The Other Life That Is Ours: Revisiting Dawn Raffel

By David WintersOctober 8, 2013

The Other Life That Is Ours: Revisiting Dawn Raffel

In the Year of Long Division by Dawn Raffel

BETWEEN 1977 AND 1995, the American publishing industry witnessed a burst of avant-garde activity whose cultural impact has yet to be adequately assessed. The years in question correspond to those of the legendary (and controversial) Gordon Lish as senior editor for fiction at Alfred A. Knopf. For nearly two decades, Lish was uniquely placed, as he put it, to “indulge my fantasies at the expense of a powerful organization.” And in retrospect, the situation does seem somewhat fantastical: during Lish’s tenure, a major corporate publisher financed and distributed an unprecedented — and since unsurpassed — efflorescence of dense, difficult, undoubtedly loss-making works of art. From Diane Williams to Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel to Jason Schwartz, Lish championed writers who challenged fundamental conventions of style and form. He also fought on behalf of first-time authors — in his words, “the young and unsung” — as well as short story collections, a notable number of them by women.

Of these, Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division deserves special attention. First published in 1995, this collection was among the last of Lish’s commissions to come out from Knopf; he was fired while it was in the final stages of production. Praised in its day, but long since out of print, Raffel’s debut has been hidden from view for too many years. It remains read, of course — whether as a reward for fans who follow the trail back from Raffel’s later books (such as 2012’s The Secret Life of Objects), or as a fixture on the second-hand shopping lists of Lish-obsessives such as myself. But in its own way, this book deserves just as comprehensive a renaissance as that recently enjoyed by, say, Renata Adler’s Speedboat. For this reason, serious readers will welcome its return as part of independent publisher Dzanc’s ebook-only “rEprint” series. Since 2011, Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett, Dzanc’s publishers, have brought a wealth of such rarities back into “print,” many of which are from Lish’s list: the series includes increasingly hard-to-find titles by Patricia Lear, Sam Michel, Michael Martone, and more.

So Raffel is an author associated with what some have called the “School of Lish,” yet this crude category does a disservice to what are often — both thematically and stylistically — strikingly singular writers and works. To be sure, Raffel’s stories do have some common ground with those of other Lish-influenced authors: their focus on uncomfortable “family romances” recalls the contemporaneous early works of Christine Schutt and Yannick Murphy; their rootedness in a provincial, lower-middle-class locale (here, an inhospitable Midwest) could even evoke Raymond Carver. But Raffel’s writing ranges far wider than this. Her distinctive approach to dialog, for instance — with speech patterns shattered by pauses, impasses, and pregnant omissions — appears directly indebted to Pinter. And although Lish taught his students to treat the sentence as the ultimate unit of composition, Raffel’s sentences never risk clotting into constraints; the rhythms of her prose are too free and fragmentary to permit too much syntactic restriction.

In the Year of Long Division contains 16 “short stories” — a label which signally fails to capture the cryptic, elliptical poetry that these pieces arrange on the page. It is not that Raffel’s fictions don’t possess plots — “The Trick” tells the tale of a troubled marriage; “We Were Our Age,” of a dysfunctional childhood friendship — it is more that the substance of these stories is inseparable from the style of their telling. Flaubert once wrote to Louise Colet that, for him, “a good prose sentence must be like a good line of verse […] as rhythmic, as sonorous.” What he meant was not that he privileged style over substance, but that he sought to dissolve the distinction between the two: to make style the mirror of writing’s meaning. What drove Flaubert also drives Raffel; for both, the ideal “story” is one the content of which can’t be divorced from its form. Also like Flaubert, Raffel has remarked that she shapes her sentences by reading them aloud. Consequently, in their sonority, they sing of the things that speech alone can’t express.

For instance, a Raffelian phrase like “the ice, I see, is swept, wet, white” seems almost to achieve, in its fluid assonance, the physical form of a frozen lake; in its frictionless flow from one vowel to the next, the sentence itself skates across the surface it so tactilely describes. In precisely this way, Raffel’s writing clings closely to sensory surfaces, calibrating language to the contours of a world that can’t clearly be spoken of. Her work eschews information in favor of mystery — we never quite know what is happening, or to whom; rather, the very style of these stories evokes an experience of unknowing. As one of her characters puts it, “the trick is not to think” — instead, the only rule when reading Raffel is to listen and feel.

