Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Secret Thread presents LITERARY DISCUSSIONS #1

SUBJECT: "Kindling", a short story by Raymond Carver



Mutt Ploughman I'm Mutt Ploughman, husband, father, New School graduate, sometime fiction writer and essayist. Welcome to "Literary Discussions", the first of an occasional series brought to you by The Secret Thread, in which we kick around literary matters – great writers and their work. Tonight, we take on a legendary American literary icon, Raymond Carver; more specifically, we will be discussing his short story "Kindling", which first appeared in Esquire in 1999, and was collected in 2000's Call if You Need Me. Joining me tonight: husband, father of four, published poet, amateur film critic, and the sole founder of The Secret Thread: Duke Altum. Say hello, Duke!



Duke Altum Hello sports fans! Nice background work there... I thought this was #2 though? 'Confederacy' [of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole] didn't count?

Mutt Ploughman We never finished it.....

Duke Altum I guess not... well, I will do my best to keep up...

Mutt Ploughman Great. Allow me to lay only two ground rules: 1. This is a discussion, not an interview, so there are no specified "questions". However, in a minute, I will kick things off with a question. 2. In order for us not to step over each other, I propose one man "chats" at a time, and when you've made your point, type an "*". I will then edit that out of the transcript.

Duke Altum OK, makes sense...

Mutt Ploughman Awesome. Maybe we'll start this way: what's your own personal background and experience with the writings of Raymond Carver?

Duke Altum Well it won't take too long to go through it. I know him by reputation really. I heard a fairly long interview with him (audio) on that Don Swaim radio program, so I learned some background information on him there. Then I read his collection, Cathedral, once. And that's about all of my familiarity with him or his writing. Besides this story now, I mean. Yours?

Mutt Ploughman Even less. I have never read one of his books, really. I have read a few of his stories here and there. "Cathedral", "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", now this one. As you said, I know him by reputation as well. He is very well regarded and respected and his personal story is well known. He also taught some great writers. I feel like his personal writing style precedes him, and most people interested in writing fiction have at least some idea of how he wrote and worked. I need to read him a lot more. What were your first impressions of this story, "Kindling"?

Duke Altum Oh I just thought of something else I should mention too... I heard a few of his stories on audio tape once, not all of which I remember but I do recall "Where I'm Calling From" and "Neighbors." Also I own a large collection of his stories called Where I'm Calling From, but haven't read them yet. But to answer your question, my FIRST impression was basically "Evocative writing, but there's not that much to this story." However, on my second read, I found more there to chew on...Perhaps not surprisingly...

Mutt Ploughman Well, before I share my own impressions, can you expand on that?

Duke Altum Well as with movies, I notice, I am definitely a second-time-around viewer/reader... first time I just seem to let it impact me emotionally......it's the second time [that] I tend to notice more details. So in this case, the second time around, things jumped out at me about the characters. Myers' guardedness and resistance to make any personal connection to the couple. Sol and Bonnie's seeming naiveté and innocence, and unhappiness (at least on Bonnie's part). Maybe 'unfulfilled-ness' is a better way to say it. I recognized these things in passing the first time, but didn't really notice them until the second read. And began to think about what they meant. I could go on, but that's an example...

Mutt Ploughman What do you think about Carver's vaulted prose style? What are your comments on the way he writes in general?

Duke Altum Not exactly sure what you mean by 'vaulted'. Can you clarify? Do you mean just, much praised?

Mutt Ploughman Yes. Or is it "vaunted"? I can't remember the right term.

Duke Altum Oh yeah... I think so. Anyway the second part of your question was what mattered. I like Carver's minimalistic style, mostly because it's deceptive in its simplicity. I noticed this while reading Cathedral. It's so spare you can easily mistake it for not saying anything. But the story is almost in the details he describes, and not the narration of the actual 'action.' Carver gets at his truth through details, gestures, glances, very subtle observations. It commands that you pay attention. But more often than not there is some interesting stuff going on underneath the surface. Again, I noticed that here, but only the second time around. But it can also be maddening, because he gives you not even one hint of what it might mean. It's entirely up to you to fill in the blanks.

