So, Raymond Carver

A lot of modern short fiction, it turns out, lies in the shadow of an author I’d never heard of — Raymond Carver. (This speaks only to the backwards way Sartoris has gone about his literary life). I recently became aware of him in three ways all at once. A better way to put it is to say that, as soon as I began seriously reading in modern fiction, he came at me from all sides.

Since he left the world early in the grip of some of the usual writers’ demons (drink mainly, it seems, and cigarette smoke), I can only say “good on ya” and hope it echoes somewhere useful.a-serious-talk-by-raymond-carver-new-hdr

I encountered Carver in the following ways:

After I read Paul Theroux, and grumbled about it, a friend asked if I’d read Carver. “He is lovely,” she said (and her judgment is provedly sound). I browsed around a little, saw a substantial late 20th-century footprint, and made a note to dig deeper.

That was thing one.

At the same time, I’d responded to a request for fiction readers from Electric Lit. They wanted some recommenders for their Recommended Reading series — folks who would read the slush pile and pass things along to the editors. It felt like a long shot, but I applied. Imagine my pleasant surprise when in three weeks they said I’d passed their first hurdle and invited me to do a “reading test” — read three stories and make recommendations.

Well, I read the three, and made my recommendations. One I thought was a clear yes, one a clear no, but there was one in the middle. This one, I sensed (rightly, it turned out), was the real test. I found myself guessing and second-guessing. Was it “good”? Was it “bad”? Maybe, after all, I really didn’t know the difference — never have actually known the difference, and this confounding story was going to make that lifelong imposture plain.

I went back and forth. The story was soundly constructed, with no obvious errors of voice, point of view, or other bad writing. But — I didn’t like it. The concerns seemed petty, the characters true enough to life but self-indulgent and irritating. I made my reservations plain in my remarks, and decided on a NO. The POV character, I complained, was too passive, just sitting and watching and providing a substrate for his friends’ midlife angst, like rye crisp under lox.

A few more weeks went by, and then there it was, the brief note that said I hadn’t been selected. Well, darn it. Where had I messed up? Another day gave me the answer. There, published on Recommended Reading, was the in-the-balance story itself, with a glowing note from the Editor, suggesting that the piece, among other things, shared concerns and approaches with the work of Raymond Carver.

Dinged. That was thing two.

Thing three, since I’m not immune to the occasional hint, was to actually go and read the fellow.

Around 2009, twenty years or so after his early death, Carver’s complete fiction was reissued in a single volume. In the same year, a major new biography appeared. The usual reviews and discussion ensued (links at the end of this post). I doubt I’ll break any new ground here, but if you haven’t read him, this may convey some of the flavor.

Hard Times

Carver’s characters don’t coast through life. They’re not generally academics and travelers, like Richard Stern’s protagonists; they don’t attend fundraising dinners or eat at restaurants serving wine by the glass, like some of Lorrie Moore’s. They live in families where marriages are breaking or broken. They go fishing, watch TV, get into fights, sell vitamins door to door. A lot of them drink — a lot. Their epiphanies, if they come, don’t necessarily raise them up. Sometimes quite the opposite.

When it began to be light outside she got up. She walked to the window. The cloudless sky over the hills was beginning to turn white. The trees and the row of two-story apartment houses across the street were beginning to take shape as she watched. The sky grew whiter, the light expanding rapidly up from behind the hills. Except for the times she had been up with one or another of the children (which she did not count because she had never looked outside, only hurried back to bed or to the kitchen), she had seen few sunrises in her life and those when she was little. She knew that none of them had been like this. Not in pictures nor in any book she had read had she learned a sunrise was so terrible as this.

A lot of the work concerns the acids that leach into and eat away at social bonds: fear, distrust, drink, money troubles. We see some characters make choices from which we know right away they won’t recover, and that everything after this is consequence. In “So Much Water, So Close to Home,” a woman’s husband and his friends go on a fishing trip. Shortly, they find a girl, floating face down and naked in the river. For  a day they let her float there, before finally cutting their trip short and calling the sheriff. In an agony, she asks herself and him why they waited. And then she waits, hoping he’ll have a good answer.

Bad marriages and broken marriages are everywhere. Sometimes the exes take okay care of one another. In “Careful”, a fellow’s estranged wife visits him in his new bachelor digs and help him clean his ear. (Yes.) In “Intimacy”, a writer visits his ex-wife, and despite her suspicion that he’s just “hunting for material“, she forgives him past transgressions after a fashion. But sometimes, they don’t. In “A Serious Talk”, a man all but stalks his ex-wife, committing smaller and larger acts of property damage. In “Why Don’t You Dance,” two teenagers stumble on what appears to be a yard sale but which we suspect may be a fellow selling his ex-wife’s dining set out from under her. Over a third of the stories concern failing or failed marriages.

