Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

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John Green – Paper Towns

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You can trace growth if you follow Green’s novels in the order they came out. In Alaska, he used literature as a way to live his fantasies. On Stars, he used literature to come to terms with a devastating experience. Paper Towns is a direct response to Alaska. If that one was wish-fulfillment, this is about bursting the fantasy.

Only Green can’t completely abandon it. The similar cast isn’t because of a lack of ideas. It’s the same story as before but it’s told differently. This time everyone is more flawed, slightly less quirky. The teenagers are no longer a bunch of outcasts who conquer the world because outcasts are charming. They’re a bunch of losers who know their place and try to break away from it.

It’s more realistic in places. Being an outcast is only fun if you have a huge group of it. You still wish you were one of the popular kids who have more fun than you. You still have the same desires for women and big social events. These desires of wanting to break out add a degree of realism that’s important. Green blurs a little the duality of the Cute Nerds and Asshole Jocks.

Then he completely slides into wish-fulfillment fantasy again. Asshole jocks get their payback, and there’s a little sympathy but mostly sadistic glee. A complete loser whose ¬†one major achievement is blending in with the cool boys somehow wins the heart of a hot girl. Our protagonist, who’s mostly an unpleasant loser too wins the heart of the ultimate girl.

If only Green could see through it all. Margo is better than Alaska, but by not much. The main idea behind her is ripping off the curtian of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Quentin is John Green when he lusted after that girl, only Green now knows that women don’t exist to bring excitement into men’s worlds. They’re supposed to be flawed human beings like us.

How flawed is Margo though? It’s clever how Green rarely shows her good traits. We get them mostly second-hand from Quentin, emphasizing that it’s just his perception. There isn’t enough of the counter story, or the counter story doesn’t match the novel’s concluso.

Margo is a spoiled brat, a horrible person, the sort of person who’ll fall in love with an abusive rock star and justify it. We’re meant to think she’s flawed, but Green is unaware of how terrible she is. She’s an angsty teenager with no reason to be angsty. Her only problem in life is that the world around her is ‘fake’ or some bullshit philosophy like that.

What’s so ‘fake’ about the suburbs, though? Margo actually leads an exciting life in Orlando. She has everyone wanting her. She has the guts to take trips and midnight drives. Her environment doesn’t really confine her, since she could still go through all kinds of adventures while still studying and graduating. Margo’s myth is questioned, but not her desires. Her desires are just every silly teenager’s fantasy.

Only the jocks and the nerds are mature enough to understand you can’t live your life as a constant, glorious adventure. Humans are social animals and you have to be a part of the community even if only for your own good. Green never looks at how ridiculous and self-centered this is. He’s willing to admit women don’t exist for men’s pleasure, but he’s still selling us the fantasy of the Ultimate Girl.

Maybe I could’ve bought it if Margo was genuinaly weird. She’s not. She reminds me a lot of a certain person. It’s the sort of privilege that gives birth into hedonists with expansive vocabulary. Margo may read literature and use big words but in the end all she wants to do is have fun. She’s a kid who refuses to grow up. When her parents express disdain I was told outright how terrible they are. All I really thought was, they’re right. Margo is horrible. There isn’t enough psychology to her to make that horrible-ness interesting, so I just wanted for somthing bad to happen to her

The storytelling is often more convinient than realistic or weird. The characters are quirky in charming ways, not in odd or conflicting ones. There’s a brief rift in the friendship between Ben and Quentin which is the most exciting part of the novel, but it only lasts for a few pages.

During these few pages Green proves he can be a good writer. He can ask questions and not just emotionally manipulate. It’s a fight between friends, the kind that throws in their face the fact they’re changing. Bubbles bursting are always exciting because that’s when our worldview changes, when we’re in an emotional storm. Green just writes it away so quickly.

The novel could’ve easily taken a better route. What if instead of it being about finding Margo, Green made it about growing up and realizing how stupid our teenage dreams are? What if it’s about realizing there’s no Ultimate Girl, that the jocks are people too, that hot girls can have a personality and that we have to live with rejection?

The ending isn’t too happy, but the kissing was forced. There’s no reason for Quentin and Margo to be together. Quentin is an observer protagonist whose main trait is that he’s a self-centered asshole who only cares about his own fantasies (That’s not addressed). I already commented about Margo. I don’t think ‘unpleasantness’ is the sort of trait that makes for romantic relationship. Since when did hedonistic girls like Margo have long crushes on boring, timid guys like Quentin?

