"Back the Way You Went" by Anne Carson Originally published in the October 31, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
It’s wonderful to see Anne Carson in The New Yorker again this year. Her strange story / poem “1 = 1” was one of the first stories published this year, and we discussed it here. This one may be even stranger! See the beginning:
Because she has a broken heart and then her mother dies, D and F take her with them on a weekend getaway. The getaway place is a honeycomb. Bees stream through the streets and the night. Bees huddling, zooming, gleaming and anxious, bees rolling along like sailors, bees licking the barley out of one another’s beards. D and F are bees, too, and go ahead to guider her on the stream. The stream is drunk. They stumble to their rented house. I’ll be fine, she thinks.
Strange indeed. But I think Anne Carson can usually pull this stuff off beautifully. Her name is frequently thrown in when folks are talking about potential winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and I think with good reason (I’d love to see it some day).
This is a short piece, made up of three brief sections, and I’m intrigued after reading the beginning. Hopefully my schedule will die down a bit and I’ll be able to focus on this more and be part of the discussion this time around — I think this will yield some varied responses as we try to understand just what Carson is up to and whether it works for us. I’m excited to see the discussion below!
These three short pieces, flashbacks of death, pertain to a mother, father and best friend: three characters who greatly influence the mind and behavior of an individual. The mother, garland, circlet brings to my mind a symbol of infinity. And again, as in Carson’s “1=1”, the water motif is present. The water represents a stream of consciousness, or an eternal flow of inner life, which supersedes our physical realm. In Gogol’s story “The Overcoat,” the protagonist lives on in spirit after his physical death, attempting to bring closure to his life. But the truth is that humans move through their lives without brakes, or much/any control over their aging and death.
In the second section, the father in the rest home, who is on his “Last Lap,” is described as “a polished Dad skull wobble atop some clothes.” He is physically wasting away, near the graveyard, and his past is a memory like “the old abandoned schoolhouse,” where he’d lived out his earlier days. In this piece, eternal life is depicted through a memory of a picture from Mexico, “Horses Endlessly Running.”
Finally, in the last section, Verna, the narrator’s mother-in-law, carries the pain of her best friend, Mildred’s, death for fifty years. And, at the same time, the narrator longs to talk to her dead mother again. Yet, as the two women reflect on death, the narrator recalls the writings of Virginia Woolf and how the reality of life exists internally, within the flow of consciousness. She laments that mortal beings, according to ancient Greek poets, are “a wind, a dream, a shadow:” a fantasy. While the narrator and her mother wasted much of their time together in conflict, Verna’s final memory of Mildred is pleasant, a moment of humor. When Mildred’s body is wasting away to death, her last request is for one of Verna’s Martinis.
This story, or series of prose poems, is packed with ideas, too many to mention here even if I could. My favorite part: how Carson alludes to Faith and Eternity without allowing dogmatic icons to get in her way.
Oh–also, how can you not love that D and F are Bees!
I just finished my first read. Powerful in the places where I caught the wave length, which was maybe 30%! I need to reread now to see whether I can catch some more…
Arresting. Carson respects her readers and if we allow her writing to just wash over us at her power rewards us over and over again.
I’m curious why more people haven’t commented on these lovely stories. Perhaps they were so profound and perfect one has little to say. I don’t have much to add but the comments by Melinda are very welcome.
I just read them again. The desire to communicate and the painfulness of actually communicating struck me as a constant theme. We distract ourselves, partly with the mundane, habitual or in a great phrase “Lack of astonishment.”
Thanks Ken for identifying a key theme: the challenge of communication…. also, you asked why aren’t more people commenting on this piece? I believe the answer is indirectly in Trevor’s last post. If a well-read individual such as Trevor can only absorb 30% of the writing, then a ‘casual reader’ may only be able to appreciate 10% !
And thank you Melinda for another comprehensive analysis….you have helped me immensely to see what Anne wanted us to think about.
Carson’s writing here could be described as fragmentary, aphoristic, shard-like, enfolded. For some they/it will surely be too avant-garde and ungrounded. They’re not quite a series of prose poems but they’re close. There are revelatory moments and instances of piquant, even poignant, phrasing. The works feel carefully constructed and full of intention, actively hoping for readers to evoke themes and make connections. There are form & function games being played here, and allusions to classic literature and film (Gogol, Woolf, Lubitsch) along with classic tropes (secrets, aging, loss, the exoticness/kitschy-ness of the foreign) and nicely dovetailed resonances — the mother in the central piece who talks about dying on Mars during one of America’s exploded spaceraft on the news as an invocation that led them towards unwanted discussions of “the dark” is parallelled by the detour the third piece takes into Israeli soldiers planting weapons on the bodies of dead Palestinian civilians.
