A striking feature of the Lord of the Rings books is the author’s vivid rendering of Middle Earth. J.R.R Tolkien chose an imaginary setting for his books, but he provided his readers so much information about them – maps, historical contexts, evocative descriptions of landscapes – that it was hard to believe that the whole thing was made up. Tolkien filled his books with an overwhelming amount of descriptive detail at every opportunity he could, creating an array of detailed snapshots of the setting for readers. The effect was something unusual – a credible fantasy.
Stylistically, there couldn’t be a writer farther away from Tolkien than Raymond Carver. Where Tolkien would use a hundred words, Carver uses ten; where Tolkien’s characters wax poetic, Carver’s just grunt. Tolkien took pride in the length (and breadth) of his works, Carver was a minimalist from the Hemingway school.
But after reading Where I’m Calling From, Carver’s last collection of short stories before his premature death, one can’t help feeling that Carver did to the human being what Tolkien did to Middle Earth – his stories are a series of silhouettes that spotlight the world of his subjects. Like Tolkien’s verbose snapshots, the silhouettes work rather well. No writer I’ve read comes close to capturing the textured world of the guy next door as well as Carver does here.
Carver’s most remarkable achievement is the genuineness of his characters. A few sentences into every story a familiarity envelops you – you’ve met these people, you know how they talk – followed by awe at how true it all sounds. The dad in Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes could’ve so easily been mine; the odd couple in Put yourself in My Shoes could’ve been the weird people next door that maids hated to work for.
The whole experience of reading a Carver book is mind-blowing – it is like watching events unfold at your neighbor’s house through a skylight. And it is here that the author’s spare style comes in so handy – Carver keeps his descriptions down to a minimum, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the backdrop: these people could be your neighbors as much as they are mine.
A lot has been written about Carver’s minimalist style, but while his writing is spare and stark, he has an amazing eye for just the right details – passing mentions of an odd stray dog, a wet shoe or daddy’s muscles somehow lend a more complete feel to the stories, and the overall effect is that of something way more than the sum of its parts. (I so want to pun on his spare sentence construction and him not sparing a detail, but I’ll pass).
In “What’s in Alaska,” for example, two couples get together for an evening. And as the evening progresses, laced with drinking and drugs, Carver chooses to focus a lot of attention on the brand new shoes of one of the men – his doubts about the shoes seem to somehow mirror how he feels about the changes in his life. It is totally unexpected, and incredibly poignant.
Midway through the book, there seems to be a slight shift in Carver’s style. He’s a little more chatty, and the tales have a sunnier feel to them. You could sense a writer trying to break free from a style that was starting to cramp him, but unfortunately for Carver (and us) his life ended before he could finish his experimentation.
According to this essay by William Stull, professor at the University of Hartford, sometime after the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Carver thought he would hit a dead end if he continued to head down the path of increased minimalism, and
[…]what followed over the next two years was an artistic turnabout, “an opening up” during which he restored and expanded the work he had pared down under the influence of editor Lish, Hemingway’s “theory of omission,” and his own purgative impulses. Two small-press books, Fires and If It Please You, display the outcome of this process. In addition, Carver wrote a dozen new stories in a higher, more hopeful key. The first of them, “Cathedral” (Atlantic Monthly, September 1981), he termed “totally different in conception and execution” from his previous work.
Truth, I’m sure you’ve heard, is stranger than fiction. If you believe that, then Carver’s short stories are the closest fiction can get to the truth.
Update: Here’s Falstaff on Carver. Neat.