Green’s prose is good though. It flows quickly and he has a better tone here. It’s more sombre and reflective which fits with his desires to question his fantasies. The banter remains out of place, though. Only Ben’s wisecracks have anything to do with his personality. Quentin suddenly becomes clever for a second and then goes back to being Shinji Ikari without the psychology.

The theme of suicide also crops up in a few instances, but then it comes back to the hole. Sometimes the novel is on the verge of understanding it. The cliches of how you should never give up don’t appear. Anytime he comes close to saying something interesting he chickens out. He wasn’t ready for this yet.

It’s a decent novel and Green is an expert in manipulating emotions. It’s almost commendable and I’m sure I’d eaten this up if I was in high school. I’m no longer there and I see through my fantasies. There are a lot of good moments and good writing, especially in the middle. Green’s strength in at least capturing how teenagers feel like is here. It’s sad that he uses this mostly to wallow in his own fantasies. He can write insightful. He can write a Young Adult novel that will crack open the genre but this is not it.

2.5 manic pixie dream girls out of 5

The Doors – The Doors

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I wonder if people who think ‘music isn’t as good as it used to be’ are taking the same drugs the Doors were into. You don’t have to go too far into modern times for this to sound dated. A year after this came out Iron Butterfly dropped “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. It was the same year the famous version of “Just Dropped In” was released. How did this stick in people’s consciousness?

I can understand why, but it’s not a flattering reason. The Doors sound like the protoypical ‘classic rock’ album. It’s a little loud, it has sex in it and some psychedelia to give it an edge. It has some long songs and it sounds very important. That’s the difference between “Light My Fire” and that Iron Butterfly song. Iron Butterfly just got a banging bassline and rode for 17 minutes. The Doors were sure they discovered new frontiers.

Maybe they did back then. The record has some charm in how big it is and how much it thinks of itself. Every song is deliberate, revolving a clear idea. The sequencing makes perfect sense. The first is a fast-paced rocker. The second is a macho pick-up-women song. The third is a weirder psychedelic ballad. The band wisely chooses these songs to introduce people to basics. “Light My Fire” comes later, after you’re used to the band to show you they can be weird.

Of course, ‘weird’ back then meant long songs and free improvisation. “Light My Fire” just sounds like an ordinary rock song with a jamming session. It works there because finally the band lets out all the energy they have. Add an extra minute or so to that section and the song wouldn’t be any worse.

The difference between that song and everything else is that it’s less caught up in making a statement. Compare it to “The End” (which sounded way better when I saw Apocalypse Now). “The End” doesn’t justify its length. The band tries hard to let you know this is the climatic ending with drum rolls, a serious atmosphere and Jim Morrison telling you it’s the end. The result is just showing off, but no energy or fun or substance. On “Light My Fire”, they just bang their instruments.

The album is part of the era before Rock was divorced from its rock influence. It’s no wonder artists were so confused. Only later artists like Black Sabbath and Five Horse Johnson knew how Blues worked and combined it with loud guitars. The band thinks being theatrical equals to being bluesy. The cultural appropriation debate is pretty stupid, but not as “Back Door Man”. It’s better than Led Zeppelin’s attempts, but it sounds the guys heard some Blues on the radio and made a song based on a few parts.

Even at their best, it’s just serviceable classic rock to play in bars so no one would get offended. There’s nothing really annoying about “Soul Kitchen” or “Break On Through”. They’re pretty catchy and fun, but they don’t have that attitude that made “Just Dropped In” so successful.

Psychedelic Rock can work in two ways. Either the band sounds like they’re off in another dimension, or that they make a melodic, pleasant song with weird sounds. The Doors only try the former on “The End” and “End of the Night”. Neither of them are weird enough, but the latter is good enough to make it the blueprint for the next album. When they try the other method, they make some pleasant music but nothing like the Zombies or Monster Magnet or “Planet Caravan”. The worst are the songs where their sense of self-importance comes through. “Take It As It Comes” is the sort of Classic Rock crap that ignorant listeners think is ‘meaningful’.

I heard that Morrison’s lyrics are supposed to be a big deal. I hear nothing attention-grabbing. No lyrics are bad or good. What exactly is a soul kitchen? I don’t know, but the song doesn’t make me care to find out. It’s easy to assume Morrison just wants to have sex with that woman. Weird lyrics that don’t make sense are a lot of fun. Even if the lyrics were moronic, I would’ve enjoyed them. Morrison’s lyrics are just various ways to tell a woman he wants sex without the vulgarity. It’s less impressive on record.

