Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ray Carver: short stories follow the heart

I loved Ray Carver's work but I had to be won over.

In L.A., in the eighties, I heard an editor from Black Sparrow Books praise his spare, lean prose and remember—quite distinctly—thinking: Yeah, right—spare, lean—load-a-crap. Not long after, I bought Where I'm Calling From—the cover art was so cool—at Chatterton's on Los Feliz, was home by 11 p.m. and didn't go to bed until I finished reading, which, given its slim volume-ness didn't take all that long, I suppose.

But still. I sat in bed turning page after page, marveling at the stories as works of art. I had begun writing short stories and aimed for each to be the equivalent of an Indian miniature or emerald or string quartet. Given that it is now 2009 and I've not had a collection published (though about a dozen have been in review), I don't know if anyone cares about my efforts. If they don't they don't. I have some faith in the market (no faith in the crooks who manipulate it).

A fairly recent New Yorker article set right or claimed to set right Gordon Lish's intrusive editing of Carver, thus making Lish the kingpin of the spare, lean rep. Maybe, maybe not. But Lish wasn't the kingpin of Carver's uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist and he was not the one to make palpable American hope and American despair.

Carver did that. His characters are not memorable as individuals. They are a series of husbands and wives who drink and smoke and cheat. Sometimes they encounter the miraculous as in "Cathedral" where a blind man reveals his understanding of gestures of visual art. Or opposite of the miraculous, the chilling, as in“So Much Water So Close to Home,” in which the the body of a young woman is left like a case of beer in a cold river while a group of men have their weekend in the wilderness.

Between the two stories, God is present or God is present in Her absence.

A slew and then another slew of Carver fans have published affective appreciations. So why me, now? Because of Beethoven's late quartets. I heard mention of his late sonatas and remembered something I read in an interview with Carver. He said the late quartets were for the young and the early quartets to be savored in old (relative, of course) age.

And I recalled I was a little embarrassed when I mentioned my trendy affection for Carver to a brilliant journal editor I happened to meet when I was at a summer seminar for secondary educators. This editors discovered new voices and he made great choices. He seemed surprised I was of the masses, with Carver and also with my then affection for The Color Purple, which he perceived not as bad but as mass market and not sophisticated.

Sad truth: Back then more than now but I still struggle to like who and what I like and not think of anyone else, not try to please.

I will have more to say about Raymond Carver. After all, I ruined a great pair of truly sophisticated dark glasses because of him. But that will come on another day. Today I am remembering what is is like to be a fan. I am in the stands and cheering out my heart.

My heart is strong and my cheers are loud.

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