Saturday, 30 April 2016

What we talk about when we talk about love




This is a very well known collection of perfectly written short stories by the American writer, Raymond Carver. They are best read with a glass of beer, or wine, or something stronger if you can keep your head. I am going to confess that this was my first Carver experience; I wouldn’t be original in saying that the economy of style reminds readers of Hemingway and that thematically the collection could also be placed alongside of Richard Ford’s short story writing (Rock Springs). So, we are talking about masculine prose, which manages to be both serious, sad, without "funny" irony, and yet also resonates in that human vein which American short story writers seem to manage better than anyone.

A few examples of what’s in the collection – more for myself than for anyone who might be kind enough to read this blog. ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ is the opening story, and it’s a story that speaks deeply through things that aren’t said (in that Hemingway notion of the omisson). A man looks out the window at the front lawn where his furniture lies, alongside his bed, a television, lampshade, and – for the story title – his record player. A young couple pull up, assuming it’s a garage sale, and for a moment lie on the bed as the man watches from inside. He comes out, serves them whisky, puts on a record, sells things that they ask for at whatever price they offer, and dances with the young girl. What’s unsaid, but painfully present, is the man’s obvious ‘holding up’ in a crisis; a failed marriage; the giving away of goods and meaning in a perverse ‘fu*% it’ attitude.

 

‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ is almost as good as the Paul Kelly song. Yes, that’s my attempt at irony. The story makes it’s meaning so intense by playing it straight: a female narrator starts the story by saying simply: ‘My husband eats with a good appetite.’ She judges her husband for what he has done – as the song tells us, and as the excellent Australian film Jindabyne dramatises – he's gone fishing with friends, found a body of a young woman, drowned – and rather than return and ruin a fishing trip, camps and drinks for several nights before reporting the tragedy.
Without giving the story away (it’s so short) – ‘Popular Mechanics’ portrays a couple fighting over a child and ends with one of those great lines in fiction, the sort Steinbeck or Chekov would have approved of. Another story, ‘Tell the Women We’re Going’, portrays a life at fast pace for two friends who live unfulfilled lives, and in the case of the more seemingly settled of the two friends, repression of desires leads utimately to cruelty, all the more powerful for its understated telling.

‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ is a set of stories I am sure I will re-read; they compliment an evening drink so well (Carver was an alcoholic and suffered greatly as a result; so take this advice with due caution). The stories resonate in the way all good short stories do – that economy of style, that theory of omission, all those Hemingway-related cliches which just so happen to be true in this case. Here’s the end of the ‘title track’ (it does in some strange way also feel like an excellent LP); this gives you a sense of what’s at stake as a drinking session goes on too long and too much is said, and yet not enough. Love between friends and couples:

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark” (p.129).

 

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Black Mirror


Gail Jones’ 2002 novel Black Mirror holds my interest for a number of reasons. First, Professor Jones is one of the leading lights at the Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre where I am currently enrolled in a doctoral program. Second, the novel explores modernism, and an Australian artist in Paris and London; and a young researcher who goes to see the elderly artist in search of some personal truths. When I read about the nature of the novel, I feared a little (as writers do) that my own thoughts and ideas may have already been captured by this prize-winning writer. However, Jones’ book is quite different to the one I hope to write, and having read it, I can breathe more easily. What follows is then just a few observations.

 

The novel opens in the viewpoint of the young Anna Griffin, about to interview the famous surrealist, Victoria Morrell. The same rainy scene is then told from Victoria’s perspective; and so quite easily and naturally, the reader understands the nature of the narrative to unfold. Victoria’s story – told to Anna after she establishes a trust and a connection – is that of her childhood in a Western Australia mining town, and her time in London and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, when she got to know some of the famous European artist and writers as part of the Surrealist movement. Anna’s own childhood in the same town is also relayed, as well as her time in London which includes her relationship with a married Jamaican. The relationships depicted in the story from both female characters are troubled ones, and there is a sense of loneliness that pervades and reflects the expatriate lives of those who have escaped trouble and are somewhat at sea.

 

The art of writing a complex story that weaves in an out of the lives of the artist and her researcher, and builds into it a confidently handled historical setting is something to be admired here. Equally, the range of language. Take this one example. Three girls in Anna’s childhood memory of her restrictive mining town lie on bed, thinking of England. London is where it all happens, Beryl declared. No more deadshits. Or gutless wonders. Or mingy bloody dickheads (p.66). The singing voice of Australian idiom! Then the next page, Victoria telling of her life in 1936, and the rich, complex sentences: All across the city men in black bowlers and dark suits were crumpling, concertina-like; women were removing snow-white gloves and fanning them fingerless at crimson faces; children were entirely hectic and out-of-control (p.67). It is a London heatwave, as an Australian writer would see it, imagined in this historic way.

 

Did I say I could breathe more easily? I certainly don’t mean in terms of sizing up the achievement – this is considerable. Just that it covers territory I would like to explore, but in a different style to my own. But it is intimidating to read, none-the-less. Black Mirror is a novel for a reader who would enjoy the play of the past on the present. Perhaps a writer like Michael Ondaatje is a fair reference point; I am reminded a little of reading Divisadero (2007) – set in America and France, and drawing out parallel lives and experiences.