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It was recommended to me and the rest of my class when I was studying English Literature at A-Level that we took interest into some the great authors of modern literature if we were going to pass our exams, as we would learn key details and be better at analysis of text. So I choose to start with Carver and I'm going to be honest, I took to it as a chore rather then an interest. It was something my teacher had instructed me to do so I had to do it.
However, after reading the first few short stories in the anthology (Nobody said anything and Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes) I began to get used to the style in which Carver was writing. Carver writes in a matter of fact tone. Some surprising details are presented as something usual and normal. This tone was hard to get used to first but soon reading Carver became less of a Chore and more of interest. Soon I was reading one or two stories rather then a week.
However, It wasn't until I really appreciated his talent when I read "Fat" that I knew I was a carver fan. "Fat" as well as "Why don't you dance?" where turning points in my literacy career. Both short stories so well written that it was surprising to realize I had never heard of Raymond Carver before I started the course.
I'm not going to go into any of the short stories in detail as I want you to find out for yourself. However, I advise you to try Carver before buying this collection or any of his others. So I suggest you read "Fat" and "Why don't you dance?" and decide for yourself, and then you will realize that Carver is a great American Author.
I really wanted to like Raymond Carver. He is a writer whose work has been strongly recommended to me by several people whose opinions I respect, including my elder son, who does not take kindly to having his recommendations ignored. Having at last got round to following the recommendation I wanted to be able to report back positively, if somewhat belatedly, on the experience. And I almost can. But not quite.
Maybe I expected too much. Carver has come to occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of late 20th century literature, with distinguished writers and critics alike all apparently sharing the same hymnsheet when they sing his praises. As "the American Checkhov" (a reference to the Russian's stories, not his plays) or "the laureate of the dispossessed" he is lauded for his pared-down prose, his sharp ear for dialogue and his "minimalist" ability to provoke profound reflection from seemingly superficial accounts of everyday events.
Although he also wrote poetry, Carver is best known for his short stories, of which he published some half a dozen collections. "Where I'm Calling From" is his own selection from those collections: thirty-seven stories that presumably he felt represented the best of his output. It should therefore be an ideal introduction to his work.
Carver's stories don't have a lot of plot. There is little in the way of complicated interaction of characters and events. Some are almost snapshots - static "slices of life", people caught and described at a moment in time. This moment may be a critical one, such as the break-up of a relationship or the break-down of a personality, but, once the situation is established, the stories are seldom developed to encompass any new twists or surprises. The endings seem pre-ordained, indeed often taken for granted and therefore not described in detail. Sometimes, the stories are left open-ended, leaving readers either to live with the uncertainty or make their own assumptions as to what might happen next.
The characters are seldom complex either, or rather, their latent complexity is seldom explicitly explored. They are presented as ordinary people in ordinary circumstances: mostly blue-collar, raw, down-to-earth, and circumscribed by concerns about jobs or families. They react in an ordinary way to the ordinary upsets that befall them: failed marriages, estranged children, problems with money or drink.
The characters are not given to introspection or rationalisation of their emotions. Their reactions to each other are instinctive, and often inarticulate in how they are expressed, though Carver has a way of pinpointing the nature of the underlying feeling at the same time as faithfully replicating the inexactitude of its expression. Much is left unsaid, but he helps you hear it all the same. And even where the stories' conclusions are left unresolved, he leaves you musing on the emotional implications for the characters.
To cite examples from just two of the stories:
In "Nobody Said Anything", the teenage narrator plays hookey and goes fishing, in which he joins forces with another boy. Coming home with his half of the big fish they catch, he finds his parents in the middle of a row and is abruptly told by his father to throw the trophy away. Summarised thus, this sounds astonishing only in its inconsequentiality, but consider the way in which the ending is told:
'He screamed, "Take that goddamn thing out of here! What in the hell is the matter with you? Take it the hell out of the kitchen and throw it in the goddamn garbage!"
'I went back outside. I looked into the creel. What was there looked silver under the porch light. What was there filled the creel.
'I lifted him out. I held him. I held that half of him.'
In "Why Don't You Dance?" a young couple come across a man selling what seems to be most of his possessions from his front yard. He lets them buy cheaply the items they want, and presses more on them. This story ends thus:
'Weeks later, she said: "The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my god. Don't laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?"
'She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.'
From the minimal examples above I hope you will gather that Carver does indeed have an excellent ear for dialogue, or at least for speech-patterns of the particular kind with which he was most familiar. He can also set his scenes succinctly, with hardly any use of adjectives or imagery. The physical appearance of his characters is rarely described in detail. There are no word-portraits; at most a few thumbnail sketches. But you do not need to know exactly what they look like to know what kind of people they are.
