Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Errand – Raymond Carver

When I flipped the page to this story, I was surprised to find it collected in this volume. I know a bit about Raymond Carver and have come to really enjoy his writing. I first encountered him back in BASS 1982 when Cathedral was chosen for inclusion. Discovering authors like Carver is one of the countless benefits of this project. I know that some of you are probably astounded that I’d never read Carver before Cathedral…but yup…there it is. Since reading and writing about him, I’ve had some wonderful online discussions with his legions of fans. Here are the links to my previous posts about his stories as well as the post where he served as guest editor for BASS 1986


Where I'm Calling From

Guest Editor Introduction 1986


Back to me being surprised – after reading the introduction by Mark Helprin and his thoughts about minimalist writers, the LAST person I’d expect him to include would be Carver.

Here are a few selected lines from Helprin’s introduction and how he feels about minimalist writers.

“No better illumination of the pitfalls of the collective impulse exists than the school of the minimalists. What they do is as bad as what they believe in. They appear to start from the premise that the world has unjustly offended their innate virtue and forced them to become trenchant impassive observers of its universal offensiveness.”…

“’in their approach, adherents of minimalism are almost uniformly oblique, which is not surprising, since the uncomprehending often crave inscrutability as a shield behind which nothing can be something.”…

Damn…this guy can write a throw-down!

And he goes on –

“Mice who tour lion country need masks and other tricks to have a safe trip. Besides, their unwillingness to deal with life other than obliquely is not subtly, as they would have you think, but cowardice. And they aren’t even oblique as much as they are simply sarcastic and snotty. I wonder if, in other civilizations, priestly castes and philosophers are elevated and revered because they are snotty.”…

SLAM!!! Man, he sounds a little like my main man J. Gardner when he was stirring shit up!

“Minimalists appear to be people who have not been forced to struggle, and who have not dared upon some struggle to which they have not been forced. Thus, they have contempt for their own lives of mild discomfort-and who can blame them? They live in a strange, motionless, protected world.”…

“Not only do they abstain, they have made a virtual industry out of ridicule. And what do they ridicule? Effort, perfection, devotion, fidelity, honor, belief, love, bravery, et al.”…

“Their characters always seem to have a health problem (in addition to the nicotine addiction and alcoholism that are de rigueur) that is far more disgusting than perilous.”…

And this next passage really got me!

“Of the stories read for the purpose of gathering the twenty herein, more than a third dealt with divorce, separation, or extramarital affairs. Alcohol appeared in more than half, cigarettes and coffee in more than a third, and that satanic square that I can hardly bear to mention, television, in more than half”…

Helprin then goes on to question why all of these” things” and “characters” appear in so many minimalist stories.

“It may of course have something to do with who writes the stories and who now reads them. Though I feel that I have intruded upon a closed system, I do not hesitate to report on it, because my anxiety over the possible consequence to my livelihood (no matter, judging from my mail, most of my readers are in Trondheim and Antwerp) is dwarfed by my wonder at what I have seen. In the tunnels on contemporary American literature, the moles are singing. They are singling in unison, they are singing to each other, and they are singing of the darkness. Far be it from me to criticize some who are my colleagues. That would be dangerous. And it would be impolitic. But, then again, literature is not politics. Or is it?”

And a couple of pages later, after reflecting on his time editing with Rachel MacKenzie of The New Yorker…and lamenting that not enough editors like her have survived and this is why current (1988) editors put out junk…with the excuse that this is what the people want…things get pretty interesting.

And this is also where I bring it back around to Raymond Carver.

Helprin writes:

“Partly to avoid the evils of reputation and partly for other reasons, the stories in this volume have been judged blindly.”…

“After choosing the stories, I learned the names of the authors. I was surprised, delighted and a little taken aback to discover that I had chosen stories by some people whom I do not like personally, by one who wrote one of the stupidest reviews I have ever read (of my book, no less), and by some whose work I find very hard to bear. And yet, I chose their stories.

