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’
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop