By Raymond Carver
In between school and thinking about how much I hate school and pretending I’m an adult who doesn’t have to go to school, there are weeks I don’t have much time to read. I’ll have a few spare minutes of mindless waiting here and there and in the spirit of avoiding conversation, I’ve developed a habit of always carrying a book of short stories on my person.
I’m surprised how many people seem to despise short stories, finding them frivolous, not worth the time, either too ambiguous in their morals or not ambiguous enough. Friends scoff at me, denouncing anything short as meaningless, weak, full of a lot of nothing, and I pull up the Wikipedia page of Napolean Bonaparte and drop my microphone.
“But,” you still say, “novels are so much more rewarding! Worlds and characters worth knowing cannot be crafted with sparse language.” To thee I say, “Way to use the word ‘cannot,’ and also you art wrong, sir! Hast thou not heardst of Raymond Carver?”
Or more accurately: have you seen the movie ‘Birdman,’ wherein a theatre produces a play version of Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’? Michael Keaton’s in it and the camerawork, my God, is a sight for sore eyes. Rent it on Redbox or something. Or don’t. I can’t tell you how to live your life.
Carver achieved acclaim as one of the best short story writers around- he was an American Alice Munro, if you will, although his prose reads more like a curt recounting of last Friday night’s sad barhopping than Munro’s arthouse-film-worthy dialogue. In his collection ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ Carver focuses his snapshots on middle class America, failing relationships, men undergoing emotional transitions- but trust me, it’s not as tiring to read as it sounds.
In ‘The Bath,’ a kid gets hit by a car and his mother, well, takes a bath. In ‘Viewfinder,’ a man with a hook hand tries to sell pictures of houses. In ‘Gazebo,’ my personal favorite, a couple discusses the cesspool of nostalgic retellings that their marriage has become. The seventeen short stories in this volume all contain a faint trace of walking depression, of money woes, of the ghosts of old lovers scratching at IKEA bedposts.
If I’m being honest with myself, Carver’s imagery confronts me when I open my eyes every morning. I see his version of America when I go to the grocery store, when I people-watch at King of Prussia, when the phone rings. Maybe I’m obsessed with the notion of hidden tragedy, sure, but at least Carver’s tragedy is short and Clorox-clean, like he forgot what he was writing halfway through and wrote summaries of Russian novels instead. You can fly through Carver’s compilation in bird's eye view, soaring over rows of beige rooftops, pausing to listen as tired husbands and wives crumble like veritable Berlin walls. He’s captured suburbia and spat it out in spot-on puddles of feeling and sepia. He’s taken the complexity, the exhaustion of everyday life and condensed it into tales I can read while avoiding eye contact with that smelly guy in my english class. If literature is about escapism, if escapism is about confronting reality through the lense of a man with a gentle hand, Carver is king of the confused, disillusioned masses.
In short: I am in awe of Carver and if he were still alive I’d find out where he lived and take polaroids of him eating from inside his bushes.
“That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.” ~ Raymond Carver, ‘Gazebo’
I’ve been reading too many books about adultery lately.
I never thought one could read too many books about adultery- after all, what better a subject to consume the entirety of one’s waking hours- yet here I am. Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Gabriel Marquez, Fitzgerald - it seems a lot of dead dudes thought about cheating. Maybe a lot of alive dudes think about it too; I’m no clairvoyant. I’ve spent the past month reading divorce statistics in the United States, in other countries, on Mars. The whole thing’s got me thinking about what marriage is, this day and age, and what we as a society have come to hold sacred.
Sometimes I go outside to get sunlight and water my leaves. Eat a scoop of fertilizer. My friends are all like, “OMG look look look” and I’m like, “What hot guy? And do you have any thoughts about the evolution of marriage as a possibly outdated, merely economic-based institution?”
It has come to my attention that no one wants to have this discussion.