And with that passage, I bring us back to Carver…because I think that he is including Carver as one of “some people whom I do not like personally…”

I think Carver got his story in under Mark’s nose. Not by plan of course.

In the contributor’s notes, Carver writes:

“The story was a hard one to write, given the factual basis of the material. I couldn’t stray from what had happened, nor did I want to. As much as anything, I needed to figure out how to breathe life into graphical telling. And, finally, I saw that I needed to set my imagination free and simply invent within the confines of the story. I knew that as I was writing this story that it was a good deal different from anything I’d ever done before. I’m pleased, and grateful, that it seems to have come together.”

And with that, a minimalist got into the collection.

And what I enjoyed reading the most from the above passage, which I need to apply to my life – “…I needed to set my imagination free and simply invent within the confines…”

I doubt that I’ll ever discover if Carver was one of the people Helprin didn’t like…but for all of the slamming he does of minimalist…and Carver being Royalty of the minimalist tribe…how could he not dislike him?

Concerning the story…yeah, I really enjoyed it. It’s by Carver…and having it collected here and discovering this newly discovered style of writing by Carver…to enjoy it with him, was special.

Raymond Carver died in August of 1988 so it’s unlikely that he saw this story physically included in this volume since these volumes tend to come out in the last quarter of the year.

I was worried that this would be the last time I would run into him…one of my “crew”…but no, we’ll see him again – and that makes me happy.

Big props to Helprin for having the “guts” to write what he did – even if I didn’t agree with everything he wrote. I gotta say though, the more I read it, the better it gets. It’s so dense and a perfectly structured attack.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Snares – Louise Erdrich

Minutes ago – just before writing this sentence, I explained to a co-worker how I was having difficulty getting through this edition of BASS. I blamed it on Helprin and said that I didn’t like his selection of stories.

And then I remembered what I was going to write about Snares -how I think it’s a beautiful story…and how I was going to praise Helprin for including it in this volume.

I’m in such a hole with this volume.

I’m in such a hole with most of my reading.

Snares – yes, such a beautiful tight story. The sentences are woven and bound together so well. Erdrich delivers once again and I’ve fallen for her writing.

In her contributor’s notes, Erdrich writes:

“About halfway through the story, I got stuck and took a long walk with my husband, Michael Dorris. He had just read a draft of the story and, in and inspired moment, suggested that instead of the piece of cloth I’d used, Margaret’s braids be used to tie Nanapush’s tongue back and ensure his silence. From then on, imagining the taste of hair in the old man’s mouth, the story became for me on of sexuality and vengeance.”

I’m glad she decided to speak on this portion of the story. It really is a powerful scene.

I have found that I am including more of these contributor’s notes in these little passages that I write about these stories. I think they are quite valuable…they shed some light into the creative process of the author…just as the above proves.

I always kicked around the idea of having M read my writing someday… and yes, I would need to summon some nerve to have her look it over…I’m strange like that.

What would she think of me! Such ideas springing from my head!

The Natural Father – Robert Lacy

The Natural Father is one of those stories that I really enjoy simply because it sheds a little more light on what it is to be a human in this strange/ world we live.
It presents a slice of life that has been repeated countless numbers of times and does what a good piece of literature should – it reminds us of the flaws and imperfections of humans – the difficult choices we all face, choices that may see harsh or wrong to others but could…might just be the right choice.
A compassionate presentation of a character – flaws included draws you in this story – and as much as you want to hate him for what he does – and you know that what he is doing is wrong, and you know that he knows what he is doing is wrong, you feel sympathy for him and this is achieved through the skill of the author.

Lacy explains in his contributors notes that he worked on this story for six years. Would I EVER have the patience to do something like that? Such drive and determination…that’s what makes a great author. The willingness to stick it out with a story and a character – one that you love…all those years.