Need, human need, is the basic engine of most fiction. But many of Carver’s characters move on from need to neediness. They cling to each other, hoping to placate their misery or be distracted from it. In “The Student’s Wife,” a woman having trouble sleeping tries desperately to get her husband to stay up with her. But at last, despite himself, he falls asleep, leaving her awake and alone. In “What’s In Alaska,” four friends get together, smoke pot, talk stoned nonsense and push junk food at each other non-stop, as though trying to fill some hole. But again, when the drugs and food are gone, they’re left with just themselves.

There’s plenty of mistreatment in these stories. Often the characters seem unable to help themselves from hurting others. They watch their own destructive courses almost like spectators. A husband seems almost dumbfounded that he can’t keep his hands off a hotel maid. He knows what it will do to his marriage, and it does. In “Vitamins,” more adultery. A filter-less vet, just back from the war, gets in our protagonist’s face, calls him on his obvious behavior. It makes an impression, but the behavior doesn’t change.

Many though certainly not all of the stories lie under a slick, a sick miasma of hopelessness and worry. You have no more sense this will get cleaned up than you can imagine those glittering swirls of gasoline on a pond surface could be swept away, leaving a clean pond.

I Don’t Know You, I Don’t Even Know Me

Like many a modern author, Carver steps away from omniscience. We can see inside the point-of-view character, to an extent, but the others we can see only through their words and actions. Without access to their thoughts, we’re left to watch them carefully, as do the POV characters themselves, never sure where they’ll swerve to next, or what they may do. As a result, the reader is often holding her breath, just not sure what may explode next. The message comes across: you never really know other people, even if you think you should, even if you think you do. The same is probably true, by implication, for your own claims to self-knowledge as well. In the genuinely disturbing “Why, Honey?” a mother confronts the growing realization that her son is a pathological liar. In “Neighbors” and “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” a couple abuses the privilege of access to someone else’s house. The “why” floats over all of it, unanswered.

But …

Though many of the stories are bring-you-to-your-knees dark, others offer hope. Solicitude wells up through the cracks. People mean well, and find it in themselves to do well, too. “Distance” is a faithful rendering (excruciatingly faithful, if you’ve been a parent) of the stress of having a child who isn’t sleeping well. The couple involved quarrel over whether the husband should go hunting — but when the child finally sleeps, the relief sighs palpably through the story, and the husband and wife find their better selves. In “Careful”, as elsewhere, one person’s need for another isn’t surgically cut off when their marriage ends. He still needs her, for the mundane task of ear-cleaning, and she finds a way to help. In “Where I’m Calling From,” a man in detox listens to a story of a marriage that veers from good to bad to not so bad again. In “Fever,” a single dad looks around for babysitting help, and finds it in the person of an elderly woman who seems to directly prefigure some of the characters in Tom Kealey’s stories. In the next story, the ingenious “Feathers,” a woman who expects to have a bad time at dinner with her husband’s work friend reacts to the couple’s big, ugly baby with improbable delight. In “Cathedral”, a man who expects to be annoyed by a visit from a blind friend of his wife’s ends up helping the man in a riveting and improbable way. Had I read these, especially these more upbeat ones, before reading Tom Kealey, I might have detected a stronger lineage from one author to the next.

All in All

Carver has clearly been foundational for several generations of fiction writers. If you like your fiction deft, realistic, unafraid of dirt, occasionally unmerciful, you should read him. The friend who recommended him made a good point — it’s hard to take a book of his stories out of the library. If you read them on a deadline, you may overdose on his strong medicine.

See Also

The New York Review of Books on Carver’s collected stories and biography, 2010

Wikipedia on Carver’s sometime editor Gordon Lish

The NYRB piece is well worth reading for its comments on the 2009 Collected Stories: in particular, on Carver’s relationship with editor Gordon Lish, and how Lish may have been responsible for some of what made some of Carver’s early stories so good. The new collection apparently includes versions of a number of stories that precede Lish’s edits, and in the view of the author of the above review, the result isn’t to Carver’s credit. Instead of his devastatingly laconic turns, we see some overwrought and sentimental speechifying. Sobering, and makes one wonder whether the “so-called author” people might not be onto a little something. In the case of editing work such as Lish’s on Carver, Maxwell Perkins’ on Thomas Wolfe, or Ben Wasson’s on Faulkner, should the “author” alone be credited? Perhaps the editor deserves credit as well. Listing all collaborators is standard fare in the sciences, but perhaps somehow anathema in the “arts”, with their ongoing cult of the sole creator.