In one of the standout stories of this collection, “The Other R’s,” Raffel literalizes this emphasis on the enigmatic, the unknown. The story is told from the viewpoint of a child, who has heard that a neighboring family, “the R’s — the other R’s, not us,” have “something the matter with their baby.” In barely eight pages of spare, precise prose, Raffel reduces us, as readers, to her young narrator’s condition of not knowing. Even the house of the “other R’s” is “draped. Tight. Tucked in,” all closed doors and drawn curtains. Accordingly, like the narrator, we are “made to snoop” — to pry, to eavesdrop, all to no avail. We even get a glimpse of the baby carriage — “a dark, hooded thing,” before which we “hang back to watch — quiet, drawn.” In Raffel’s hands, such details circle around an event that is never explained, only subjected to an evolving opacity.

In this sense, the “division” alluded to by the book’s title describes the disunity between an always partial, perspectival knowledge, and an unknowable truth. And in so doing — as Raffel herself has remarked in an interview — it also speaks to “the divide between feeling and language; between the vastness of our experience and that tiny fraction of it that finds its expression in speech.”

Indeed, Raffel’s fractured rendering of spoken language is one of her most remarkable feats. The full, disorienting effect can only be captured by quoting a passage at length — such as this dialog from the collection’s 11th story, “Nightjars”:

She offered him something. “Eat,” she said.

A warming filled his hand. He held it.

“Vern?” she said.

“What now?” he said.

“Do you think there’s a heaven?”

Under his nose, he held it still.

“Ask me what I think,” she said.

“Do you want to hear something true?” he said.

“Don’t know,” she said. “Depends.” She crossed her arms. Her knees she brought up chestwise.

His jaw was slowly working. “I never liked to travel,” he said.

“That so?”

“It is.”

“Myself, I would say it depends,” she said.

“Would you?”

“I would.”

“What on?”

“How far,” she said.

“To where?” he said.

She expelled her breath.

“Bad answer,” he said.

The conversation is classic Raffel: stuttering, stunted, and sharply disjunctive — but, for these reasons, uncompromisingly naturalistic. To adopt a Freudian term, Raffel’s treatment of speech is uncanny; it is radically confusing precisely because of its resemblance to reality. This is speech as it is spoken in life, not in literature: shorn of explanatory apparatus, driven more by conflicting agendas than by semantics, and, in its resultant asymmetry, rife with abrupt about-faces and non sequiturs. In Raffel, talk is not novelistic, but chaotically quotidian; as she writes elsewhere in this collection, “all the talk in our town was talk, talk, talk. That, no this. Rain, no shine. More, no less.”

Crucially then, the bewilderment we experience when reading Raffel’s spoken exchanges is that of encountering an alien language — only to realize it is our own. Or rather, it is our language, but distanced, defamiliarized: Raffel’s conversations are clearly intelligible to their participants, but not to us, since we are refused access to the shared context that surrounds them — to what Wittgenstein would call their “form of life.” In this respect, perhaps there are two languages at play in Raffel: that of speech and that of life, where the latter remains intractably silent. Thus, precisely as Pinter puts it, “this speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear.”

This is the crux of Raffel’s accomplishment in her early and late work alike. Throughout all of these stories, what is heard, spoken, or seen only hints at its flipside: an ineffable reality that exists everywhere around us, but remains beyond reach of our words, beyond sense. “There is another world,” W.B. Yeats once wrote, “but it is in this one.” And this is the secret, silent world that Raffel’s work opens onto: the other life that is ours. If there is a message in these stories, it is that life’s meaning is most apparent when looked at askance. As Raffel writes in one of these stories, “there is a way that whatever you turn away from owns your heart.” Hers is writing with its back turned to what it tells of — but in this very act of turning away, it realizes an indirect revelation.

In illustration, it’s instructive to return to that earlier image of ice — an element that, more than any, seems emblematic of Raffel’s art. In the Year of Long Division is fascinated by frozen water; by its combination of surface and depth, solidity, and concealed liquidity. In “Somewhere Near Sea Level,” the “curve and grace” of ice skating quickly collapses into the “flat flung limbs” of a fall. “Two If By Sea” starts with a girl “testing, toeing, slipping” across an ice-covered river: “just before [she] went under, she could hear it crack.”

For me, such moments express the essence of Raffel. Her style slides with weightless grace across the surface of the world. But in so doing, it also puts pressure on that surface, revealing the water that waits, in roaring silence, on its underside. Through this movement, her writing gestures towards the source of its beauty, just as her stories’ shortness allows them to touch on astonishing expanses of experience. In the words of one of her narrators, “our lake was great. Could have been an ocean. Under the surface, everything shone.”


David Winters is a literary and cultural critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Millions, The New Inquiry, Radical Philosophy, and others. 

LARB Contributor

David Winters is a literary and cultural critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Millions, The New Inquiry, Radical Philosophy and others. He blogs at Why Not Burn Books? and is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine.


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