Less and More

Adam Begley

  • Elephant, and Other Stories by Raymond Carver
    Collins Harvill, 124 pp, £9.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 00 271912 6
  • The Tidewater Tales by John Barth
    Methuen, 655 pp, £12.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 413 18770 5

Raymond Carver, acclaimed shot-story writer and poet, died on 2 August. A painstaking craftsman, he wrote most often about working-class Americans whose lives are, or have been, on the verge of collapse. Broken marriages, alcoholism, poverty, and acute, debilitating anxiety – these things rule the daily existence of his characters. Fashioned out of grim material, the stories are sometimes heartbreaking, occasionally funny, always disturbing.

Carver has often been called a minimalist, a term he disliked, but which nonetheless aptly describes his brief stories, and his tightly focused prose. Patterns of speech and incidental gestures dominate, along with an occasional highlighted object; setting as traditionally conceived is all but absent. A simple story called ‘Chef’s House’, in which a married couple who have been separated for some time decide to spend the summer together in their friend Chef’s seaside house, successfully conveys the feel of a happy house without describing the house at all. When the couple is forced to leave, the woman assures the man that they will find another place. ‘Not like this one,’ the man replies: ‘It wouldn’t be the same, anyway. This house has been a good house for us. This house has good memories to it.’ Amazingly, the reader knows that this is true.

Sparing with detail, Carver also dispenses what other writers might consider vital information in small, carefully measured doses. In an essay that might pass for his manifesto, ‘On Writing’, he explains the importance of judicious omission: ‘What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.’ This tactic Carver shares with Hemingway, who used it to great effect in stories like ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, in which the meticulous description of a fishing trip is charged with tension generated by the unmentioned fact of the fisherman’s recent traumatic experiences. In ‘The Cabin’, a very early Carver story replete with echoes of ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, a man goes on a fishing expedition without his wife. Mr Harrold cannot manage to explain why his wife is not with him; it seems there has been some rupture, or at least some undefinable shift in their relations. The central action of the story, a menacing encounter with a group of young hunters, is but a dramatic reaffirmation of the looming threat, implied by his wife’s absence, to Mr Harrold’s way of life.

What Carver does choose to present he depicts with a clarity born of a devotion to accuracy. Ezra Pound’s dictum, ‘Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,’ strikes him as hyperbole, and yet he adopts it as a guiding principle. The precision of his language shows most clearly in the remarkable voices that make up so much of his fiction. The monologue is his characteristic mode: men and women telling stories the meaning of which lie just beyond their ken, for the meaning very often resides in the intersection of the substance of the tale with the manner of the telling – that is, the particular pattern of the character’s speech. In those stories written in the third person, dialogue most often propels the narrative, provides the key to the story. As Carver says: ‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue, and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’

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