The Real Raymond Carver

April 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Minimalism minimalism minimalism minimalism.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, I wanted to take one moment to really talk about Raymond Carver’s style. The title above is totally self-indulgent of me, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the Carver of lore and the Carver of Carver’s writing are two different entities.

Here are the beginnings of two of his stories. The first, “Chef’s House”, was first published in 1981, and the second, “Blackbird Pie”, is from 1986, and one of his last before his death. They’re both very good. One’s a little better, a little stranger.

Here’s “Chef’s House”:

That summer Wes rented a furnished house north of Eureka from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Then he called to ask me to forget what I had going and to move up there and live with him. He said he was on the wagon. I knew about that wagon. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called again and said, Edna, you can see the ocean from the front window. You can smell salt in the air. I listened to him talk. He didn’t slur his words. I said, I’ll think about it. And I did. A week later he called again and said, Are you coming? I said I was still thinking. He said, We’ll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me. Name it, Wes said. I said, I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married. Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions. So I said, All right, I’ll come up.

This is the kind of efficiency writing workshop teachers salivate over. The tone, setting, mood, characters, motivations, conflict, and plot are all duly kicked off in a paragraph. The entire apparatus of the story is described, and practically its whole arc is delineated. You can see where the story goes from here: rebuilding their old lives, the threat of failure at every turn, one day at a time…

Now here’s “Blackbird Pie”:

I was in my room one night when I heard something in the corridor. I looked up from my work and saw an envelope slide under the door. It was a thick envelope, but not so thick it couldn’t be pushed under the door. My name was written on the envelope, and what was inside purported to be a letter from my wife. I say “purported” because even though the grievances could only have come from someone who’d spent twenty-three years observing me on an intimate, day-to-day basis, the charges were outrageous and completely out of keeping with my wife’s character. Most important, however, the handwriting was not my wife’s handwriting. But if it wasn’t her handwriting, then whose was it?

This opening lays out the characters — there’s a man and, in the background, his wife — and that’s about it. We don’t know what the real conflict is, or what the story hinges on, or where it’s going. The whole paragraph is spent lingering on a possible dead end of a triviality — a letter. What’s being built here is not a plain old story arc but a real palpable mood. The state of mind of the story, so to speak. And if you read the rest of “Blackbird Pie”, you’ll find that state of mind is the story’s marble, the stuff of its construction. There’s the narrator’s tension and unease, his easily heightened curiosity, his sudden disorientation within his own mind and home and marriage. This idle stuff is dense matter.

What a difference five years make! In this and other stories toward the end of Carver’s career, he sets his writing free and finds new ways to tell a story. What a beautiful thing to behold, when someone of skill and talent, already established in their trade, seems to be discovering, in process, all over again how to create. For all the definite terms of the trade — dramatic arc, page-turner, storyline, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, desire, chapter, verse — it’s easy to forget that there are infinitely many ways to build something out of nothing.

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