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

Siri Hustvedt – The Summer Without Men

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Chick Lit is a dirty word. Reading other reviews of this novel, many expressed fear that this would be Chick Lit and therefore a waste of time. While I didn’t have the fortune of reading Chick Lit, I heard it’s full of romance and character drama. Why is that considered so bad while Game of Thrones is praised for being ‘surprising’ is unclear. Maybe it’s just our society’s fear of femininty.

Femininity is a big issue in The Summer Without Men. The novel does live up to its title. There’s a moment where, instead of a teenage boy meeting the teenage girl it’s just her friends trapping her. Even the best female singers sing about wrecked relationships, while Marilyn Manson writes about metaphysical rebellions. We could definitely use a story to show us women can have a life outside relationships with men.

It happens in real life, too. I met many ‘tomboys’, women who’d rather be one of the boys and only get along with fellow tomboys. The subtle bullying of Cat’s Eye makes an appearance. The whole premise of the novel is, what do you when the opposite gender rejects you?

There are two possible conclusions here. One is not convincing enough and the other isn’t explored. Mia looks at her rubble and builds a house. That’s nice and all, but we’re just told that it happens instead of seeing it.

Siri employs a style similar to Paul Auster. It’s an introspective style with more telling than showing. It creates a maze of thoughts that you’re supposed to swim through and come up with something of your own. The key to making the style works is to make the narrator unreliable and deeply flawed.

Narrators of such stories tend to have an emotional affliction they can’t get over. It clouds their judgment and so we get two different versions of reality. One is presented in the details. The other is in the langauge and sentence structure. These are often obsessive characters, going over certain details over and over.

By presenting these characters as flawed and often the opposite of heroic, we’re invited to try to find the reality beyond the character’s perception. Mia lacks such an internal struggle. She has a psychotic episode, but we’re told that instead of being shown. In Catcher in the Rye, we’re not told that Caulfield has PTSD but we’re shown it by seeing him going over and over his brother’s death. A maze of thoughts tells us how reality is while showing us who the character is by his choice of langauge.

I never got an idea of who Mia is. What is her complex? What are her priorities? What is her worldview? She’s supposed to have had a psychotic episode, but the prose is clean and precise. It makes it easy to read, but I’d expect someone in an emotional turmoil to not be very coherent. The rambling style was necessary in those aforementioned novels because a character with emotional problems would be too busy venting them then making sure his words make sense.

The closest she come to doing that is breaking up the structure. She moves from topic to topic, rather than follow the typical “this happened and then this happened”. This works because the novel has a few different storylines that stand on their own, but that’s not a way to express Mia’s character. It’s just a way to make us take each individual story on its own, rather than try to make sense of the chronological order.

The stories themselves, while good, don’t rely enough on the rambling narrator tool. Stories with rambling narrators aren’t eventful. It’s less important what happens and more how it affects the characters. The action in this novel doesn’t, if it’s psychological, with Mia’s psychology.

There are two main arcs. One has a group of old ladies slowly dying out, and the other a group of young girls who are just entering the teenage wasteland. At this point, the novel is less about Mia and more about these characters. We get Mia’s opinion of them, but we also get some showing.

Siri needed to decide whether Mia gives us only her point of view, or whether she’s an observer who just reports what she says. We get something in the middle, which means it’s teasing without the orgasm. The arc with the old ladies is well-meaning, but is doomed from the start. One of the old ladies’ secret is that she makes quilts with hidden, profane images.

Siri was, what, 55 when she wrote the novel? There is the perception that old people are all prudes, but making them be into profanity doesn’t add any more life to them. The cliche of the Dirty Old Man or the old woman who seeks a sugar daddy are boring. If the only proof we have that this old lady still has life in her is her interest in profanity, then I don’t think she has much life in her left. Profanity is attention seeking. True rebels don’t care.

Profanity is impressive when you’re young, but by the time high school started it lost its charm. You occasionally get people who know how to use it, like what Bring Me the Horizon did in “Happy Song”. Most people, including the character in this novel, use it for pathetic shock value. When Abigail showed Mia that she put naked women in hidden in the quilt, I did not see an old lady with life still in her. I saw an old lady whose horizons are now so limited she can’t imagine anything more exciting other than profanity. By the way, this novel was published before Bring Me the Horizon’s album.

The almost-teenagers work better, but they deserve a whole novel to themselves. They are forced to write about the incident of bullying from the perspective of everyone else. This is a brilliant idea. How a character writes about another can tell us about both, and if an author is going to tackle this idea head-on we can get some serious character development.

Siri doesn’t do it. All we get is some snippets. They’re interesting enough, but again it’s all just teasing without even foreplay to compensate. There’s an attempt to understand the bully just like the bullied. It’s an interesting take that recognizes the cruelty of bullying, how these little thing produces social retards. It also tries to understand why bullies start in the first place. Many of them are sure they’re in the right and that the bullied just has a superiority complex. Siri touches that, but not enough.

There are off-topic digressions which don’t contribute much and reinforce the feeling this is just a collection of notes for an incomplete novel. Siri at least puts effort into writing her notes. Her prose flows smoothly and whenever she sinks deep into Mia’s psyche it gets better. The beginning is powerful, throwing us right in the middle of heartbreak and all the self-pity and anger that accompanies it. If Siri would let her loose a little and let Mia ramble, this could’ve been a great novel.

The Summer Without Men is too written-well to be bad. Even if everything in it is left unexplored, everything is interesting enough to make you want to do something with it yourself. The prose is pretty good and it’s short enough so it doesn’t drag. A good choice if you want a light read that’s not stupid, but that’s it.

3 summers out of 5