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BeginnersBeginners by Raymond Carver

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I picked this up, I didn’t look at the author properly. I saw the ‘Raymond’ and briefly a ‘C-er’ and just grabbed it thinking it was a gritty detective novel by Chandler. I was disappointed when I got home; however my embarrassing misobservation turned into delight, as I discovered what I could probably call the perfect example of the short story.

Yes, Carver’s precision and execution of this understated and overlooked
writing form had me reeling with wonder and envy. Here was finally an author I could enjoy on a reader’s level yet also learn about from a writerly angle, which goes to show the literary value of this collection.

Originally published in 1981 as ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love‘, these short stories soon gained a lot of attention in America and around the world for their candid and gritty exploration of ‘real’ relationships. As the title suggests, the stories are about love in all its’ various guises and is as bold an attempt to capture what love really is, as opposed to what we expect it to look and feel like. Carver’s stories oscillate between extremes, as he looks at what happens to the chemistry between two people when things willingly or unwillingly go wrong.

In ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ and ‘Viewfinder’ Carver examines the different ways people respond to a break-up. The former story stands out as the most powerful, as the protagonist completely guts the house of its contents and sets them up on the lawn outside exactly as they were when inside the house. This ‘gutting’ and remodeling stands as a metaphor for loss and underlines how spaces are sometimes saturated by relationships and become an extension of the lover lost.

In ‘Gazebo’, Carver paints the death-throes of what was once a stable relationship. The dialogue between the couple is key, as Carver times speech and prose perfectly to reproduce that unbearable ‘tug-of-war’ between two wills; the betrayed and the betrayer. The chemistry here is extremely volatile and is nicely offset by a side-story of the perfect married couple. This time a motel acts as the setting, showing the absence of ‘home’ and  how the negative energy of a space whose function isn’t to contain and nurture  a single relationship but is designed to be let out to strangers has a devastating effect on the couple.

Houses feature heavily in all Carver’s stories, no matter what aspect of love he is trying to capture. This gives his work a very sharp ‘domestic’ edge which when added with his eagle-eyed observations from real-life, makes his prose believable yet ascerbic and exceedingly uncomfortable. Having said that however, his stories aren’t all in this vein. In ‘A Small, Good Thing’ Carver approaches the tragedy of child loss with language that is throbs with anticipation and transparent fear. The story however ends on a gossamer-like thread of hope, showing Carver’s more merciful side, as the grieving parents find peace in the most unlikeliest of places.

What I ultimately loved about these stories was their honesty and how Carver did not sacrifice nor dilute his narratives for aesthetic or marketing purposes. These stories are also different because they come from a man’s perspective. Carver’s observations teach us that there is nothing separating either sex from the pain of betrayal, nor the act of betraying. Contrary to what we have been taught, there are no separate types or textures to the stuff of heart-break. We are all wonderfully and mutually the same; the only marked difference being perhaps how we deal with it as men and women.

Carver’s little medley of love stories are a rare treat, and for those who have enjoyed them I recommend Murakami’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’. Again it follows along the same lines, except this is an even rarer thing; a confessional where the protagonist (a happily married thirty-something man)  begins a narrative documenting all the rights and wrongs he has done in the name of love.

This is a must-read for anyone interested in studying the art of the short story, or indeed any form of writing. Satisfaction guaranteed.

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