Almost all Carver's stories are set among working people in small-town or rural settings that might be anywhere north-east of San Francisco and south-east of Seattle. This was very much Carver's home turf. He was born in 1938 in Oregon, his father a worker in a timber mill, his mother a waitress at the local diner. Married and with two children by the time he was twenty, he drifted between "crap jobs" while he tried to find time to write, until he devoted himself instead to "full-time drinking". His marriage broke up, but he learned to control his alcoholism and, after attending various creative writing courses, began to get his work published. Eventually, having formed a new relationship with fellow-writer Tess Gallagher, he stopped drinking entirely. His output increased and was met with growing critical acclaim. He was on the verge of becoming distinguished when he developed lung cancer and died at the age of fifty. His reputation has only grown since.
Two things strike one about this life-history. The first is the almost autobiographical degree to which Carver kept, in his subject-matter, within the bounds of what he knew best. The downbeat settings, the prevalence of failed relationships, on which so many of the stories hinge, the heavy drinking in which so many of his characters indulge - all come directly from his personal background. You can look at this two ways: you could call it successful in universalising his own experience, or you could call it unadventurous, even unimaginative.
Secondly, whilst Carver's may not have been a very happy life, his was a dream CV for the literary times. There had been a vogue in American fiction for extravagant experimentation in the hands of writers like Pynchon and Barthelme, but the appeal of such elaborate, over-egged fare was beginning to pall. The time was ripe for a return to basics, and Carver's combination of accessible prose, realistic situations and comprehensible characters fitted the bill perfectly.
Enthusiasts for Carver's work, of course, urge one to look beyond the simplistic story-lines into "the space between the words", the implicit interpretations that can be read into them. "There's a Chekhovian clarity to Ray Carver's stories" wrote one of them, "but a Kafkaesque sense that something is terribly wrong behind the scenes." And they use words like "understated", implying that there is more there than meets the eye, which the discerning reader will spot.
Perhaps. I'm as sympathetic as anyone to the idea of listening for hidden as well as overt meanings, and find nothing more satisfying than hearing a subtle undertone, but I also think the quest can be overdone. After all, one can read almost anything into what isn't there, and an author who relies on his audience to do all the interpreting is shirking his share of the work, as well as his prime responsibility.
It would be a good trick, if you're not sure quite what you have to say, not to quite say it and to invite your audience to elicit was it might have been. I'm not saying that this is what Carver does, but it is a suspicion that lingered in my mind after I had read him. It might perhaps be overly cynical to suggest that the emperor's clothes are non-existent. But only perhaps.
Only one of the stories in this collection strays outside the bounds of Carver's familiar territory. This is the final one, "Errand", which describes the last days of Checkhov, factually, before going on to imagine, fictionally, the role of a servant at the hotel in which he died, both in serving him his final bottle of champagne and later in fetching the undertaker.
Carver identified closely with Checkhov, and indeed there are many parallel strands in their two lives. Other influences were Hemingway - inevitably, as the original champion of minimalist prose style and vocabulary - Babel and Pritchett.
Personally, I can appreciate how all this puts him in a highly respectable literary tradition, and I am perfectly ready to agree that he should be viewed in that context - not just as a gifted hick from the sticks. But I don't agree that I'm under any obligation to like him in consequence. After all, I don't much like Checkhov either.
In the last resort, I prefer to fall back on a more rudimentary approach when it comes to assessing Carver. I can understand the case for regarding his work as great literature in disguise, but I cannot entirely dismiss the contrary case for regarding it as over-praised and ultimately hollow. Rather than trying to adjudicate between the two cases, I ended up simply asking myself: "Did his stories provide an enjoyable and satisfying read?" To this, my own answer was: "Yes, up to a point."
I admire the unornamented quality of Carver's writing. The stories are readable and ring true. They did, now and then, set me thinking. But I did not find them compelling. I could put them down and I didn't have to turn the next page to find out what was going to happen to the characters. They did not, in other words, pass the prime test of great story telling. Moreover, looking back, I find it difficult to remember, unprompted, the themes of more than about ten or a dozen of the thirty-seven.
I shall probably read more of Carver's work if it comes my way, but I won't go out of my way to look for it. Sorry, son.
"Where I'm Calling From" is published in the UK by The Harvill Press, a division of Random House. ISBN is 1-86046-039-9. Cover price for the paperback (430pp) was, when I last looked, £11.99, but you can of course find it more cheaply if you shop around.
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