The first piece ends quite well, with an image and a simile. I also like it that D and F get effectively separated/”divorced” by the end of the piece.
The second piece features the accurate assessment that astonishment is theatrical but happens rarely in real life. Its conclusion is more muted, essay-like.
The third piece is the most aware of time and its passing, a very Woolfian effort, but for me the least satisfying. This one is a little more strained in its desire to express something about oldness and reflection, but I do like its detailing of fragility and the permeable nature of the relationship between the “self” and the “world”.
And of course there is the link of “Back the Way You Went” to draw it all together under this umbrella of nostalgia-averse reminiscence. Carson’s humming along and doing her thing here.
Thanks Sean for sharing your insight on what Anne was attempting here. I love this adjective you used the best: ungrounded.
So, is this a good or bad thing?…I don’t mind it in short fiction…….
well we weren’t real bees. we were in provincetown at the height of the season.
“Ungrounded” tends to mean not much “story,” and is harder to pull off the longer a work gets. Novels are rarely ungrounded. Even highly experimental novels like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, or even Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, books that don’t appeal to the “lay reader,” are grounded in certain central themes, settings, styles, and traditional character archetypes. Slim novels, novellas, creative non-fiction, they can play “ungrounded” pretty well (Joan Didion, Renata Adler, late Salinger, stuff like William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, this new book Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett). But even at the short story level, things that are ungrounded better be damn good linguistically or have phenomenal characters, otherwise they kind of fall apart in dandelion fluff and become too disparate.
Thank you Sean for elaborating on what ‘ungrounded’ means in terms of literature. Now, when someone says they love a book like “Franny and Zooey”, I can intelligently understand why.
Also Sean, you brought up examples of experimental fiction and how they don’t appeal to the ‘lay reader’. This made me think of my experience with “The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus. I’m curious – Do you think this novel should be considered ‘experimental’? I tried my best to enjoy it, but I found it difficult finding pleasure in it…..I have to step up my game!
i can see now my clarification was a bit cryptic. if you will allow me to try again. my partner at the time and i asked anne to come to provincetown with us for a week – i don’t blame her for reducing that painful span to a weekend. that tight little gay village as a honey-smeared hive couldn’t be more apt or hularious. our relationship was unraveling – the argument she records is, alas, accurate. and we were so caught up in our misery we didn’t see her, a source of great regret for me. when she sent me the NYorker link last week I felt caught in a glare. i’ve really enjoyed all your comments on the story – i hadn’t heard ‘ungrounded’ before but an certainly excels at it.
I thought The Flame Alphabet was better in concept than in execution, though it had some profound moments. Its issue wasn’t so much experimentalism as it was a failure to create a sustained (and sustaining) world. Dystopias don’t gel all that well with the highfalutin. The reader wants a set of rules that govern the world of the novel, be it in Philip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, or even the twin pillars of Orwell and Huxley.
But a novel needn’t be “experimental” to fall into that category of unfulfilled potential. Roth’s The Humbling, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist; these aren’t experimental, but while they are composed by brilliant and talented writers, they fall short because they’re a great idea that didn’t quite live up to the idea execution-wise. Meanwhile, other books by those same authors are equally ambitious in theory, but do a much better job in terms of their grasp equaling their reach (The Ghost Writer, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Mr. Bridge for example).
And yes, Franny & Zooey is a great barometer for how much “groundedness” a reader needs. If they like that book, they’re generally OK with literature being a bit more ungrounded. If they dislike it, they really value a grounded literary reading experience.
Thank you Sean for taking the time to explain how ‘big idea’ novels by even the all-time great authors sometimes are not successes.
And thanks Will for sharing how you and your ex were the muse for Anne.….and I appreciate your raw honesty on how she captured your painfully dying relationship.
thanks greg – it was painful but necessary. and the story’s so good it more than makes up for it.
Yes, thanks Will. That opens up the story even more.
This is one of my favorites of the year, and I still don’t “get it.” I’ve loved reading everyone’s comments.
Housekeeping note: Trevor, the link from the Index of The New Yorker fiction page that should take you here actually links to the page for Ottessa Moshfegh’s “An Honest Woman”. FYI.
Thanks — I will fix now!