I read a Raymond Carver book recently. Here are three thoughts and an explanation.
The Second-Most-Interesting Character
‘Collectors:’ An unemployed man is visited by a vacuum cleaner salesman. It’s a weird little story and not among his best work. At the end the salesman rather inscrutably takes a letter addressed to the narrator. Carver doesn’t give us much to do with this, and in a workshop you’d expect harsh words about endings you haven’t prepared your reader to comprehend—firing a raygun in the third act after bringing a water pistol onstage in the first.
What the story does do well—and this isn’t unique to Carver (cf Gatsby)—is narrate from the second-most-interesting (sometimes least-interesting) character’s perspective. Carver’s narrator doesn’t have much going on. At the beginning of the story he’s unemployed and afraid of bill collectors; later he’s anxious that the salesman will expect him to buy a vacuum. The salesman, on the other hand, is an incredible character, and you sense it’s in him that the story began. He talks his way into the house, seeming feverish—then hands the man a blank card and through his sales pitch makes quiet, embarrassed allusions to Rilke and Voltaire. It’s excellent writing, kind of. You come away with a very rich sense of the salesman’s frustrating internal literary life—the man knows Rilke, hocks vacuums to the unemployed—but again it’s not tied to any meaningful element of the story’s conclusion.
In later, better work Carver abandons the literary subtext but keeps the really effective thing—the narration by the second-most-interesting (or the least interesting) character. In Carver, if a man finds a corpse on a hunting trip, we’ll hear about it from his wife. If Mel McGinniss is a prick, we’ll hear about it judgment-free from his friend in Albuquerque. If a deaf-mute kills himself after his salmon pond is washed out in a flood, we’ll hear about it from one of his coworkers’ sons.
Writing, like everything else, is about finding chances to do what you’re good at. If you’re Raymond Carver, you’re good at dully vicious conversations between people who are sleeping with each other, and the gravy of cliches these conversations sit in. If he wrote ‘I’ for the most interesting characters, he’d be pulled away from this—he’d have to at least consider writing about people’s internal lives. He might have to find language for epiphanies, for mind-changing, for dynamic characters. [Errand, the bizarre last story in the current collection and what looks to me like a touching failure to imitate Kundera, is ample evidence that this simply doesn’t work for him.] The second-most-interesting perspective lets Carver stay in his comfort zone–he just keeps writing his narration and allows the interesting people to express themselves with dialogue and action.
“This is no picnic, this nuthouse”
In another Carver short, ‘One More Thing,’ a man named L.D. leaves his wife and daughter. In trademark Carver fashion—his rule seems to be ‘let the reader do the work,’—the strength of his feelings is more obvious than their source. As he’s deciding to leave the best he can do is “Believe me, this is no picnic, this nuthouse,” and in the last line of the story his parting shot begins with “I just want to say one more thing,” but he can’t think of what thing. The language is barren. Why?
A lot of writing is deciding how gently to enter into the stream of readers’ consciousness. Your revolutionaries try to whack that consciousness into a different shape—Kerouac, Joyce, Foster Wallace, etc., but not Flaubert who was a revolutionary gentle-enterer. [The quote probably ought to have been ‘Madame Bovary, c’est nous’ but even for a novelist that would’ve been pretty self-important.] Carver follows the Flaubert path. He narrates from the perspective of drab people interacting with others who are often drab and sometimes interesting. While none of us are Raymond Carver characters full time, I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that most people are drab more often than they’re interesting.
Carver’s protagonists, in general, have the same relationship to readers that Barthes’ scriptors have to writers. They process without attributing meaning. Even when it’s their own lives at issue they’re far more likely to wander around the living room, or think about the weather, than to think actively about their lives. They’re practically translucent: we read through them, more often than not, assessing actions rather than the personalities. This has a few good effects—we see ourselves more readily in them and can assess their lives by our own principles.
It also means that Carver can’t afford to let his protagonists develop too much in the way of specific personalities. You won’t hear a Carver narrator or main character obsessing over his stamp collection, or reflecting on their childhoods, or using metaphorical language in the course of everyday life. If they’re to become translucent—as translucent as Mario or the smiley face—they have to use language and express sentiments that everyone’s at least heard before. The implications for the prose style are vast. Carver’s narration—so connected to the characters—has to follow in these well-worn footsteps as well. For this reason, reading Carver can often feel like reading a quilt of particularly moving clichés. He never uses a fresh metaphor when a dead one will do, never a sharp word when he has a dull one. [He does seem to give himself a little more freedom in about the last fifty words of each story.] Much of his style reads as the result of a purposeful effort to remove any thoughts or expressions that might remind the reader of the difference between him/herself and the story taking place.
