Sunday, April 12, 2015

Where He's Calling From

"Things change, he says. I don't know how they do. But they do without your realizing it or wanting them to."

Together with my brother-in-law and some friends, we've founded a reading group in Kyoto that meets every three weeks or so and talks about a story one of us has selected for the meeting. We drink whiskey (we are the Monkey Shoulder Gang, or MSG) and talk for a good two hours about the piece in question before, inebriated, we splinter off into conversational factions. When it was my turn I wanted to select a story that I not only loved, but that would really pull the group together into a shared love of fiction. I ended up choosing Raymond Carver's story, "Cathedral," leading me to reread the most famous collection of his work, Where I'm Calling From.

I don't know how many times I've read Where I'm Calling From but I've often turned to Carver whenever I've grown disenchanted with overwrought novels. Carver, who never wrote a novel in his too-short life (he died of lung cancer at 50),  liked short stories because they could be written, read, and pondered over a single sitting. However, Carver's prose is so readable and his narratives so deceptively simple he is easy to binge-read, but not too much because the consequence of his characters' failed lives is usually tragedy. His protagonists, usually first person male narrators, are not living the American Dream. They suffer unhappy families, mistresses, dead-end jobs, money problems, and most especially a bad habit with the bottle. Alcoholism figured largely not only in Carver's life, but in his work as well-- the drunken rages and horrible self-destruction, but also recovery and the extraordinary difficulty in going and staying sober. Carver hailed from the "write what you know" school of realism, but he also seemingly graduated from the school of hard knocks. He is sometimes painful to read, but never dull and occasionally transcendent. 

Carver's prose is sparse, quick, and unambiguous: "This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper." begins his story, "Feathers." Famously, his stories were heavily changed by his famous editor, Gordon Lish, who was spearheading a minimalist movement in literature in the 1980s. (Carver and Lish often sparred over the changes and some of Carver's stories have been published posthumously in their original unedited format.) But the prose is pitch perfect for an everyman screwing up. Carver's narrators often go nameless (their problems are so much more the point). In the story, "Little Things," a disintegrating marriage ends with a couple fighting over their baby biblical-style: "But he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard. In this manner, the issue was decided." Straightforward tragedy doesn't need flowery bits or metaphors: it does just fine with straight talk.

"Cathedral" is narrated by an average guy whose wife's pen pal, a blind man, has come for a visit. The guy has preconceived ideas of blind men: they wear sunglasses, they don't have beards, they don't smoke because the pleasure of smoking is seeing their exhalations curling through the air-- he says to his wife, "Maybe we can take him bowling?" He is envious that the stranger has a proprietary claim on his wife's past-- they've been exchanging voice tapes for ten years and when they last saw each other she let the blind man, Robert, touch her face, even her neck. But when Robert does come for dinner and a talk, the narrator (Robert calls him "Bub" throughout the evening) begins to enjoy himself. The blind man-- maybe it is intentional, maybe not-- subtlety shows him how to empathize, to understand what it is like to not only be blind, but how to better see and understand what one senses. This novelty of empathy is joyous-- it's wonderful to feel a part of something larger than oneself: "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything."

"Cathedral," with its optimistic happy ending is not necessarily emblematic of the Carver oeuvre, which usually involved a reckoning of karma applicable to guilt: you can only outrun the debt collector so long or tolerate just so much drink before it wrecks havoc. "Cathedral" was written late in Carver's life, revealing that this very autobiographical fabulist was turning a new page. He was seeing past his own problems, into something more collectively human. The quote prefacing this piece about change, while usually thought of as change for the worse, can actually turn out pretty good sometimes. Pain and the horrible are not necessarily inexorable.