Concerning the final decision made by the main character in this short. In the end, it probably benefited the child and Butters knew it…and some thought given to this by the reader is another endearing characteristic that Lacy gives his character.
At first it seems cruel – abandonment, shirking responsibility – but the life of the child could be better without the interference of this man – and those thoughts are free to form as you walk away from this story – another aspect, in my opinion of what makes a good short – a story that allows you to question yourself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

DeDe – Mavis Gallant

In past blog entries I have written several times about the trouble I have with Gallant. I have addressed it with honesty I believe and I don’t think I have shoved her aside with a short post on her story.

Below, you can find links to her other stories I addressed that were collected in the BASS.

Speck's Idea

Kingdom Come

The Assembly


The Remission

There are just some authors that I’ll never “get”. Unfortunately, Mavis is one. I tried with DeDe to read it in different settings…to attempt to appreciate what she is writing…the story she is telling…but DAMN! I just can’t get her. At least not today. I believe that someday there may be a time that I’ll happen across a story by her and perhaps it’ll click. For now..No..it’s just not happening.

It’s been suggested that I need to slow down when I read Gallant. Actually, I think I need to slow down when I read any of these authors. I need to appreciate that these authors worked hard on the word placement that creates the sentences and paragraphs and stories I ingest.

Their stories are not like these silly posts that are just dashed up on this site. No, they sometimes are created over years before they see being bound into a collection. My failure to recognize this leads to a lack of complete appreciation for the author and the story.


I just finished The Hunger Diaries -in the latest issue of the New Yorker - here is their abstract:

Excerpts from Mavis Gallant’s diary. The entries are from March to June, 1952, when Gallant was living hand to mouth in Spain, giving English lessons and anxiously awaiting payment for her New Yorker stories to arrive via her literary agent.
It is a wonderful read and if you are a fan of Gallant - it's a must read.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Water Faucet Vision – Gish Jen

My son is still too young to understand conversations that M and I have. I’m convinced that he understands the tone, and of course he does a wonderful job of reading facial expressions. M and I seldom have serious discussions in front of him, and of course we never argue in front of him. Our deep discussions are usually held after he is asleep.

One day, he will understand everything said and there will be times where the subjects we discuss could lead him to develop characteristics that define who he is.

Finances were always discussed openly around the dinner table and the difficulties that most middle-class families were discussed daily.

I didn’t like all the money talk and I hated the fact that so much of our lives depended so much upon either having it or not.

M and I both want to leave those discussions out of dinner table talk but I have a feeling that that it will creep in. W will want to have this or that…go places…and we’ll have to teach him the role that money plays in our life.

I wonder if W will have the time to wonder.

I remember that I spent what would seem to be hours just staring out my window.

I remember doing that more than I remember playing alone. I didn’t read as a child…what did I do with my time? I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV.

I seldom have time – or it feels that I never have time just to wonder.

I want W to have visions. I want him to see things spring from his mind. To create.

Police Dreams – Richard Bausch

Being a child of divorce, and now, being married (happily) and having a son, stories like Police Dreams resonate just a little more than it might have 15 years ago.

This was a strong offering by Bausch and I’m glad that Helprin included it.

It’s scary and it’s one of those stories that cause you to wonder if it prompted other readers to look a little harder at their relationship with their spouse.

I wonder sometimes how a partner in a marriage can miss certain signs from the other. I think that I am pretty attuned to M and I can read her quite well. We are in constant communication through the day, and she is very comfortable letting me know what’s on her mind.

But, I must admit, I have had the fear, and I wonder if it’s a fear of many men in stable relationships, that one day, something will just snap, and your significant other will just unload on you – ending it all.

I have a job where I can leave work at work and it isn’t necessary for me to bring it home in the evenings. We usually discuss the day on our way home and sometimes the events creep into discussions at dinner – rarely beyond that time.

Perhaps the husband in this story was too self-absorbed in his work to read the signs that his wife was giving.

The tone that the wife takes made me quite uncomfortable – and I couldn’t imagine being in a relationship that had deteriorated into the mess that unfolds through the story.