Been reading Raymond Carver lately. Something I resisted for a while. I’d never really heard of him until someone compared a piece I’ve been working on to a Carver story. What better way to inspire me to avoid reading something?
Anyway, after I got stuck about 80% of the way through this draft, I saw a review of a Carver anthology—and I caved.
So here I am, deep into the world of this troubled man. It’s not like I could ever have competed with Carver in his womanizing and athletic drinking. But that’s more because I never had an easy way with women, and simply did not have the physical capacity to drink so hard. On the other hand, I could easily match Carver in narcissistic suffering and self deception, and in his knack for hopeless relationships.
Where Carver blows me away, however, is in his despairing outlook. Is utter bleakness such a necessity?
Well, maybe not utterly bleak. There are pinpoints of hope, glimmers of devotion—like the kindly old couple recalled by Holly in “Gazebo.” There is a smudge of humanity—however grudgingly acknowledged—in the narrator’s growing acceptance of the blind man in “Cathedral.” When he allows the blind man to place his hand on his own as he sketches the cathedral, one gets a sense of redemption, of rising above this pervasive negativity, of stepping outside the prison of close mindedness.
A smudge of humanity, barely discernable amid the greys and blacks of alcoholism, infidelity, and poverty.
Carver offers us these small treasures, but to quarry them we must immerse ourselves in his grimy world of betrayal, disappointment, and tragedy. Nor is there any compensation in the prose itself; no soaring phrases, no music, no poetry—his style is the essence of “prosaic.”
But how would I have Carver write differently? Could I ask him to pull his punch, or sweeten it with flowery phrases? His editor Lish took his early stories and pruned them, honed them, left them terse and taut. In his last years, Carver published the original versions—longer, layered, nuanced.
I’m not sure where in his opus the story “Intimacy” occurs, but it is an example of relatively short piece, a tone poem of obsessive dialogue—spiraling, oscillating, and going nowhere. It was in reading it aloud to my wife that the richness of the story came out. Using the simplest phrases, the simplest vocabulary, Carver develops a textured fabric that at the same time reveals with great clarity what it covers.
Some useful tools here.