26 January 2010

Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

I was intrigued by the choice for this month's selection of my book club, Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. My book club has been meeting for eight years, but in recent months we've had some major changes in the makeup of the group, which have changed the dynamic. Not necessarily as a result of that change, but recently, our book choices have been pretty rotten. When my good friend, and trusted bookgroup member, S. sends me an email to informing me that I don't want to be bothered with picking up a copy, I know to take that advice.  At one point a few months ago, I decided that if we didn't start reading "decent things" --which I defined vaguely as "not crap"--, I would consider dropping out. Every once in a while, reading something light and irrelevant can be good escapist reading, but when it is a constant diet of pap, well, I just don't have time.

So, when A. suggested Carver's first book of stories, I was intrigued and looked forward to interesting reading in the month ahead. This is an especially interesting choice since short story collections historically have not been very good discussions for this particular group. But, since the dynamic has changed, I'm glad that we are trying a collection again. I was also looking forward to this because I had not read Carver, which has seemed like a deficit in my reading. The only work that I know of his is the poem What The Doctor Said, which is a poem that has stuck with me since I first read it five years ago. Such persistence is surely a sign, if not of a good writer, at least of a good poem, and is certainly enough to merit reading more of his work, even if I had never heard any thing else about him (which, of course, I have).

When I went to the bookstore over the weekend to pick up the book, I was disappointed that they did not have this particular volume of short stories. But, they did have The Collected Stories of Raymond Carver. Since this included all of the stories from What We Talk About, I decided it was a good choice. What I realized later was that this volume also included all of the original, unedited, versions of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Knowing that Carver's editor, Gordon Lish, had done extensive edits, I couldn't wait to begin to read these works side by side.

Thus far, I've read the first three stories in the collection. I had intended to read all of them, as published in the original 1981 volume, before reading the earlier drafts. But, after reading "Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit", I couldn't wait to read the original.  Because the original was so much longer there had to be a big difference in the versions and I couldn't wait to see what that was. 

I found "Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit" to be a bit sparse, too sparse to be much of a story.  It sets a mood of regret, resignation about the realities of one's life, dissatisfaction with one's spouse and children. But, the original story "Where is Everyone", while it addresses the same situations and circumstances,  has so much more detail. I realized that I knew the characters from the first story, but found that I liked learning more about them in the second one. Did I need to know that his wife relapsed into alcoholism for the story to work? The narrator tells of his battle with alcoholism, but does it make a difference to know that his wife is struggling to remain sober too -- something that isn't obvious in the first story.  Do I need to know that his mother knows about his wife's affair? How does it change the story that the last lines in the published version are spoken by his wife and not his mother? Is this really the same story?  Can I go back to the published version and read it again without feeling that my perspective has been tampered with?

It is an interesting exercise to look at the stories side by side, but I have to wonder - which really represents the author? Does it really matter that they were edited so extensively?  Does the extensiveness of the edits suggest more than editing, perhaps a co-authorship.  Do the edits make the stories by Carver and Lish, rather than just Carver?  Are they somehow different to the extent that they deserve an asterisk beside them -- something to denote that they aren't "real" Carver stories?   Just reading one of the stories in both versions raised these questions.  

Perhaps I need to read more of the works as originally published before I go back to reading those earlier drafts.   What does one even call those -- early drafts? unedited manuscripts? I'm not sure what would be appropriate if they are all as different as these two stories.  These stories don't seem like similar beings but completely different species. I don't know if I can compare them. Or that I want to. I do, however, want to read more of Carver's stories and will later read more of the earlier, unedited versions for comparison.  I may though only have more questions, not answers.

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