Friday 21 October 2011

Away from the editor’s knife, the knife

Beginners, by Raymond Carver (Jonathan Cape, 2009)

This recent collection of short stories from an adept of the form puts unusual emphasis on the editorial process. Carver is known for his sparse prose and focus on the hard, cold substance of things, his unstinting gaze at those moments of realisation or crystallisation of feeling that fix a life, however slightly, and for his painstaking depiction of them on the page. There is something exhausting but rewarding about his work. Reading it is like time suspended: you almost want to run away, but can’t.

These seventeen stories were sent to his editor Gordon Lish and published in 1981 by Knopf. In that edition, the stories were cut down in length by over half; here, Jonathan Cape present the original versions. It is tempting to see too much of the publicity coup in such a venture: if you’ve read them once, why read them again? Who would, other than the mildly obsessive?

It seems just odd to present editing or the lack of it as a factor so important that unedited versions are worthy of republishing, since you only know a good edit in so far as you don’t spot it: nobody comes away from a book thinking, ‘Wow, that was one great edit!’. What this collection bears out, though, is that the real craftsmanship of good authors lies not in any superficial treatment of words as such – the editor’s art - but in a whole approach to the subject-matter – the way they look at something, what they pick out about it, what they choose to write about in the first place, as well as the distinctiveness of voice and the way they take the form and make it their own. Editors may be under-valued, but ultimately they are little more than window dressers - albeit necessary ones -  all things considered.

Take the beginning of the story ‘Want to see something?’ for example:

I was in bed when I heard the gate unlatch. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I had heard that. I tried to wake Cliff, but he was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon hung over the mountains that surround the city. (p31)

I don’t know what this reads like in the 1981 version, but it is already quite compact, word-wise. Yet there is also pertinent patience and space in the telling, the short and direct sentences, a sense of being inside a real person’s head, a hint of boredom, a hinted-at whole life that begins to creep in around the text. This big moon. You know you will be here for a while, reading this story - you don’t know if it will take you anywhere, but you carry on reading anyway. At first it sounds like a child’s story, but the ‘but I had heard that’ tells you it isn’t. You are in bed, then; you know the feeling. And you are lying next to somebody passed out. You hear something, you get out of bed. This is believable, do-able, probably done-able in a way a bit like that.

It turns out it’s neighbour Sam, who comes ‘out here nights after Laurie and the baby are asleep. Gives me something to do, is one thing’ (p35). He’s picking up slugs, Sam, saving them in a jar then redepositing them under the rose bushes as fertiliser. And then:

I stopped for a minute with my hand on our gate and looked around the still neighbourhood. I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt a long way from everybody I had known and loved when I was a girl. I missed people. For a minute I stood there and wished I could get back to that time. Then with my next thought I understood clearly I couldn’t do that. (p36)

This is logical, understandable – believable – too. It speaks. It is also striking in its very realness. The scarcity of adjectives imbues the ‘still’ with a heaviness and presence it might otherwise lack, conveying thae stillness that does fall over suburban neighbourhoods late at nightI. It also draws the homeliness and danger of the hand on ‘our gate’ into focus, too. Almost inevitability, the rightness of the sudden remembrance of childhood, then of quick, keen distance, of understanding being in the present, the past being past and gone. It is a small experience, even banal in its very ordinariness, but at the same time very important.

Then back inside, waking up Cliff, feeling his pulse at his throat, ‘the warm breath on the back of my hand’, telling him she loves him, telling him everything she has to say, despite him probably not hearing, telling him at last ‘…I felt we were going nowhere fast, and it was time to admit it, even though there was maybe no help for it’. Feeling better, thinking she might now be able to sleep.

The story is muted, but powerful. There is the hidden terror of normal life (Or is that what this is? - it sounds crass), the dissatisfaction mingled with a queer secret sense of being somebody. It also describes something true to experience, and in such a way it’s like it’s happening, just now, just like that, the odd inertia that creeps along – the fear of realising where you are, that this is it – the need to do something, to run away, the staying where you are - but the very depth of all these things, their quiet love and humanity - everything else. The way you reforge a relationship with yourself in a new way in these moments. Those odd moments that puncture a life, fixing you in who you are while showing you as well that wide open sense of space, the potential and sheer possibility of what else you could be doing, where else you could be – who else. What a very odd feeling.

It’s unclear what Carver is trying to ‘say’ with this sort of thing; it might be preferable if he isn’t trying to ‘say’ anything, but rather reflecting something true of life, thinking on it, reflecting it, giving it back to us. This is something to which the short story lends itself well (among other things), as it lets the author’s eye linger – it’s enough to simply observe a tiny happening, something of life, innocuous or maybe not – to give the world time to breathe.

This is also where more mature short story writers can show their talent at expressing their slow truths of life - and with their own clear definition, editor’s knife or otherwise.


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