If you love short stories you can’t ignore Raymond Carver, even if like me, you’ve rarely been impressed by him. There’s the possibility with these kinds of seminal influences that those who have followed in his footsteps are far more sprightly and sure of foot than this dreary and dour ‘American Chekhov.’ Few writers have attributed to them such a clear principle as the ‘less is more’ motto, that seems to have been tattooed to Carver’s forehead.
Before this goes too far in one direction, there are some stories Carver wrote that even I must concede offer a kind of perfection in concision. His story ‘Fat’ is a case in point. But yesterday I found myself buying another book of stories by the guy, and I’m wondering why, since I’ve yet to get all the way through, ‘Will You Please be Quiet, Please?’ I just read the story from that collection called, ‘They’re Not Your Husband,’ and found myself thinking, ‘yeah, whatever’ like a distracted shopping mall princess.
It’s not just that he’s depressing but I kind of already know that the world is often pathetic and miserable. Make it worth my while, is all I’m saying, if you’re going to piss on my shoes.
I know why I bought the book though. It was a great interview I read a few weeks ago with Richard Ford, who talks about his buddy Ray to great effect; and there’s the Murakami biography. So I bought ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ And I like the title, though it doesn’t exactly seem in keeping with the Master of Minimalism — having a nine word title. You’d think he’d be brave enough to cut it back to just that one word at the end of it. I can’t promise to read it all. But I’m going to read the first story and tell you what I think. Who knows? Maybe I’ll finally see the light. Or do I mean the opposite? In any case, I’ve got my eyes open.
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I read ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ and felt the six and a bit pages were about six pages too long. I mean, if he’s going to cut away any reason for what happens in this strange story about a guy who moves all his furniture out onto his front lawn, and also cut away any background to the guy or the couple that come to use his furniture, he might as well cut away the rest.
Michael Wood wrote an interesting analysis of Raymond Carver for The New York Times, called ‘Stories Full of Edges and Silences.’ He concludes by saying, “In Mr. Carver’s silences, a good deal of the unsayable gets said.”
Carver seems like one of those guys who keeps his silence so that he can seem dark, mysterious, brooding, etc. A performance rather than an actual aspect of deep intelligence. What’s maddening is that Michael Wood, like so many other critics and authors, works so hard to create this literary aura.
Wood quotes Carver, and interprets what it signifies: “’She seemed anxious, or maybe that’s too strong a word.’ Only a very delicate stylist would worry about the strength of anxious and the milder, perhaps unnamable quality of feeling that hides behind this attempt at description.”
Really? Maybe she was perturbed or worried. Troubled, perhaps? What about uneasy? How has this attempt at description, and failure, come to represent the ‘unnamable’ delicate mixture of ephemeral emotions? It does sound like a lovely idea, but then, that’s kind of the job of the writer, isn’t it? That’s why we admire the ones that do it well, like Chekhov, and not the desperately inferior American knock-off.
The key word is stylist. There’s a tough swagger to the way Carver moves through his sentences. But it feels like cowboy bluster and a John Wayne drawl. Another cowboy stylist is Cormac McCarthy but with this author, we do get insights into characters that show us, without doubt, that his characters have subtle, complex and ranging inner lives, and consequently their author’s ability to reveal them to us when it’s required.
Carver didn’t invent minimalism. At best he made it fashionable. In my mind the greatest exemplar of a minimalism that worked, was Hemingway. He wrote, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” And that was it. Brief but complete. Succinct, sufficient, sharp. Fully amplified and mind blowing.
And yet I find myself only midway through my thoughts on Carver. Maybe it’s because the idea of concision is still an appealing one. I know I’ll keep reading him despite this feeling that he’s overhyped, and that those he’s influenced, like Richard Ford and Denis Johnson, have done a far better job with his brand of minimalism.