Review of Short Cuts, by Raymond Carver
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/25/05
Raymond Carver is a very frustrating writer because he is capable of brilliance, and also capable of really bad writing. Worse, he can accomplish all in between. This is not so bad, except for the fact that I should have started my first sentence this way: Raymond Carver is a very frustrating writer because he is capable of brilliance, and also capable of publishing really bad writing. The fact that he let manifestly weak prose slip by into publication is a sad fact, because every writer has written something bad- a writer is judged by that he lets into the public domain- his/her totality of work is saved for the scholars decades or centuries hence. Having recently read his collection of short stories titled Cathedral I was hoping for far more from this book- an anthology, which generally denotes that the writer is putting forth the best of the best.
Such is not the case with Short Cuts since it seems to have been an ad hoc commercial pursuit designed to coincide with the Robert Altman film of the same name, culled from RC tales. Actually nine short stories and a poem. Here, now, a synopsis of each:
a typical RC oddity. The tale of a couple of emotionally ill people who go
snooping in their neighbors’ apartment when they’re on vacation. This tale
could be a good set up for something deeper, but just cops out at the end.
They’re Not Your Husband- a tale of a husband’s vanity, and need to control his waitress wife. Interesting, but a tad underdeveloped.
Vitamins- (reprint from Cathedral) an odd tale of love and loss. It doesn’t really go anywhere but is a typical RC tale.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?- a far too long tale of a lonely man’s acting out. Potential is there, and the end is good, but it meanders through a steep muddle in the middle.
So Much Water So Close To Home- the death of a woman is the spur for another overly long and mawkish tale of fishermen and ethics- this one lacking the potential of the previous one.
A Small, Good Thing- (reprint from Cathedral) the tale of a couple harangued by someone after their child is accidentally killed in a hit and run accident. A great tale, although it could be severely trimmed. The revelation of the ‘stalker’ is no surprise, but the resolution is, as well as touching.
Jerry And Molly and Sam- a father longs to get rid of his children’s dog, then feels guilt pangs. This is a tale that has a great passage on childhood, and the ending is very realistic, and touching. A great tale.
Collectors- another RC tale with a peculiar premise- the import of a vacuum in people’s lives- both house-husband and salesman. Unfortunately, like too many RC tales, he does little with the good set up.
Tell The Women We’re Going- two adulterous husbands joyride and end up committing a brutal double murder. There are good points to this tale, but it becomes a mere grotesque because the end is implausible, and comes out of nowhere like a dark diablos ex machina.
Lemonade (poem)- mere lineated prose. A perfect example of a ‘name’ from another field vamping his reputation into poetry.
Overall, this book id not in a league with Cathedral, but it may be a better representation of the writer in full- with his flaws and strengths manifested. RC had an unfortunately limited range in his conception of what made up the human race- perhaps delimited by his own demons of alcohol and emotional ills. Yet, there are times when the fog lifts, for a whole tale, or just a few paragraphs or sentences, when it’s worth slogging through the rest. I wonder what he would have become had he had a regular circle of critics to count on, to prod him out of his habits of falling back into cliché, or letting stories just peter out.
This is not to say that the mundane mechanic of everyday living do not have a purpose nor force, just that RC does not do nearly enough with them, especially contrasted with the possibilities bared open by many intriguing tales that fall short of their promise. RC is best with conveying the emotive world. What happens is sometimes a blur that the reader is left going, ‘Ok, what the hell happened?’
This is why longer tales like Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and So Much Water So Close To Home fail. Complexity is not the mere fact of being convoluted. A complex character can be suggested, hinted at, yet RC almost always prefers to extrapolate. The problem is that the insights into the tale or character often do not justify the digression from the narrative, because the tale is not enhanced by some throwaway facts. As for dialogue- some of it is good while often he descends into stereotypes, and the conversations are unbelievable, mere filler. In a way, he is, at his worst, far closer to the unwittingly self-parodic short story grotesques of a William Faulkner, or the even worse Flannery O’Connor. Bad dialogue can distance, subliminally, a reader from the story, and often leave the reader puzzled at the later actions of a character, because dialogue is always shown selectively, granted to a reader by a narrator that may or may not be reliable. RC is far better at standard narration and interior monologues. In a sense RC is an idea writer, not a plot writer, yet he may have been advised by others to let plot dictate, to get published. While, in the short run that may have got him published, in the long run it hurt his overall oeuvre.
That said, he is still a better short fictionist than either WF or FOC. Yet, still, it gnaws at me- what could have been had this man had just a smidgin’ more self-confidence, and a tad less booze? As things turned out RC ended up much like his work- tantalizingly good, with hints of greatness, but too much muddle, and not in the middle!
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