Raymond Carver’s Call if you need me

“Nobody can write so simply about ordinary things as you can.”

– Gorky (in a letter to Chekhov)

Maybe not, but they can come pretty damn close. And that’s exactly what Raymond Carver’s short stories (collected in What we talk about when we talk about love, Cathedral and Where I’m calling from) manage to do. These are short stories of breathtaking simplicity, narratives stripped to so bare an essence that they seem to exist in an atmosphere all their own, a thinner, clearer light that magnifies the most human of gestures into something stark and universal. There is little drama in these stories – they seem unplanned, almost candid – yet it is precisely this lack of frenzy that makes them deeply meaningful, as though Carver had succeeded in capturing the fundamental Ordnariness of our lives. It’s as if someone had picked up a camera and just filmed a few random scenes from your everyday existence, only it turned out that the scenes he picked were scenes from everyone else’s existence as well as your own. Comparisons to Hemingway are inevitable I suppose (and personally, I’ve always thought Hemingway’s shorter work his best) but for me Carver is the finer writer, because his prose is less posturing and more amenable to emotion than Hemingway’s.

Call if you need me is a collection of five posthumous short stories coupled with a body of Carver’s unpublished work including essays, introductions and some early stories. While the other stuff is interesting enough (and some of the early stories are fascinating – particularly one called Hair where a hair stuck between the protagonist’s teeth becomes a metaphor for doubt and the nagging sense of a life gone wrong) the highlight of the book is undoubtably the five unpublished stories. These showcase Carver at his finest. There is that same sense of calm suspense, a dull yearning ache of supressed anguish that informs the narrative like a cloud soundlessly gathering; and then the ending breaks through the inertia to shed the trembling light of its understanding on all that has passed before.

There is nothing particularly exceptional about the plots of these stories. Rather, they are, in strict adherence to a creed laid down by Chekhov and cited by Carver at the start of the book, ordinary stories about ordinary people. A homeless and recovering alcoholic spends a few days as a paying guest in a new city, trying to discover some meaning to his life; a couple enjoy a final meal with their landlords before going their seperate ways for the winter; a husband and wife watch as their neighbour is struck by tragedy, and wonder what they can do for her; a man meets his wife’s old friends and silently confronts the ghosts of his and his wife’s past; a middle-aged couple try, and fail, to keep their marriage together. These are sad, lonely stories – portraits of quiet desperation, of lives made fragile by time and emotion. Yet Carver, with his simple, straightforward prose manages to discover in them a timeless beauty, manages to find, with clinical accuracy, the pulse of the poetry that they beat with.

One of Carver’s key insights is that the heart’s fences are not easily patrolled, that the landscape of emotion gives way reluctantly, if at all, to boundaries of action. We are who we are, Carver seems to say, and while a combination of personality and circumstance may make it inevitable that we make certain decisions, act in certain ways, these cannot change what we feel for each other. The habits of the heart die hard.

It is this recognition that lends Carver’s characters a certain tenderness, a reluctant grace. When the couple in the story that gives the book its title finally decide that their marriage is over they do not separate with bitter curses or barely repressed anger. Instead, the decision to part becomes, for them, a kind of release – so that they linger in the dying twilight of their togetherness, sharing the small intimacies of being together for the last time. Carver’s great gift is that he understands that there is no contradiction here – that it is possible to both deeply care for someone without actually wanting to be with them. This is not duplicity, it is the reality of human desire. We do what we must, but we feel what we can. [1]

My own introduction to Carver came primarily through his poems, which share with his fiction both a simplicity of wording and the ability to leave you breathless with insight. Since then I have come to read and re-read his writing, until my admiration for his work has come to express itself in attempts (both conscious and unconscious) to emulate his style. Call if you need me is a small yet important step in that journey, a loose clutch of scattered little gems that is a must read for Carver fans everywhere.

Links:

a. Talk about coincidences – I sit down to write this and discover that Karthik has a post on Carver’s Where I’m calling from. Go read.

b. For more on Carver’s poetry, see Minstrels – particularly this submission, that says everything I wanted to say about Carver’s poems better than I could myself.

Notes:

[1] In one of Carver’s early stories (included in this collection) a young man who is to be publicly sacrificed and the woman who is to be his executioner fall in love. Carver describes beautifully how they spend their last day together, ending up on an altar in the stadium where they lovingly bid farewell to each other before she cuts his heart out.

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