This is probably one reason why Carver is so often recommended to writers who are ‘learning the craft.’ The thing he does well is pretty far outside of the standard bildungsroman I’m-the-next-so-and-so revolutionary-writer dream that on anecdotal evidence gets most people into writing—that thing comes from wanting attention to be paid, from a sense of injured merit and of personal creative potential. To write like Carver, one presumes, would require a thorough sublimation of those urges, a decision against stardom, against the writer-as-hero. This isn’t for everyone—but it’s hard to imagine a writer who’d be better off without at least understanding this.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Carver
Carver’s characters: they’re men and women, mostly white, from service and clerical professions: mailmen, salesmen, secretaries, waitresses, corporate anonymity. There’s a writer in an early story but the trend doesn’t last. And the stories told about these characters are bleak. They’re emotionally barren, morally exhausted, and—though critical of their partners—relentlessly incapable of self-criticism.
Why would we read this? Why adore it? Who are we? Certainly Carver’s audience, at least today, does not consist of exhausted janitors and their neglected girlfriends. Instead, it’s people like me—younger, probably as white, but more professional and (in our own heads) far more intelligent than his characters. Writers, frequently, or readers of literary fiction at the very least. People who pride themselves on self-awareness, on emotional subtlety and moral energy.
Say that all art contains somewhere a consolation—a hidden message for our hearts, one that relieves some of our discomfort with the world. For us, reading Carver, the consolation is a dirty and perhaps a condescending one. We interact with characters who are very far away from us. Their lives are no picnic. And it is very easy live in New York, as I do, and wear shirts from Banana Republic, as I do, and read of the rural underemployed, who leave their children with their mothers and move to find a job, and think of how much better one’s own life is, and how awful it would be to fight and not know why, and how glad one is to be a different kind of person, one who reads books and is patient with one’s lovers.
Yet if we found nothing in common with Carver we could barely read it: and the truth is that we, readers, are not so wonderful as we might imagine. There is more of us in Carver’s desperate nights, and more of Carver’s desperate nights in us, that we might prefer admitting. We recognize Mel McGinnis telling Laura to shut up—the urge is ours if not the act. We recognize, in ‘Where I’m Calling From’ the young couple once in love and now together only to be drinking. Yet this only makes the consolation more complete: it allows us to identify those pieces of ourselves we like the least, and call them something from a lower class. What does Carver’s fiction do? On one reading, it allows us to look down on poorer, dumber people, and to feel better about our own lives.
It’s hard to pass a very thorough judgment on the writer himself: Carver is a technician and a good one. But as for us, his readers, it would be very easy to be uncharitable. It would be very easy to read his short fiction, in his readers’ imagination, as a terrifying fantasy of otherness—as a Protocols of the Elders of Peoria, an artifact of the primitive class-orientalism we readers pretend ourselves above, but are not. I include myself.
*Origin, briefly: I’m making an active effort to read more but it seems like you have to also make an active effort to read actively. Picked up Carver because he represented something to me about MFA and American Realism. Read a book of shorts which I actually really enjoyed. Miglior fabbro and all that. Wanted to think more coherently about what made him him though, wanted to steal some things. Started writing a short in and around his style but it ran into some difficulties—wanted to both use his style and actively discuss his legacy in a particular character’s brain. Turns out interiority is like really hard when you’re using Carver’s tools. Feels like the guys who play video games and try not to kill anything—it’s just not what it’s there for. Anyways, felt I had some relevant thoughts on the guy and felt writing them down would be good.
As for the structure of this piece: after writing two nonfiction pieces recently that sort of miraculously assembled themselves, I began thinking I could handle these extremely complicated fugue-type-things which would weave in a thing, the implications of that thing, prior iterations of the thing, some extrinsic event I thought was related, and ultimately a big thesis about futures. I’ve tried three and they’ve all collapsed under their own weight. Here, instead, I decided to just succinctly say the things I thought about Carver and not try to weave it into any revelation about twitter or the hunger games. It feels good! But it’s also a bit less formal. If I was feeling more pretentious I’d call this (and what I’m hoping will be similar pieces on other writers) Cahiers: Raymond Carver. But I’m not, so: three thoughts.