The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Sunday coffee with Rashomon, Raymond Carver and the unreliable truth

Rachael Conlin Levy

Reflected in Carrie Yamaoka’s art at The Henry, University of Washington.

I’m thinking about truth, a haunting line from the King James Bible, my sister-in-law, who’d come for a visit, traveled 500 miles. On Sunday, church skipped to visit longer over breakfast, our conversation turned to politics, and in this way, became prayer.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face …

She shared how she believed there was no place for her to get a straight story and real answers to the nation’s problems. With trust broken, the verity of facts were in question. When the journalist, the politician, the preacher are unreliable narrators, illusion and reality appear indistinguishable.

Now I know in part … 

We made more coffee, filled our cups. Her brother, my husband compared his sister’s experience to the 1950 film “Rashomon.” He loves this movie about a murder that’s described in four contradictory ways by four witnesses, and regularly cites it when conversations meander into ambiguous terrain. Based on a 1922 short story by RyÅ«nosuke Akutagawa, the film by Akira Kirosawa is an exploration of the unreliable witness, of contested events and disputed evidence.

I’m thinking about truth, wondering if my vision of illusion and reality is as clearsighted as I believe. I say how disappointed I am with politics. I say I’m disgusted by the bullies, cowards, and grandstanding liars that lead the country. I say this, then listen to the echo of words, the reverberations of betrayal and anger. Is my understanding of truth clear while my sister-in-law’s is clouded–or do I only think it so?

Then shall I know even as also I am known. 

Later I will read the Raymond Carver (1938-88) story “Tell the Women We’re Going,” a darkly brooding story that also ends in murder. Where Rashomon’s characters speak too much, muddying understanding with their subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident, Carver’s speak hardly at all, remaining enigmatic to themselves and to readers. In this story from Carver’s collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” he allows us the smallest insight into Jerry’s thoughts in a scene where Jerry and his buddy, Bill, are trying to pick up two girls they’ve spotted biking on the side of the road:

“He fed the Chevy gas and pulled up off onto the shoulder so that the girls had to come by on his side.

‘Don’t be that way,’ Jerry said. he said, ‘Come on.’ He said, ‘We’re all introduced.’

The girls just rode on by.

‘I won’t bite,’ Jerry shouted.

The brunette glanced back. It seemed to Jerry she was looking at him in the right kind of way. But with a girl you could never be sure.

I’m thinking about truth amongst sister, brother, wife, our search for the common, the shared, in alternative, subjective, contradictory views. The slurry of coffee and grounds at the bottom of our cups has grown cold, we’d arrived at no answers. We’d remained a mystery to one another, to ourselves. We stood, stretched bodies stiff from sitting for too long on hard kitchen chairs, hugged goodbye.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 

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