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    So Much Water, so Close to Home: The 2017 PPAA Conference Panel Presentation

    A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Raymond Carver’s Short-story and its Creative Adaptation and Transformation by Australian Artists into Film and Song.

    Paul McEvoy

    My first contact with this story was through Paul Kelly’s haunting song, “Everything’s Turning to White”, (Kelly, 1989) which so disturbed me that I sought out the short story by Raymond Carver which inspired the song. Only recently did I learn that there are five published versions of the story. Of these, four are versions of the original story published in 1977 (Carver, 1977), with minor changes. A substantially shorter version, heavily influenced by Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish and with significant differences, was published four years later (Carver, 1981). This truncated version appears to be the basis for Paul Kelly’s song. In later collections, Carver returned to the longer version. He suggested that the shorter and longer versions should be regarded as different stories. My comments predominantly focus on the extended version of So much water so close to home published in a collection chosen by Carver himself, shortly before his death (Carver, 1988). I will make some reference to Kelly’s song, and to Ray Lawrence’s film, Jindabyne (Bateman, P., Charny, G., & Jarman, C., 2006) although for the purpose of this exercise, I find the film less helpful. This is not a criticism of the film, which I recommend. However, Jindabyne introduces a number of significant changes and additional themes, including the addition of racial issues; narration from an “objective” point of view of rather than from Claire’s subjective perspective; “gentrifying” Stuart’s character and amplifying Claire’s mental health history; and arresting the disintegration toward the end of the film. In my view these changes and additions dilute the disturbing rawness of Carver’s exploration of gender, power and violence, relationships and disintegration ​—​ in effect creating a third version of the story.

    As instructed, I have thought about this story in the context of our conference theme, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. All versions of the story focus on the impact of the men’s fishing expedition, and their apparent disregard for the young female murder victim, on the relationship between Stuart and Claire, and on Claire herself. The question of whether the centre can hold in light of the shocking disclosure is dealt with differently in each version of the story. In each there is a tension between the possibility of Claire’s disintegration, and the disintegration of the relationship. Jindabyne presents both possibilities, but offers an apparent (and in my view disappointing) resolution to the disintegratory tension, when, in the penultimate scene, Stuart apologises to the family of the murdered girl, and soon after says, “I want you to come home, Claire.” The implication is that the potential disintegration is averted, that they go home and live happily ever after: nothing falls apart, and both the marriage and Claire remain intact. The next scene cuts to the murderer, preparing for his next victim, relocating the threat from the inner space to the outer, further minimising the threat of disintegration. The other versions, however, maintain the disintegratory tension. In Paul Kelly’s song, the relationship is held together, but at the cost of Claire’s internal cohesion. Kelly’s Claire says,

    “When he holds me now I’m pretending

    Nothing is working inside

    And behind my eyes, my daily disguise

    Everything’s turning to white” (Kelly, 1989)

    This conclusion appears to reflect the short version of Carver’s story, wherein at the end, Claire continues her relationship with Stuart, but from a position of depersonalised compliance rather than desire. In the longer version, Claire consistently rejects Stuart’s sexual overtures, his only apparent means of seeking engagement, leaving us with a very clear sense that the centre cannot hold ​—​ that something must fall apart, and that most likely it will be the relationship.

    Freud tells us that psychological maturation requires progression beyond a life dominated by the pleasure principle and immediate gratification, to a life more directed by the reality principle. He says,

    “an ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also, at bottom, seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished”. (Freud, 1974, p. 402 )

    The reality principle requires thought, reflection and consideration of the needs of others, and of long term consequences. The reality principle does not deny pleasure, but seeks to balance the impulse to immediate gratification with consideration of “the bigger picture” or “the greater good”. Other psychoanalytic writers have, in a similar vein differentiated between “archaic functioning”, wherein the quest to gratify unmet infantile emotional needs dominates life, and “mature functioning”. The actions of the men in Carver’s story graphically illustrate the predominance of the pleasure principle and archaic functioning. They are unwilling to allow the reality of their tragic discovery to get in the way of their pleasurable fishing trip. This is beautifully illustrated in Jindabyne by the laconic local cop, who, having symbolically lined the men up like recalcitrant schoolboys, says to them, “We don’t step over bodies to enjoy our leisure activities. You’re a pack of bloody idiots. I’m ashamed of you. The whole town’s ashamed of you.” Not a lot of developmental maturation in evidence. Claire’s decision-making also appears to have been dominated by the pleasure principle, and archaic needs. Her account of the development of the relationship with Stuart suggests that it occurred with little thought or reflection. Referring to herself in a depersonalised third person, she says, “Eventually, seeing that’s his aim, she lets him seduce her. She had an intuition at the time, an insight about the seduction that later, try as she might, she couldn’t recall.” (Carver, 1988, p. 181) The implication is that she knew that something was wrong, but chose the path of least resistance: she chose not to think about it. In the last sentence of the story, Claire says “For God’s sake Stuart, she was only a child.” (p. 192) Her identification with the victim leaves little doubt that the “child” she refers to is not only the murder victim, but also herself? Her description certainly suggests child-like functioning when she entered the relationship.

    Claire’s depersonalised account of the development of the relationship continues:

    After a short while they decide to get married, but already the past, her past, is slipping away. The future is something she can’t imagine. She smiles, as if she has a secret, when she thinks about the future. Once, during a particularly bad argument, over what she can’t now remember, five years or so after they were married, he tells her that someday this affair (his words: “this affair”) will end in violence. She remembers this. She files this away somewhere and begins repeating it aloud from time to timeBut every afternoon at four o’clock her head begins to hurt (p. 181).

