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Our Story Begins – Ah yes, Andy wonders, but does it actually end?

November 15, 2010

Well yes, it does. But more on that later.

Netty and I began 2010 with Raymond Carver, a US master of the short-story form with whom Tobias Wolff is often lumped by those who feel lumping writers together is an important thing to do. Wolff started publishing short stories in the ’80s, which is when Carver was coming to prominence. Obviously Wolff’s had a far longer career than Carver, who died in 1988. But, having read From Where I’m Calling in January, Netty and I have both naturally made comparisons.

And I think we both agree: Carver wins.

But.

Wolff is a seriously impressive creator of short stories. His tales aren’t as memorable as Carver’s – flicking through Our Story Begins this afternoon I stumbled across a good handful of stories I’d forgotten reading in the past few weeks, which is not something I remember happening with Carver. Wolff’s no minimalist (and I use the word aware that Carver’s “minimalism”, in some of his best-known work, is the result of someone else’s editing rather than the writer’s intent); his stories are longer and more meandering than Carver’s, he spends more time developing and exploring background and back story. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in Wolff’s case, for the most part, it isn’t a bad thing at all. There are many memorable stories in this collection – including Bullet in the Brain, which Wells Tower read at the story workshop I attended at last year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Tower seemed more impressed with Wolff than with Carver (who got a vaguely complimentary mention during the day, but nothing too enthusiastic). Tower’s an amazing writer and if someone was threatening to put a bullet in my brain I’d say his stories are more in the vein that Wolff’s mined, rather than Carver. But I disagree with him.

An occasional criticism of Wolff that I disagree with – and it’s one that Netty raised – is that his stories don’t end properly. Which makes the title of his collection kind of ironic, and a possible “fuck you” to his detractors.  Many of his stories end without what can be called a conclusion, they seem to wander from point A towards what you assume is point B and then decide to take a look in the general direction of point C before giving up completely. Or at least that’s how it might look to some readers. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Carver’s stories do tend to “end”, there’s a sense of closure, but often that sense is deceptive, or suggestive of things to come. Wolff doesn’t write like that. He creates characters and situations and he gives his characters choices but you don’t always get to find out what choices they make, or if you do what the effect of that choice is. Of course that’s not always the case – one of the best stories in the collection, The Chain, takes its characters and their circumstances and the choices they make to the logical, devastating conclusion. But other stories – such as possibly my favourite, Desert Breakdown 1968 – offer the reader nothing that even vaguely resembles closure. Some might find this frustrating and claim it’s a weakness, but frankly I can’t understand why. Also – interestingly – Desert Breakdown 1968 is one of the longest stories in the collection, but it’s also one that doesn’t waste a word. I reckon you could take a knife to some of Wolff’s stories, but not that one.

Other favourites: Hunters in the Snow. There’s a tension and violence in this early story that as a reader I expected to flow through to his later work. It didn’t, which may be a good thing. And it’s definitely a story you think is heading one way, then heads another way, then ends up lost. And yes, that’s also a good thing. Mortals is impressive on a number of levels – it’s more overtly funny than a lot of Wolff’s work, and some of the action takes place in a steakhouse in which Richard Brautigan used to eat. At least that’s what the narrator says. Two Boys and A Girl is, as the title suggests, a menage a trois tale that takes things in a direction that looks a bit like the direction you expect, except it’s not. And it has one of those “endings”, too. The last five of the selected stories – Lady’s Dream, Powder, The Night in Question, Firelight and Bullet in the Brain are all strong (also, short). Of the 10 new stories, A Mature Student and Nightingale are impressive. It’s in the new stories, though, that the only out and out failure (for me) can be found: Her Dog is essentially a conversation between a widower and his dead wife’s dog – although the conversation is only happening in the widower’s mind, this being realism and all. It’s mawkish and embarrassing, and – worse – not very well written.

Wolff’s good. He’s probably great. There will be people who consider him vastly superior to Carver and I can begin to understand why they might say that. But – sorry, Toby. Ray wins.

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