Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Our Shared Secrets: Encounters with the Short Fiction of Raymond Carver

Duke Altum here - bursting out from under six feet of dirt like Lemmy Kilmeister on his chopper!!

[If you don’t get that reference, that means you didn’t grow up in the glorious heyday of hair-and-leather metal bands and MTV’s The Headbanger’s Ball, so you wouldn’t remember Motorhead’s famous “Killed by Death” video. And I feel sorry for you.]

Anyway… imagine this: you are actually reading a post on this blog that was NOT written by Mutt Ploughman, the stalwart and hard-working writer who has singlehandedly kept The Secret Thread going while I have been engaged in pressing family and work matters. I want to thank Mutt now not only for keeping these pages fresh and interesting, but for his support of myself and my family while my daughter has been laid up following her cleft palate repair surgery. I am happy to report she is healing slowly but surely, and we are finally starting to get back into a more normal sleeping and eating routine with her. It’s not every day you wake up with one mouth and go to sleep with a totally reconstructed one! But she has pulled through remarkably well as only an 11-month-old, with no preconceptions or illusions, can.

Well. Even though I have been very conspicuously absent from these pages lately, the reading never, ever stops, as Mutt implied below. It’s a ravenous thirst that won’t be quenched. You simply make the time, one way or another – you don’t have a choice. In the past few months there have been many books I’ve wanted to write about here, most notably two novels written by Nobel laureates from very different parts of the world that I read back to back (Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World and Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis – both, in an interesting coincidence, unconventional love stories set against the backdrop of emerging social and political revolution). But for this post I would like to offer some personal reflections on the short fiction of Raymond Carver, having just finished his powerful collection Cathedral.

I’d read a little bit of Carver here and there before, and by that I mean three or four stories at the most. So I really didn’t know much about his work beyond his well-known reputation for being a master of clean prose and brief, powerful short stories. He’s one of the leading figures in the so-called “Dirty Realism” school of writing, which seems to include writers known primarily for their short stories and for an economic, spare prose style: Hemingway, Tobias Woff, Richard Ford and others. What that’s supposed to tell you though is basically what it told me about his work: absolutely nothing. Except not to expect florid, lengthy, Thomas Wolfean sentences and descriptions.

Mutt has written extensively and eloquently here on TST over the past year or so about the nature of the short story, and attempted a critique on its current state in popular literary magazines. Both he and I have admitted a tendency to enjoy a more lyrical, descriptive writing style than you get from writers like those listed above. However, the more I read short stories, the more I have come to appreciate a more economic, terse style – and I think for me that comes from my fascination with the craft of poetry.

One of the things that intrigues me the most about poets is their uncanny ability to find just the right combination of words to capture what is essentially ineffable, and to do so without wasting even one. This is immensely difficult but when done well, delivers a knockout blow of awe and beauty akin to any masterwork of visual art.

Have you ever stood before a painting and thought to yourself, “I wouldn’t change one stroke of this thing, it’s perfect”? I was immensely fortunate once to visit Paris briefly, and I can distinctly remember standing before one of Monet’s paintings – Notre Dame cathedral reflected in the Seine River, awash with rose sunlight – and having that very thought. Not one brush-stroke or color highlight seemed out of place, and the overall affect was dazzling.

[Side note: I realize this is going to sound like ridiculous hyperbole, but I recently had more or less that same sensation – a genuine moment of awe – while re-watching for the third time the exquisite film Ratatouille with my sons… strangely enough the setting here is also Paris… but when I see some of the scenes in that film and pay attention to the details, my jaw literally hangs open at how beautifully rendered it all is. Down to the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant leaf or kitchen tile. And, while I’m at it: is there a more important and accessible film about the dignity and value of self-expression and having the courage and tenacity to follow one’s true calling than this one? It’s a perfect storm of sophistication (for adults), action (for kids), humor and sheer visual exuberance (for both).]

A great poem ought to strike the reader just like that Monet painting struck me: not one word out of place, the whole expressing an emotional truth that cuts through the clutter of your rational mind, right to the softer, wiser core of the heart. And the same, I think, is true of a great short story. In my experience, a great short story affects you more emotionally than it does intellectually or rationally.

A simple thought experiment may bear this out: if you think about the stories that have affected you most, more often than not what you remember about it is more like a feeling than a fact. The fear and dread and utter hopelessness is what lingers in your memory long after you’ve read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” I’ll never forget how my heart practically hurt with loneliness and an almost overwhelming sense of despair when I finished reading Breece Pancake’s devastating “A Room Forever.” And no one who reads the great Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” without recalling, almost viscerally, the mix of shock and disgust they felt when they read the final pages.

