Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of December 24th, 2007

By sad coincidence, my first ever book review (published in the London Review of Books nearly two decades ago) was of Raymond Carver’s last book, Elephant and Other Stories. Carver died, age 50, while I was working on the piece. In the light of the Carver-Lish editing controversy, and with The New Yorker fanning the flames in the fiction issue (Dec. 24 and Dec. 31, $4.99), I reread that maiden effort, and was surprised to find that without knowing it, I’d already taken sides. I was clearly rooting for the fuller, longer, warmer, pre- and post-Lish Carver. Here’s my vintage 1988 opinion of Carver’s very last story: “Great writers, Carver once said, leave their ‘particular and unmistakable signature’ on everything they write. In ‘Errand’ he demonstrates that his signature is neither brevity nor the bleak realities of damaged working class lives, but rather the accuracy and authority of his prose.” I was quoting from an essay Carver published in The New York Times in early 1981, when he was still very much Lish’s creature. In the same essay, he makes a point of praising judicious omission: “What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the 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.”

By publishing parts of the painful Carver-Lish correspondence and the pre-Lish version of the story now variously known as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (Lish) and “Beginners” (Carver), The New Yorker is clearly giving a boost to the anti-Lish, anti-minimalist brigade, but the magazine’s attitude is otherwise carefully balanced. Which version of the story is better? Let the reader decide, says The New Yorker. They’ve even provided on the Web site (www.newyorker.com) the astonishing Lish edit, an ocean of blue ink. This reader thinks the cuts are brutal—and that Mr. Lish vastly improved “Beginners.”

HA JIN, WHO WON a National Book Award for his second novel, Waiting (1999), is not a decorative writer. He puts the facts in front of the reader plainly, as though the thing itself were an amazement. It would be a mistake to call this approach artless—the art is not in the prose but in the unfolding of the tale. His new novel, A Free Life (Pantheon, $26), is an immigrant’s story in a plain brown wrapper: Nan Wu and his wife, Pingping, and their son, Taotao, come from China to the U.S. and … well, you know how it goes. An early chapter finds Nan in New York, working at Ding’s Dumplings on Pell Street. Here’s his first glimpse of the neighborhood: “What was amazing about Chinatown and Little Italy was that every street corner smelled different. … Nan enjoyed sniffing the air, especially the smells of popcorn, fried onion and pepper, and Italian sausage, though now and then a stench of rotten fruit would pinch his nose. … Walking along Canal Street, he felt as if he were in a commercial district in Shanghai or Guangzhou. Signs in Chinese characters hung everywhere. … The seafood stalls were noisy and had many fishes on display. Salmon, red snapper, bighead carp, pomfret, sea bass, all lay on crushed ice and looked slimy and no longer fresh, with collapsed eyes and patches of lost scales. There were also crabs, oysters, lobster, quahogs, sea urchins, razor clams. Though all the fish were dead, some of the stalls flaunted signs claiming SEAFOOD, ALIVE AND FIERCE!”