a short story – just under 2000 words – the little things are even more concentrated.
For a more literarily sophisticated view of the story, I highly recommend listening to the podcast of David Means’s discussion with Deborah Treisman. As for my own observations, I’ll start by just going through it from beginning to end:
The title itself says a lot. The word “chef” has nothing to do with cooking; it’s French for “Chief,” and when a cook is called a chef, it’s short for “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen.” So they’re living in this house, cheaply, by the good graces of someone else, to begin with. It conveys a certain passivity. This is emphasized late in the story when Edna looks around and realizes everything from the chair to the carpet is Chef’s.
The house is “north of Eureka.” Eureka – I have found it. This strengthens the powerful symbol of the house itself.
“You can see the ocean,” Wes tells Edna in the beginning, as he tries to convince her to join him. Then at the end: “Wes got up and pulled the drapes and the ocean was gone just like that.” What he doesn’t tell her in that first paragraph is that the ocean is over “the access road and the freeway, and, behind the freeway, the dunes and the ocean.” So yes, you can see the ocean, but you have to look beyond the access road and freeway – ocean is on the other side of “access” and “free.”
The presents Wes brings Edna: “a nice bunch of daisies and a straw hat” – not romantic (and expensive) roses, but the flower of innocence.
When Chef arrives to give them the bad news, Edna sees “clouds hung over the water.” This seems a little obvious for Carver (so obvious, in fact, I wonder if I’m missing something), but there it is, and in fact it’s the scene the illustrator chose.
Wes says: “[H]e’d go down with his ship, too, rather than live the rest of his days with Fat Linda and her kid” – and he does, too. He sees Linda’s husband as having escaped to freedom, rather than having drowned. And it ties in with the ocean symbolism.
When Edna asks him to suppose – just suppose – they’re somebody else, Wes says: “I’m not somebody else. If I was somebody else, I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. If I was somebody else, I wouldn’t be me.” I wonder where he’s thinking it would be if he was somebody else. Would he be with Edna at all? Somehow I don’t imagine him thinking he and Edna would be living in a house with a white picket fence in the town over from their kids, playing bridge in the evenings and babysitting the grandchildren. I suspect he’s thinking more that he’d be living a fun life drinking and partying without consequence; I doubt Edna would be part of the picture at all. They’ve been parents since they were teenagers. Not an easy life, to be sure; you can’t blame him for wanting to erase that, even if it means erasing Edna.
The ending is quite beautiful:
Wes got up and pulled the drapes and the ocean was gone just like that. I went in to start supper. We still had some fish in the icebox. There wasn’t much else. We’ll clean it up tonight, I thought, and that will be the end of it.
While Wes is closing off the view of the ocean, Edna is getting the most out of what’s left. The ocean, fish caught from the bank – elements of their happy summer. But don’t forget: Fat Linda’s husband drowned (escaped) while out on a fishing boat.
Simple style, eh?
The unanswered question is, why is losing Chef’s House such a big deal to Wes? Means thinks it’s an indication that things weren’t really going that well, Edna’s rosy recollection to the contrary. I’m not going to disagree with someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, but I think it might have something to do with the fragility, the shackles, of stability. Some people just can’t take things going well for very long. Whatever else it is, chaos is exciting.
The story takes on a whole new meaning when you consider that it’s substantially autobiographical. Again, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I recommend listening to the podcast where this is discussed at some length. It seems Carver lived in that house; he reconciled with his wife Maryann in that house; and he left her in that house to go to New York and focus on his writing career. Knowing this adds another level of poignancy, particularly when you consider he tells the story from Edna’s point of view.
I found the repetition of the word “said” very striking – and annoying – when listening to the story. Quotation marks are not used, so some of the repetitions are necessary. But some of them are just there, and I doubt that’s accidental, given how prominent they are.
So I played with that. This all needs to be taken with a grain of salt, you realize. I’m sure if it was truly significant, someone with genuine critical chops would’ve commented on it before. But it’s the sort of thing we did in a particularly fun class back in college:
I counted up all the instances of the word “said.” I highlighted them in different colors depending on whether it was Wes who said, or Edna. I was working with a copy (no longer available online) which did not preserve the original paragraphing, and patterns were easier to spot. In fact, if I haven’t been working with that particular document, I might not have noticed anything at all.
The first section (two paragraphs from the beginning to “don’t come back, he said”) covers the past: how Edna came to Chef’s House, how Wes called her repeatedly until she came, how she left another relationship at Wes’s urging. In her conversation with Wes in the first paragraph, “said” is used five times referring to Wes, and five times referring to Edna. So even though Wes convinces her, there’s a shared responsibility. They both have equal say.
In the second paragraph, when Edna is talking to her new friend, “said” appears twice as often with him and with her; he has twice as much say. Of course, it’s entirely possible this has nothing to do with anything, and Carver merely preferred the way it sounded or had some more sophisticated reason for doing it like this. But it’s more fun my way.
The second section – from “We drank coffee” to “Love Always” – is a summery summary (forgive me) complete with daisies and movies and Wes attending AA meetings regularly and fishing from the bank and him holding her in his arms and asking if she’s still his girl. Idyllic. Maybe a little too idyllic? The word “said” doesn’t appear once (that’s why I call it a summary; similar words appear, like “told” and “asked” and even “I’d say” but not “said”), and the absence is noticeable. It’s the only section, the only stretch of text longer than a few sentences, in which the word “said” doesn’t appear. Maybe Edna is remembering what she wants to remember of that golden summer. To offer more direct quotes would let reality impinge upon the remembrance.
In the third section, the first paragraph covers Chef’s delivery of the bad news. Chef does all the saying in that paragraph, and Wes, as reported by Edna, says nothing. What can he say, really. But he doesn’t even say “ok” or “Damn it” and I wonder why. Shock? Or did Edna simply not report it?
Wes and Edna trade off saying after that; saying, and what is said, becomes central. Wes is the last one who says. Wes gets the last word.
In addition to counting words, I see several instances where saying is emphasized by the text itself. The first is when Edna hears herself:
I started to talk. I talked about the summer. But I caught myself talking like it was something that had happened in the past. Maybe years back. At any rate, like something that was over.
That’s a nested realization: she realizes she’s already realized it’s all over.
The power of “said” comes into play again a moment later:
Then I said something. I said, Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time. Just suppose. It doesn’t hurt to suppose. Say none of the other had ever happened. You know what I mean? Then what? I said.
Why the multiple repetitions of saying? The tone is wheedling. “Suppose” gets repeated also. It’s almost like a kid asking Mom for more candy. But Edna’s asking Wes to… what? Try? Yes, I think; just to try. But he’s already checked out. He was defeated the minute Chef got out of his truck and hitched up his pants.
The third instance of important saying comes just before the end:
I said his name to myself. It was an easy name to say, and I’d been used to saying it for a long time. Then I said it once more. This time I said it loud. Wes, I said.
Again, the repetition, inescapable (and annoying as hell) when read out loud. And it’s just his name. A plea? A goodbye? I wish I knew more about the tone. Maybe that’s where the reader gets to truly read, to insert his/her own intonation.
And the last thing he says – the last thing either of them say – is, “Fat Linda.” Just a name, Edna muses. After having spent all those saids to say his name. She knows the power of a name.
It’s an immensely powerful story, and an immensely quiet one. As Means says: “It brings a reader to an ultimate moment of quiet and loneliness.” And for me, I recognize an acceptance that I myself have resisted. I could’ve learned a lot from Edna, once upon a time. Not to mention all I could’ve learned from Carver. But I’m more like Wes: it’s too late.