    Claire’s developing symptoms lead to a brief hospitalisation, and the lingering stigma of her “instability”. The question of Claire’s emotional vulnerability is approached differently in each version of the story, although to varying degrees in each it is used to question the validity of her identification with the murdered girl and of her subsequent response to Stuart. The short version of the story, and the Paul Kelly song, see Claire employing the depersonalised/dissociative defence of “turning everything to white” in order to tolerate an ongoing relationship with Stuart. The potency of this depersonalisation implies trauma and vulnerability which predate the relationship. Jindabyne, while less specific about the nature of her vulnerability, amplifies Claire’s mental health issues to a degree which also suggests that it is of long standing, and pre-dates the marriage. In the film she is reported to have left her husband and son for 18 months, while in the Carver story her absence is due to a hospital admission for a few weeks. However, while So Much Water hints at early contributions to her vulnerability, Claire’s fragile mental state is inextricably tied to the archaic, dysfunctional relationship, (eg her “four o’clock headaches”) and perhaps to a more systemic, societal dysfunction.

    Claire is portrayed as initially accepting being objectified in the relationship, and even colluding (“I turned slightly then moved my legs” (p. 176), or her account (p. 182) of hearing other women in the hospital talking about fellatio, and thinking that Stuart would be pleased to hear this). However, Carver presents an even broader disturbance. Claire acquiesces to a dysfunctional relationship, but in the world she recounts, this is the only kind of relationship which men offer. Central to the story is the apparent absence in the men of any appropriate affective response to the discovery of the murdered and violated girl, implying that there is nothing unusual about a violated, victimised woman. This view is particularly powerfully articulated in her later identification with the objectified victim’s body: “for the last twenty four hours, men have been examining it, putting things into it, cutting, weighing, measuring, putting back again, sewing up …” (p. 180). By the end of the story, Claire comes to see all men, including Stuart, as incapable of warmth or care, as menacing, sexually predatory and destructive of what cannot be possessed or controlled. This is a world in which sex and violence are primitively and inextricably linked. However, the story is told through Claire’s eyes, and Carver leaves enough doubt about Claire’s subjectivity that we cannot be sure whether this is an accurate statement of external reality or a view of the world informed by Claire’s traumatic experience ​—​ the familiar uncertain world of the therapist. The encounter with the man on the road to the funeral is a case in point. Claire’s interpretation of his words and actions is that they are predatory and threatening, but the text is sufficiently unclear to leave doubt about the accuracy of that interpretation.

    In Carver’s story things do fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Claire’s initial choice to sublimate herself to this relationship contributes to a diminishing identity, to her falling apart, relinquishing what fragile centre she had. Her observation that “already the past, her past, is slipping away” reflects her gradual loss of identity. The reality which emerges in light of Stuart’s dismissive treatment of the murdered woman, is that in Stuart’s view, women are not people but rather a set of functions, with sexual gratification prominent among them. When no longer available to function, the woman ceases to have value. In the 1981 short version of the story, and in Kelly’s song, Claire continues to acquiesce to Stuart’s sexual demands (albeit with no feeling) perpetuating the illusion of a relationship, of a centre which is holding. In longer version however, she rejects these later advances, no longer willing to sustain the illusion of a viable relationship. As Claire moves increasingly to identifying with the victim, and declares the murdered girl and herself to be separate people, worthy of love, care and respect, the relationship between Stuart and Claire begins to disintegrate. The centre cannot hold, but the implication is that the “centre” of this relationship was illusory anyway. A similar question about whether a centre is real or illusory arises with respect to the group of men. When they discovered the girl’s body, “one of them thought they should start back to the car at once. The others stirred the sand with their shoes and said they felt inclined to stay.” (p. 175) Why was a group decision necessary, and why did all four need to accede to it? What prevented the dissenting man from setting out alone that night, or at least the following morning? Ray Lawrence commented that this is a story about people clinging together in order to survive. Perhaps that’s what the men did at the river. Perhaps that’s what Claire and Stuart did ​—​ clung together for survival, dominated by the pleasure principle (fear of “unpleasure”) or archaic longings. In terms of the theme of this conference, it left me wondering whether centres which cannot hold are not centres at all, but simply illusions based on archaic longing, but devoid of mature thought, of the reality principle. The illusion of a centre, for both the group of men, and for Stuart and Claire was sustained by acquiescence ​—​ a tacit agreement to disavow difference, to eschew thinking, and to stick together for apparent security. However in So Much Water, the illusory centre based on the pleasure principle begins to fall apart when confronted by reality.

    I suspect that we could probably reach some agreement on what constitutes an intrapsychic “centre” ​—​ something along the lines of a stable, ongoing, independent and vital sense of identity. An interpersonal “centre” on the other hand is a bit more tricky. Does “clinging together for survival” constitute a sustainable centre? Can this kind of centre hold? And what is the cost of clinging together for survival, particularly if it requires acquiescence? This kind of clinging together in a quest to meet archaic needs may provide the illusion of a secure centre, but if there is a message in So Much Water, it is that such illusory centres both come at a high cost, and ultimately cannot hold.


    Bateman, P., Charny, G., & Jarman, C., (Producers), & Lawrence, R. (Director). (2006) Jindabyne (Motion picture). Australia: Roadshow Films.

    Carver, Raymond. (1977). So Much Water So Close To Home. Furious Seasons and Other Stories. Santa Barbara: Capra Press.

    Carver, Raymond. (1981). So Much Water So Close To Home. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Knopf.

    Carver, Raymond. (1988). So Much Water So Close To Home. Where I’m Calling From: The Selected Stories. London: The Harvill Press.

    Freud, S. (1974). Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Hammondsworth: Penguin Books.

    Kelly, P. (1989). Everything’s Turning to White. On So Much Water So Close to Home. Melbourne: Mushroom Records.

    Paul McEvoy

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