In the hopes of mending my social standing, last weekend I re-read my favorite Stephen King novel to put me in a more conversation-friendly mindset. Yeah, I realize the irony underlying this. Sometimes a girl just wants to switch from reading about adultery to death, you know? I was in the mood for either King or Twilight and come on, don't make me go down the Edward vs. Jacob road again. That was a dark time.
So. Different Seasons by the Master of Craft, Stephen King. I read this gem a few years ago during my pizza-face acne stage, and the novel almost blocked out all the nightmares I had of kids trying to eat my greasy red face. (Sometimes I dream of hordes of Abercrombie-sporting kids placing pepperonis on my cheeks while I’m tanning on a sunbathed beach, but that’s the fault of Albert Camus, not King. Thanks Camus.)
Different Seasons contains four different novellas: ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,’ ‘Apt Pupil,’ ‘The Body,’ and ‘The Breathing Method.’ Most human beings living in the US have heard of ‘Shawshank’ because of the film based off of it, and the book’s far better than that stupid movie but you knew that, you smart well-read person you.
Who cares about ‘Shawshank,’ though, when you have ‘Apt Pupil,’ which was also made into a movie I hate talking about. ‘Apt Pupil’ really is the only reason I’m writing this review. The other three novellas are stellar, typical King with some great character work to boot, but ‘Apt Pupil’ is something else.
A boy suspects his elderly immigrant neighbor of being a Nazi war criminal, and get this- the neighbor is a Nazi war criminal! It all goes awesomely twisted from there. Light reading to complement the optimistic daily news, you know?
As a deftly-crafted thriller ‘Apt Pupil’ can stand alone, but it’s so much more than a typical Tuesday night for King enthusiasts. The novella explores the manifestation of curiosity, the psychological effects of blackmail, the brain’s odd relation to control, and the origins of prejudice and hate; the story discusses where violence starts and raises the ubiquitous question: are certain people born evil, or is evil something that must be carefully crafted by the midnight recesses and playgrounds of our minds?
I haven’t decided which is worse for maintaining friendships, reading about adultery or boys obsessed with Nazis.
I’ll get back to you on that.
Great Winter Reads!
Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh
It may be icy and cold here in Chester County but I was transported to sun-drenched Kenya in Jennifer McVeigh’s Leopard at the Door. This nail biter takes place in 1952 as the Mau Mau organize with the intent of uniting the Kenyans and overthrowing the colonial British.
Eighteen-year old Rachel returns to her father at the family farm in Kenya after spending 6 years in boarding school in England after the death of her mother. She expects her idyllic childhood to resume but is quickly caught up in conflict with her father’s new love interest and with the violence between the Kenyans and local colonials.
She steps into further conflict when she begins a relationship with a young Kenyan, something totally forbidden by both cultures.
What makes this more than a trite love story is McVeigh’s skillful exploration of the complexity inherent in colonialism and human rights. The bad guys are really bad (something essential to a great story) but the reader’s challenge is to figure out just who the bad guys really are. Just who is the leopard at the door?
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Transport yourself to the edge of the Russian wilderness where winter lasts the better part of the year. This is a world where families live in harmony with household spirits who protect those within from evil creatures inhabiting the forests. Our heroine, Vasilisa, and her family prosper until Vasilisa’s mother dies and a new stepmother introduces a new priest from Moscow to the community. The old ways are left behind, the household spirits weaken, and evil stalks closer threatening all with destruction. Vasilisa was born with gifts that many see as witchcraft but it is those gifts that ultimately save the community.
I loved the fantasy element to this story – horses talk and fly, household spirits live in the hearth, and seemingly fictional fairy tale characters like Morozko (Jack Frost) display magical powers. This story is colorful and rich with culture like a matryoshka doll.
The Bear and the Nightingale is book one in a trilogy.
One of the things I love about reading is that I can be transported into lives and places I personally have not lived – reading expands my thinking, entertains my senses and broadens my view of the world.
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop