Where I’m Calling From – Andy bows his head in the presence of the freakin’ awesomeness that is Raymond Carver

February 6, 2010

Apparently I swear too much in these blogs. Not that I’ve had a warning from WordPress or anything, it’s just that the last couple of times anyone’s had anything to say about what I write they’ve said something along the lines of, Ooooh, naughty words.

I like naughty words. I swear a lot. Swearing is fun, like drinking too much and shagging like a rabbit. I’m a lowest-common-denominator kind of a guy, I guess. Sorry about that.

Raymond Carver didn’t swear much, or at least he didn’t in his short stories. There’s quite a few goddamns and Jesus Christs, a handful of f words (do I really have to lower myself to “f words”? Seriously?), and if memory serves just the one c word (“c word”! “c word”!) in Where I’m Calling From’s 430 pages. Of course there’s also huge amounts of excessive drinking, quite a bit of sex that people probably shouldn’t be very proud of and enough smoking to wipe out a small European country. Did people really smoke this much in the ’70s and ’80s? Wow. I tried to take up smoking as a teenager but it just sort of struck me as conceivably one of the stupidest things anybody in the history of civilisation could have dreamed up.

If you didn’t know Carver was an alcoholic before you read his stories it wouldn’t take long to figure things out once you started chewing through Where I’m Calling From.  His characters  drink a lot, and quite often it’s destroying their lives. It’s interesting that alcohol destroyed Carver’s first marriage, and he really only hit his creative straps in the late ’70s after he gave up the grog. I’m guessing he smoked a lot too. These characters smoke. A lot. In bed. Which is just disgusting and wrong.

It’s widely and notoriously known that Carver’s most famous collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was brutally edited by someone called Gordon Lish, to the point that some even claim Lish ghost-wrote the stories. Last year Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, published Carver’s original text – despite, I believe, ferocious opposition from the original publisher – in a volume titled Beginners. I haven’t read Beginners yet but it’s a must at some point later in the year.

The stories Carver chose from that book to include in his selected stories are probably not my favourites anyway, although Gazebo is pretty impressive. A partial list of the stories that left me dazzled would include Collectors, Put Yourself in my Shoes, Neighbors, So Much Water So Close to Home (inspiration for a Paul Kelly song of the same name, Netty tells me, and the Aussie movie Jindabyne, which is now a must-see), A Small, Good Thing, Boxes, Intimacy, Elephant and Blackbird Pie. I don’t think there’s anything that binds these stories together other than their brilliance. There are more laughs in some of them than in Carver’s work generally, although that said So Much Water and A Small, Good Thing are pretty much bereft of humour. But then the last page of A Small, Good Thing is possibly my favourite piece of writing in the entire book (although Netty doesn’t like it, and she might tell you why in a day or two, and I’m thinking there might be quite a few people who agree with her).

Netty and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on Carver’s humour, incidentally. She thought Elephant was hilarious, along with Collectors, but apart from that she felt the stories were grim, almost dour. And they are – there’s plenty of desperation, and a sense of lives that should’ve been different but realistically were never going to be anything other than what they are. I think there’s actually quite a lot of dark humour in here, though, particularly in the dialogue. And I think there’s rather more hope in these stories than Netty is prepared to acknowledge.

I think I’ve read somewhere that Carver is sometimes referred to as the master of minimalism. This is presumably based on the Lish-edited volume of stories and it’s garbage. Some of the stories are parred to the bone – including ones Lish didn’t get his pen to But there’s a sort of lovely meandering quality to some of the longer stories, although admittedly Carver achieves this without wasting a word. I don’t really think the stories from Cathedral and Elephant, Carver’s last two collections, could be described as “minimalist”. Unless it means something other than what I think it means which is entirely possible.

That said this is not a perfect collection. I don’t think there’s a single story that doesn’t work but some of them just didn’t do it for me – one of the Lish-edited stories, One More Thing, I’d almost completely forgotten about until I started flicking through the book again tonight. Whoever Was Using This Bed didn’t really grab me, either. And I wasn’t 100 per cent convinced by Cathedral. As far as the rest go though, while I have my favourites none of them struck me as wanting. Where I’m Calling From is one of the strongest collections of short fiction I’ve ever read. Beyond a shadow of a doubt it will be re-read and re-read, by me and probably by some of my friends. This bloke’s stories are works of genius. But, importantly, he’s not the sort of genius who leaves you thinking writing’s beyond you. If you aspire to write short fiction you should definitely check him out. Reading his stories has been one of the most exciting and rewarding – and motivating (as opposed to motivational) – experiences I’ve had with a book for a long time. Salman Rushdie suggests reading everything Carver wrote, and it doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

So there you go. That may well be the first blog I’ve written during the Challenge that hasn’t involved any serious cussing. If you think life would be better with naughty words let me know. That’s certainly my ‘umble.


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