Friday, February 02, 2007

Raymond Carver - ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’

Circumstances could certainly have conspired better for my reading of this. In the first place, I read it mostly at work, and few things can kill the flow of reading more than a) being surrounded by people talking and b) getting interrupted every so often to do said work. In the second, the fellow’s just not Richard Yates. Not in an M. R. James whole-other-type-of-story way, either: there are obvious similarities between Yates and Carver. Both give us small scale scenes of domestic life in the US (Carver sets these in smaller towns; Yates does New York and Los Angeles), in which inadequate protagonists struggle to come to terms with themselves and their situations. Yates makes us feel their humiliation, but Carver plays with a straighter bat: his characters, though they are self aware, are rarely aware of how others see them. His poles are good and bad; Yates’ self possession and embarrassment.

The character Al in ‘Jerry and Molly and Sam’, for example, wants to get rid of his kids’ mongrel Suzy. She pees all over the carpet constantly and is for Al a metaphor for the mess his home life has become. The real problem is Al’s marriage, his infidelity, and the fact that there are kids stuck in the middle of it all, but he reasons that he has to start somewhere, and the dog is the easiest target. So he takes her out in the car to a distant suburb and leaves her there. Returning to the uproar occasioned by Suzy’s disappearance, he realises he’s done the wrong thing: ‘I believe I have made the gravest mistake of all’ (p. 119), he thinks, struck at what he has done. He’s not embarrassed, as a character in Yates would be, he swings violently from thinking ‘this is a good thing to do’, to ‘this is a bad thing’. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if it keeps changing, but he will never feel that he has been silly, only good or bad.

I’m reminded of an ancient interview with Barry Adamson in Melody Maker, talking about the collaborators for one of his albums. One was Jarvis Cocker, one was Nick Cave. Barry thought that while Jarvis was prepared to play around with sexual attitudes in his songs, Nick was ‘all man’, and that one wouldn’t be able to make the same kind of innuendos in conversation with him as perhaps one could with Jarvis. There is zero homosexuality in either this book or Yates’, but that’s not what I mean. There are convincing female characters in both, but that’s not it either. A few weeks ago I praised Yates’ story ‘The Canal’ for acknowledging that ‘it’s possible to make a fool of yourself even in life threatening circumstances’, and this shows a willingness in him to play around with vanity which would not occur to Carver.

To even this up a bit, another difference is that Yates, with his plethora of divorces, doesn’t consider to anything like the same degree as Carver, what happens when people who should get divorced stay together. The title story is particularly good on this, with its tale of an infidelity bottled up for two years, and then the immediate and brittle aftermath.

My favourite story was ‘Nobody Said Anything’, which also has a breaking home as a backdrop. The warring parents leave for work, though, leaving behind the narrator, an adolescent kid who has faked a stomach ache in order to go fishing. It’s the sleazy narration which appeals - checking the level of the Vaseline in his parents’ bedroom before he leaves the house, fantasising about the woman who gives him a lift part of the way (and failing 100% to work anything suggestive into the conversation), then when he reaches the creek: ‘I hurried down the embankment, unzipped, and shot off five feet over the creek. It must have been a record.’ (p. 37). Worthy of Beavis and Butt-Head, that one. Then he meets another boy who has spotted an extremely large fish in a shallow part of the creek, and their attempts to catch it bare handed constitute the main action of the story. Pretty thrilling it is too. If you don’t want to know whether they catch the fish, look away now.

‘Here he comes!’ The kid waved his arms. I saw the fish now; it was coming right at me. He tried to turn when he saw me, but it was too late. I went down on my knees, grasping in the cold water. I scooped him with my hands and arms, up, up, raising him, throwing him out of the water, both of us falling on the bank. I held him against my shirt, him flopping and twisting, until I could get my hands up his slippery sides to his gills. I ran one hand in and clawed through to his mouth and locked around his jaw. I knew I had him. He was still flopping and hard to hold, but I had him and I wasn’t letting go. (p. 42)

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