Mutt Ploughman Good points. I find the experience - and I guess this is my third or so - sort of a mix of inspiring and frustrating. It reminds me a lot of my experience in reading Hemingway. Carver was obviously a very talented man and a very gifted writer. But there were some lines in this story that if I saw them anywhere else, I would have been nearly pissed off! It's a weird experience.

Duke Altum What's an example of that kind of line??

Mutt Ploughman I have one here...."...it was a matter of life and death that he do so. I must finish this job, he thought, or else....." If I had seen that in a New School story I would have killed the guy/woman.

Duke Altum Hmmm... yes I see your point on one hand. I wondered about that line too. But, maybe for a guy in his position, fresh out of rehab, he doesn't know where he's going... and doesn't understand his own desperation, maybe. He may feel that way and not really know why. He may at this point in his life not have a very good understanding of himself at all. The first line does seem to indicate he is in a kind of limbo... "he was between lives." I think that description in the very first line, right off, is significant.

Mutt Ploughman That's a good point too. I'm not saying that "matter of life and death" line is no good, but I am saying that if I had seen it in an amateur's story, I might have thought it was no good. Also all the repetition, nine mentions of the river flowing (I counted) in eleven pages. Repeated references to water. All of this could seem heavy-handed. That's why I had the weird experience while reading this story that I had read a million like it. It's because so many people since Ray Carver have wanted to write Ray Carver-type stories. But all the non-explanation of things bugs me a lot too, sometimes.

Duke Altum That's funny, I made the exact same count... for the same reason...hard not to notice that... but that's a good example of what you're talking about too. Obviously the sound of the water is significant in some way. But why? What does it mean? That's an example of one of those details I was talking about earlier, that Carver stubbornly refuses to give even a hint of an explanation about. What its significance is, to Myers or even to us, is entirely for us to decide, I can only conclude... if there is any.

Mutt Ploughman Well, this is the whole rub with this kind of writer. Hemingway, and Carver after him. They give you nothing. They don't want to give you any nods at all. You figure it out. It's part of a whole saga fiction went through in the last century. It was being simplified, taken apart all the time. Take a look at the last two lines: "He left the window open when he got into bed. It was okay like that." What the hell is that supposed to mean??? This kind of title bugs me too sometimes. "Kindling"? What does that have to do with anything? I remember a classmate at The New School, she used to do that all the time. She wrote about women in mental institutions, and in one story there was a candle and ONE time she mentioned a moth flickering around the candle, so the story was naturally called, "Moth". This kind of thing. What do you make of it?

Duke Altum I was going to ask you about the same thing... I can see that reaction too, because it's almost imposing on the reader some kind of symbolism that may or may not be there... it has you looking for some, anyway. Kindling is only mentioned once, as I recall, in passing. I really don't know why he called it that. Any explanation I can put to it feels like too much of a stretch. Again, it's like he's saying 'make of this what you will.' The ending is very cryptic, I agree... Hemingway at least tends to leave you with tangible despair, or loneliness, or some kind of strong emotion... but this story doesn't really. It just ends of a note of, "It was okay." It seemed like the passage Myers wrote down right before the end was coming towards revealing something, but then it kind of abruptly ends.

Mutt Ploughman Yes. And it's very hard to know what Carver was ultimately trying to say. Maybe nothing. Maybe his point is that there is nothing to say. Everything has already been said for Myers. I find myself really torn on Carver because I do admire his language and his attention to small details. His sentences here and there about the river and the land, though repetitive, are wonderful. To wit: "...slowed a little, as if it had spent itself, then picked up strength again and plunged into the ocean." So simple, but powerful.

Duke Altum Yeah I know what you mean but I do come down on the side that he is a fine and talented writer, as I know you do... his style is obviously not your favorite, and probably not mine either, but I admire the skill it takes to strip one's writing down to the bare bone and still make something interesting... of course maybe there is a fine line, razor thin, between 'still interesting' and 'kinda pointless' that he dances right along... I mean, I would say about half of Cathedral were 'hits' and half 'misses' for me, but the powerful ones stayed with me, as did the collection as a whole... but I do enjoy the hints he gives us of a rich, more complicated story under the surface of these lives. That is interesting and mysterious, and it's kind of fascinating how he butts up against that and yet, doesn't dive in. Like Myers writing to his wife, or his little notebook scribblings... or, the interesting small section where Carver gives us what each of the three dreamed about. Now that small passage hinted at some things there... did it not? Maybe you could argue Carver hasn't given us enough about them to really care, but it is nevertheless psychologically interesting... Sol and Bonnie both kind of dreamed happy dreams, kind of like wishes... but Myers' was all about regret, and was kind of a nightmare...