There are some fun songs here, but what’s the point? The psychedelic parts are rudimentary and you’re better off with their next album, or any of Monster Magnet’s psychedelic works. If you enjoyed the bluesy stuff here, check their own L.A. Woman or Black Sabbath. The Doors sound excited here. It does make these ideas sound new, but everyone – including the band – improved on this.

2 doors out of 5

Melanie Martinez – Cry Baby

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Melanie is late to the game. There has been a wave of Pop singers who sound like a response to the abundance of empowerment anthems. You know this style has been bled dry when Sia tries to write a vulnerable song about alcoholism and ends up ripping off “Titanium”.

Lana Del Rey was about the darker side of hedonism and hot bad guys. Tove Lo sang about the loneliness that finds even the sexiest women. Although they made great albums, Martinez feels like the true beating this genre needs. Tove Lo and Lana still sang like beautiful people. Melanie is the voice of the outcast.

Thematically, the album has more in common with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. Its structure is similar to the famous album by these two. The songs don’t tell a story as much as they show a psychological journey of a character, who starts off as Cry Baby and ends up as Mad Hatter.

This is not the trouble of a beautiful girl who just needs to choose a different environment. Melanie’s protagonist is an outcast who finds rejection wherever she goes. On “Dollhouse”, she finds no warmth in a family that’s fine only on the surface. On “Carousel” and “Soap”, she’s rejected romantically. The former deserves special mention. It’s one of the few songs where the hopelessness of love is considered.

The rejection climaxes in “Pity Party” and “Tag, You’re It”. In the former, Cry Baby realizes she has nobody. On the latter, someone finally notices her and it’s a sexual predator. Eventually, she uses the same innocence and tenderness she had in the title track for rebellion. Poisoned “Milk and Cookies” get rid of the asshole. The ending is optimistic – she rejects society and its superficiality on “Mrs. Potato Head” and finds joy in “Mad Hatter”.

Superficiality is a big deal here, and in Pop music. How we look, in fact, is a plague that still infects women. Female musicians will still get praised more for their looks than men, as if it has any bearings on the quality. On Little Mix’s “Black Magic” music video, a change of clothes suddenly makes the guy interested.

Melanie is obsessed with how we use fancy covers to hide things. Almost every song here involves bad things having a nice cover, from the dollhouse that hides a dysfunctional family to the poisoned milk and cookies. That’s where Melanie’s childish aesthetic comes into play.

The whole album uses childish aesthetic to express dark themes. The music is the same. The melodies have a nursery rhyme-like quality. Nothing is actually aggressive or loud. “Worth It” is more abrasive musically, but then comes the chorus of “Milk and Cookies”.

While this aesthetic is often brilliant and Melanie sounds like a visionary, it also highlights how inexperienced she is. There’s a reason The Downward Spiral wasn’t Reznor’s first album. Melanie swings between being obvious and delivering just the right line. On “Dollhouse”, you get lines like “Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?”. It’s brilliant in the way it creepily hints at sexual harassment. Then she bluntly states her Dad is having an affair.

She doesn’t stray from the concept, and that’s good. Only two songs feel slightly out-of-place. “Training Wheels” is a love song that’s great on its own but lacks the darkness that will connect it to the rest. “Pacify Her” is the sort of thing I’d expect from Lana Del Rey and Tove Lo. For a brief moment Cry Baby is an attractive girl that can steal others’ boyfriends?

“Mrs. Potato Head” has been already highlighted by many as the best song on the album. It should’ve spread like wildfire through Tumblr and become a meme. It’s an even better anti-beauty anthem than that Manson track. It has no subtly, it doesn’t need any. Someone need to sing “No one will love you if you’re unattractive”. It’s not about plastic surgery, but about our worship of beauty. We wouldn’t need plastic surgeries if we wouldn’t worship beauty like this. It’s also one of the softest songs on the album, and that only makes it cut deeper.

There will be weirder Pop albums, but Cry Baby is the one we need now the most. Its musical backdrop is unique, but not very attention grabbing. It exists to go along with Melanie’s ideas, but she doesn’t expand on them. The most attention-grabbing thing musically is the bass drop in “Soap”, which uses bubbling sounds. The album doesn’t need an overblown sound. Its smallness fits with the childish atmosphere.