Carver himself made an interesting comment in an archived audio interview I had the pleasure of listening to recently: he opined that “the short story has more in common with poetry than it does with the novel.” As a prolific (and highly regarded) writer of both short stories and poems, he would know. For many years I’ve been sort of fascinated by this blurry line between the short story and the poem, and Carver’s comment, along with my reading of several of his finely-crafted pieces in Cathedral, has ignited that interest again. I may even attempt a few “experimental” pieces of my own that attempt to stake some sort of claim within this murky no man’s land between the two forms… I already have one in mind, based upon recent experiences waiting around in the hospital while my baby daughter was being operated on.

But this rambling and increasingly off-topic post was supposed to be about Carver’s short fiction, so let me offer a few reflections before they escape my memory (and your interest) entirely.

The very first thing that struck me about Carver’s stories is how easy they are to read. I blew through this book in a few sittings, and that’s saying something considered how hectic my schedule has been lately – I am not known for the speed of my reading either. He truly epitomizes George Orwell’s famous dictum: “good prose should be like a window pane.” Carver’s is impeccably clear, without a scratch or smudge. Again, not a wasted word to be found. In that same audio interview I referenced earlier, he said he had been instructed by the great novelist and story writer (and a personal favorite of mine & Mutt’s) John Gardner to take a 15-word sentence and then re-write it in ten. But then he went on to say that he made it his goal to say whatever had to be said in five. And that’s the essence of how he writes. You get what you need to know, and that’s it. Hardly any adornment or elaboration. He leaves that part of it up to you and your imagination.

It’s not only the sentences themselves that make use of this minimalistic style and leave room for the reader to fill in the details – the stories themselves, taken as whole units, are like brief glimpses into lives that, you sense, are much larger and more complex. I noticed several common elements in virtually all of the stories in this collection, which I thought was interesting. Some of them find their origins in Carver’s own life experience – for example, characters start drinking alcohol in every story, and usually to excess. The demon of alcohol that tormented Carver so much in his early life is always lurking around the corner here. Another aspect of his early life that comes up in every story is the broken marriage. Married life itself is a major theme in Cathedral and, I gather, in much of Carver’s fiction. But so many of the characters here allude to marriages that either had broken up or were about to, almost as if the author wanted to prove the utter impossibility of two people living happily together over the long haul. (Carver himself got hitched early at 19 and that marriage fell apart during his heavy drinking years, but he later found lasting companionship and happiness with the poet Tess Gallagher.)

I also noticed that in just about every story, the characters seem to be dealing with some kind of major crisis or situation, but then along the way the narrative will focus on one specific detail or event that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the larger issue at hand. And very often the story’s title will come from one of these side details that doesn’t seem to connect with the main thrust of the tale. So part of the intrigue and mystery for these stories, at least for me, was in trying to figure out how why this little detail was worth pointing out and what Carver was doing with it. Sometimes the connection was obvious, such as in the story “Where I’m Calling From” – the story’s narrator is spending time drying out in a rehab center, and he mentions those words when relating in an aside that he wants to call his ex-wife just to hear a familiar voice, but doesn’t want to reveal where he is.

One fascinating example of this technique (conscious or otherwise?) in Carver was in the penultimate story, called “The Bridle.” In it, a couple that loses their farm in Minnesota to foreclosure drifts down to this seedy apartment complex in Arizona, where they rent a room for several months. The husband, it is noted early on in passing, is a horse enthusiast who lost all of their money by buying and then betting on a race horse. One night they are hanging out with friends by the pool, getting drunk (see?), and the wife observes the husband – who, by the way, is unemployed – climb up to the top of a shed and attempt to jump into the pool. He doesn’t make it, and sustains serious head injuries. Shortly after they move out, and when the landlord is cleaning out their room, she finds a bridle the husband had brought with him in the closet. I have to rely from memory here so I’m paraphrasing, but in the final lines I recall Carver writes about the bridle being a burden and a restraint, but then observes that a horse fitted with one “knows at least that he’s going somewhere.”

In that one line towards the end of the story, Carver takes this small detail that seemed to have only an incidental relationship to the tale being told, and illuminates it – but only for a split second, like a lightning flash. Again, it’s up to us to think about what we saw, and ponder why it’s significant.

My point in all this is that Carver seems to be able to use this minimalist approach not only for the sake of brevity or clarity, but also to hint at larger mysteries. Somehow his spare style is an invitation for us to enter into the lives he’s writing about, almost as if the space left by the omitted words provides access for his readers to seep through the membrane of the page and into this other world. He employs a true artist’s deft touch to share with us just the right thought or physical detail that will give us a glimpse behind the curtain, but not spoon-feed us any insights. We bring to these characters our own life experiences and hard-earned wisdom, and we can recognize in their struggles and disappointments (and, occasional moments of hope) the common burden of being human.

In short, what Carver wrote when he reviewed his friend Tobias Wolff’s first collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs applies equally to himself: “He has somehow gotten his hands on our shared secrets, and he’s out to tell us everything he knows.” Raymond Carver is one writer who has successfully mined the ore of his own life, especially his early struggles, to produce subtle, nuanced stories that you'll read in one sitting, but savor for far, far longer.

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