Mutt Ploughman I thought the dreams were convincing, especially Bonnie's. And I like how in this story and other Carver works you can feel the artist struggling to make something out of life, to understand this existence. There is a sadness, a melancholy at play. But at the service of a mysterious kind of talent. And he obviously cared a lot about his language, his use of words......

Duke Altum Oh yeah, Carver is definitely trying to get at a deeper meaning, if there is one, underneath so much mundane everyday stuff and sadness and frustration... frustration seems to be a major theme in Carver, unfulfilled dreams maybe... high hopes that don't get realized. By the way, do you think there is anything to the landlord's deformity? Or Myers' notebook? What's going on with those? Or are they just what they are, and that's it? I suppose these details could be more or less like the title, "Kindling"... will we ever know their meaning?

Mutt Ploughman I am not really sure about the deformity, what's being said there....or the notebook really....but I did find the notebook writings intriguing......almost like the guy was just trying give voice to whatever was going on in him. He just seemed lost. But see, the whole thing seems cliche when you attempt to describe it, but this guy was a pioneer of this kind of writing.

Duke Altum I don't think we'll really get to the 'why' of a story like this. I think it deliberately asks you to take it in your own direction. Again, I go back to the beginning, where he says Myers is between lives. At the end, there is that brief moment of introspection in his notebook, and he's just told them he's going to be leaving... so the reader is left to ponder whether things are going to get any better for this guy, or if he's just going to drift back into who he was before. Personally, and I'm not really sure why, I get a sort of hopeful vibe from this ending. I think he is trying to understand himself, and the fact that he was able to push through and get that one job done - finishing [chopping] the wood - was somehow significant for him. At the end of that he even gives them a grin. Maybe these small details indicate something. Maybe the next 'life' will be a better one for him.

Mutt Ploughman You do kind of get a sense that he has purged something out, and that there is another chapter opening for him somewhere and somehow. And I do admire the way Carver seems to capture that sense of life on the page. And he does it with minimal language. What I find hard about stories like this is the deconstructionism, the reduction of everything to small bits, so that every meaning you can find has to be located in a miniscule pinhole somewhere. I guess I feel like I am a sucker for more traditional pleasures of storytelling. But at the same time I feel other writers can learn a lot from reading Ray Carver. Any final thoughts on this?

Duke Altum I think you hit upon it for you, you can admire the skill involved but subjectively, his style is just not what most appeals to your own sensibilities... you like lush language, just like (interestingly) you like lush music... layered and complex... I like those attributes too, but maybe because I don't try and write fiction myself, I sort of am intrigued and impressed by what I said earlier, the truth and meaning of a story compressed into tiny details, gestures, glances... maybe that is the side of me that tends towards poetry talking, where every little word must be packed with meaning, and be exactly the right word... no fat, no throwaway words... perhaps it is significant that Carver also wrote poetry. By the way, [Denis] Johnson, who also as you know wrote poems, wrote in almost a Carveresque style in Jesus' Son. But somehow those stories seem to carry a lot more of a wallop. Think about it, those stories are incredibly spare too...

Mutt Ploughman You're right. Also I find it interesting that the poet in you admires Carver's style. I am looking forward to reading and learning more from Carver though. Good discussion. Let this be a first salvo. Next topic is your choice......

Duke Altum Cool... great organizing. Great idea. (Great drummer. Great look.) I definitely look forward to the next one... TST.

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1 comment:

Mr. Brame said...

Thanks for the great conversation on one of my favorite writers, RC. Carver was my favorite short-story writer in my undergraduate days, but there is something about him that has never left me. Your blog made me want to go back to "Cathedral" and "WYPBQP?"

Well done.