The rough edges prevent it from being a classic, but it’s still a brilliant Pop album. It doesn’t even come close to being a “singles with filler” album. The singles are actually some of the weaker tracks. Melanie manages to create a persona of her own and not just create a collection of great songs, but a sequencing that works. It’s also another step forward from the bland empowerment we’ve been plagued with. I wonder what will replace Melanie’s brand of depressed Pop.

4 dollhouses out of 5

Women Have the Absolute Right to Have Sex

We’re at a bar. I might hate myself, but not that much. So I’m drinking a beer that resembles soda less than others – it was Guinness or Weinshtephen, can’t remember. I wasn’t that drunk. Anyway, a girl a (gay) friend of mine knows is there. The world “revealing” doesn’t describe well her clothing. Her whole back’s exposed. She flirts with every guy there. She dances with the bartenders and the waiters. She gets free shots. The lead singer of the band calls her by name and tell her to leave the poor guy next to her alone.

To her credit, they were whiskey shots instead of vodka. The guy she was all over was also pretty big. Most girls I know prefer the skinny.

That’s going off-topic. The reaction to her from my friends is slut. There’s no depth to it. She’s a slut. She’s an idiot. She flirts with everyone and that’s disgusting. I’m supposed to not want to have sex with her because “the whole town was in her”. Gay man talks and jokes with her, but when we meet a few weeks later in someone’s house he talks about how stupid she is.

The exact same thing happened to me a year or two back. There was a time when every second or third week there was a house party. A certain girl came to most of them and she also flirted with everyone. She made out with a friend’s friend who came from overseas. Her outfit was meant to emphasize the shape of her body. My friends wanted her. They also went on and on, angrily, about how a slut she is.

What’s wrong with that?

I once got into a debate with some people on this topic. This is the main arguement. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s just a difference of personal experience.

The girl is passive and the guy is active. The girl works hard on her looks, but she’s not active in the interaction. The guy’s role is to flirt, to start conversation, to lead. He’s supposed to ‘get’ her. She’s supposed to not ‘give up’ easily. The harder the guy works, the more valueable she is. It also means that if you can get a hard to get girl, you’re therefore much more valueable. The girl is the reward.

There is so much wrong with this narrative that I’m not sure where to begin.

First off, if this narrative is true and that’s how it’s supposed to be, what is rape? After all, rape is when the guy ‘gets’ the girl, only his method is force. Since rape is awful and part of why it’s wrong is the lack of consent, it means we need consent in this narrative. However, this narrative doesn’t include it.

What actually happens in real life is not that the guy ‘gets’ the girl, but that the girl agrees to have sex, or go out for coffe, or to an Incubus live show. The girl is an actual active agent who does more than just look good. The girl also filters out the guys she doesn’t want, just as the guy filters the girls he won’t chase after.

There is no ‘hard to get’ because the girl is not something you get. Sex is not something you get. Sex is a shared activity that’s supposed to be fun for both sides, in the same way going out for drinks or to see a movie is. We may have a higher standard for sex. We will have sex with less people than people we go to watch movies with, but it’s supposed to be a shared activity. The girl also wants to enjoy this.

This narrative is also harsh on guys. It puts a death sentence on socially inept guys. If you’re not good at initiating conversations and flirting, you will never enjoy sex or the company of women. Now, I don’t mind that there may a lot of guys who will be forever alone. It’ll be right if it’s because they’re just not attractive, not because of a social mindset that views their behavior as wrong.

If a guy is forever alone because no girl was ever attracted to him, that’s okay. If he’s forever alone because he’s afraid to initiate, and girls who are attracted to him won’t talk to him because ‘it’s the guy’s job’ then it’s society that makes us against our will.

Another important thing that the narrative doesn’t touch is morality. Is there any moral reason not to have sex? Is having sex with a random person hurts anyone? I’m leaving off bad sex – rape, people who have sex just to cope with loneliness and the like. I’m talking about a situation with two people just want to have sex and there’s nothing hidden.

I don’t see how this hurts anybody. It could be I’m missing something. Until then, I will hold that just as it’s okay for a woman to meet me as friends, it’s okay for her to have sex with me as friends.

Sadly, I have this cached thought often. I see these girls and ‘slut’ comes to my mind. There’s a much stronger thought there, though. I love to see girls who flirt with every guy and aren’t afraid to show their sexuality. It’s not just because I’m socially inept and it’s good for me. I wish we could all be this social. I wish we could enjoy our sexuality without guilt. Sadly, even women thing it’s wrong for other women to have sex. I hope the future will be better.