Blunt. Honest. A whole story in one sentence.
That’s Raymond Carver.
I read his collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, over the summer. His style is simplistic and straight to the point. I love when prose is pretty and clever, yet Carver is the exact opposite. Hardly any prose at all. The first few stories I read didn’t resonate with me. I thought, ‘what’s the point of this?’ By the end I was hooked.
But still it wasn’t until I recently finished his collection of short stories, Cathedral , that I was blown away.
Carver skips the fancy; the flourish of language. This creates a realism in his stories that I’ve really never experienced elsewhere. In everyday life we don’t tell stories with the highest level of language. We just talk. We speak what first appears in our head. I’m not saying this is how Carver wrote, but it’s how his characters are.
What I love most is that every topic he touches on is conveyed this way: he mentions the subject almost offhandedly, (alcoholism, adultery, etc.) and somehow manages to showcase deep human emotion through actions people would make everyday.
There’s nothing grand. It’s just life. That’s what’s so real about it.
What I had to come to love about Carver is his beginnings. They waste no time. They get you right into the story whether you care or not. I don’t believe they would be considered “hooks,” in the way we’re taught how to catch the reader in the first sentence. Carver doesn’t care: he’s telling you a story and you can listen or move on.
The beginning of “Feathers,”
“This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper. I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran. That made us even. But Bud and I were friends. And I knew there was a baby at Bud’s house.”
The beginning of “Vitamins,”
“I had a job and Patti didn’t. I worked a few hours a night for the hospital. It was a nothing job. I did some work, signed the card for eight hours, went drinking with the nurses. After a while, Patti wanted a job.”
The beginning of “Where I’m Calling From,” (one of my favorites in the collection),
“J.P. and I are on the front porch at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin’s, J.P. is first and foremost a drunk. But he’s also a chimney sweep.”
From my absolute favorite, the story that will stick with me for a long time, “Fever,”
“Carlyle was in a spot. He’d been in a spot all summer, since early June when his wife had left him. But up until a little while ago, just a few days before he had to start meeting his classes at the high school, Carlyle hadn’t needed a sitter. He’d been the sitter.”
“Fever” is my favorite for a few reasons. The style isn’t any different than Carver’s other stories, but I thought Carlyle was perfectly crafted. He’s everything I wouldn’t think to write for a character that just lost his wife and is now looking after his two small children on his own. But that’s what makes him so real. I wouldn’t think to write him the way Carver did because he was so human that it was like talking to a close friend about their split, not really getting inside their head but somehow seeing the whole story and emotion behind it.
There’s this section in the story where Carlyle gets sick and then finds out his sitter is leaving town. He completely opens up to her, tells her everything…yet as the reader we only see snippets of his life with his wife. most of the section is, “And I kept talking,” but we’re not told what he said. And still we know from the small snippets what he must have said.
Talking about something without talking about it.
My own style is nothing like Carver’s, but I feel so inspired by it. I mean, if he can get away with using actual cliches in dialogue and having them work, then I can admire anything he does.
I also love that in a few stories the narrator is explaining something, usually an emotion and eventually, as if tired of explaining, just writes, “etc.,” I was surprised at first, but then I realized, wow, it’s like when I’m telling a story to a friend and eventually just wave my hand in the air as if to say, “you get the point.”
So do you get the point? It’s: go read a Raymond Carver story and tell me how you like it.