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In which Netty is Carved up by Raymond – in a good way, of course

February 7, 2010

Writing a successful short story seems to me to be akin to writing good comedy – it’s all about timing and brevity. The American writer and poet Raymond Carver has these qualities in spades – and then some. So then, welcome to Carver’s world, courtesy of his selected short-story omnibus “Where I’m Calling From”.

This is the first of two collections of short stories Andy and I are tackling in ANRC10, and it’s a cracker to kick off our year of books. Carver has been called many things – the master of minimalism, the US laureate of the dispossessed, a dirty realist, the American Chekov (I have never read Chekov, but Carver was obviously a fan – he namechecks him in this collection’s introduction and the Russian author’s demise is the subject of the final story “Errand”). Carver may well be all of the above; what he certainly is is a bloody good writer who demands to be read, reread and widely recommended.

My previous experience of Carver is three-fold – the Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly based his 1988 song “Everything’s Turning To White” on Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close To Home” (included in this collection and also the name of Kelly’s album from whence the track originates.) This story is also one of the dozen-ish threads (about half of which are in this collection) that forms the storyline to Robert Altman’s 1993 film “Short Cuts”; it also is the basis of the 2006 Australian film “Jindabyne” (which I am remiss to have not yet seen). And I was a page or so into “Why Don’t You Dance?” when I realised why it seemed all so familiar – it was made into a 2004 Australian short called “Everything Goes” (with Hugo Weaving and a young Abbie Cornish). It’s brilliantly, understatedly acted – see it by all means if you can track it down.

“Where I’m Calling From” was first published in 1988, the year of Carver’s death, at the age of 50, from lung cancer – 37 stories selected by the author, spanning some 28 years and published here basically in chronological order. Carver states in his introduction: “If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly.” Certainly, that is the response the majority of these tales demands.

The laureate of the dispossed, indeedy – Carver’s short stories are bleak, melancholy, brutally realistic. There’s the sense that’s there’s not much hope of redemption or cause for optimism for his flawed, all-too-human characters. (Andy warned you I was going to say that, didn’t he?) These stories deal with the mind-numbing minutiae of daily life, the drudgery of domesticity and waking up next to the same person day in and day out all your life, fleeting flights of fantasy and the actuality of being reeled back into an unsatisfactory but inescapable reality. Carver married and bred whilst still in his teens; he and his first wife worked a succession of blue and lower-white-collar jobs, and Carver notoriously struggled with alcoholism, which he didn’t kick till the mid-1970s. And these are the traits he bestows on and imbues in his characters. He knows these characters inside out because he has walked a thousand miles in their footsteps.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are moments of lightness and deftness in Carver’s writing; there is humour – both obvious, then more sly and blackly comic. But the skilfully rendered pathos and perfect weighting of these stories is what impressed upon me the most. Don’t think you’ll want to go and throw yourself off a bridge after reading Carver – you most certainly won’t. But neither should you expect to skip off down the garden path with a rainbow suspended over your head. And this is far from a bad thing.

It would be easier for me to list the stories here I didn’t particularly care for, or that left little impression on me, than otherwise.
So, then, my favourites, in no particular order: “What Do You Do In San Francisco?” – a postman keeps tabs on a young family who has moved into his small town; “Neighbours” – a couple becomes obsessed with the lifestyle of the neighbours for whom they are apartment-minding; “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – two couples spend an evening drinking and talking; “Boxes” – a man’s difficult, demanding mother spends the good part of a year planning a move interstate; “Elephant” – a man juggles the financial demands of his family members.

The collection includes Carver’s last eight stories – published in the UK as a separate volume – when, for mine, he was really hitting his stride as a writer. There’s a consistency to the writing and an assurance in the endings more obvious than his earlier work. No doubt he died way too young, but he has left behind a not-insubstantial body of work – six volumes of fiction (discounting this one and “Beginners”, as referred to in Andy’s blog) and another six of poetry and a couple of volumes of essays et al.

Read them all, Salman Rushdie? Sounds like damn good advice to me.

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