I first read Carver when I was in my early twenties. Back then I was drinking unsuccessfully, reading during bouts of sobriety. Short stories suited me because of my poor concentration and poor reading comprehension, also I could finish them in one sitting during the days of respite I got between bouts of drinking, things I couldn’t do with a novel. Of all the writers I read back then, there was something about Carver’s stories that had a visceral impact on me – I felt mood-altered during and after reading – although, at the time, I had no idea why. It was only years later; in my thirties and freshly sober, when a friend suggested I read him, that I remembered some of the Carver stories I had read years before. Older and sober now, I had a better grasp of what it was he was doing; I mean, I didn’t fully understand why his writing could affect me the way it did, but I did know he was using metaphor, was a famous writer and, like me, an alcoholic.
I also learned about the revelations of journalist D.T. Max in his 1998 New York Times magazine article that Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, cut up to fifty percent of the original length of the stories, and even rewrote endings and replaced the collection’s title. Max said Lish wished to cut out Carver’s ‘creeping sentimentality’. In fact, further investigation proves that Lish cut some of the stories by seventy-eight percent, and, most of those cuts were necessary. I have no opinion on this; Carver was recovering from alcoholism, had been twice bankrupted, and I know from my own experience that decision making doesn’t come easy while drinking and in those first few years of sobriety. With hindsight, the thing to have done was credit Lish, but he didn’t, so let’s move on.
In his introduction to Where I’m Calling From, Carver best described the feeling I had first experienced while reading his work: “If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we’ll ponder what we’ve just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we’ll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, “created of warm blood and nerves” as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.”
During my own sobriety, I began writing. And, although I was a novice writer (and a slow learner), I quickly became an experienced reader, or at least, a critical reader. I was now reading to see how it was done. I knew how Carver used symbolism to move a reader through his simple descriptions of weather, of light and dark, night and day, cloud cover, etc & etc.
In “Popular Mechanics” (a tale of just over 700 words), from his second collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, two nameless characters play tug-of-war with their child. Carver uses symbolism to indirectly reveal much more than is on the page. The opening line sets the scene: ‘Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water.’ Carver then tells us: ‘It is getting dark outside,’ adding: ‘But it was getting dark on the inside too’. As the couple struggle over ownership of their baby, Carver informs us: ‘The kitchen window gave no light.’ These references: snow changing to dirty water, light turning to dark, prime us to feel that something sinister is about to happen: light is literally turning to dark.
I got the symbolism, all of these big metaphors that set the mood and tone of a piece, but I also knew Carver was doing a lot more. In 1981, the year he published that second collection, he spoke in an essay titled: “A Storyteller’s Shoptalk” of how he also tried to use everyday objects in his writing to impact a reader: ‘It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.’
Carver used everyday household objects in many of his stories: cups, ashtrays, furniture – especially those stories that are autobiographical – and the objects, in a collective subliminal way carry with them emotional significance. All of this has been well documented in other essays, journalistic pieces, and academic research papers. However, what hasn’t been mentioned – and it is where he excelled – is his employment of an unusual object (an object that is not commonplace) to indirectly move a reader. An example of this, in a classic Carver story, “A Serious Talk”, also taken from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is his use of a pumpkin pie.
The day after Christmas, Burt, returns to his ex-family home, two children, and estranged wife, Vera. On the driveway is an upturned pumpkin pie from yesterday’s visit. The visual impact of the pie lying there on the driveway is given added significance by what comes next: a direct telling (‘using commonplace but precise language’) of the previous day’s visit (a typical Christmas scene) with presents unwrapped by Burt, Vera and the two children. Burt has bought a cashmere sweater for Vera – a personal, considerate gift, wrapped with a ribbon. Burt’s isolation is revealed by the impersonal gifts he, in turn, receives: a ballpoint pen from his son, a comb and brush from his daughter, a gift-voucher from Vera. And these commonplace objects work well to suggest Burt’s distance from his family. Incidentally, when Lish edited this story he took out the names of Burt’s two children, referring to them simply as ‘the boy’, and ‘the girl’. This creates a wonderful distance between Burt and his estranged family. The day ends with Burt drinking, and leaving with a handful of pumpkin pies, having caused a scene. These commonplace objects (the Christmas presents) serve their purpose, however, it’s the pumpkin pie that is the greater signifier. Splattered on the driveway at the beginning of the story, without explanation, it is a ‘charged’ object, and it carries with it the suggestion as to what may have happened the previous day.
Carver must have learned from this because he employed the same technique a few years later in his final story, “Errand”, this time putting the charged object – a champagne cork – at the end of the story to propel the reader back to the night before. “Errand” is unusual for a Carver story; it reads like a blend of journalism and creative prose. It is an imagined account of the last few hours of Anton Chekhov’s life as seen through the eyes of the great writer’s wife, Olga, a doctor, and a hotel bellhop. Knowing that her husband is failing, she sends the bellhop out to fetch a doctor. When the doctor arrives, he sees that Chekhov is near death and immediately orders a bottle of champagne, a German custom (Chekhov died in Badenweiler, a German spa town).
As Chekhov, Olga, and the doctor drink a glass of champagne, the scene is described in realistic detail, using commonplace but precise language: “She arranged another pillow behind his head. Then she put the cool glass of champagne against Chekhov’s palm and made sure his fingers closed around the stem. They exchanged looks – Chekhov, Olga, Dr. Schwöhrer. They didn’t touch glasses. There was no toast. What on earth was there to drink to? To death? Chekhov summoned his remaining strength and said, ‘It’s been so long since I’ve had champagne.’ He brought the glass to his lips and drank”. Chekhov dies only minutes later, and this is the most powerful emotional scene in the story. It is a scene that the reader cannot easily forget.
The next day, as Chekhov’s wife weeps beside his body, the bellhop – unaware that Chekhov is dead – sees the champagne cork on the floor and tries to hide it under his foot. The champagne cork is, at first, merely a champagne cork. However, after Chekhov’s death, it becomes a charged object, a signifier of the night before, a reminder of the moments before death, rocketing the reader back to the previous night when the living drank champagne. This encourages the same emotional response that one gets through nostalgic reminiscence. Unconsciously, we revisit Chekhov’s vivid death scene.
The idea is to turn an object into something that the reader unconsciously converts into a memory that is not directly on the page. It is the indirect part, when the reader translates or interprets unconsciously from the image of the object, immediately revisiting the memory, thus generating the emotional response. And this emotional response is felt much more strongly than if the writer was to describe the emotion directly to the reader. The mechanism, therefore, is the leap that the reader makes following the suggestion (the object) on the page in front of them. Think how powerful that is: we feel a certain way, but we are not entirely sure why. Of course, Carver didn’t need to know the mechanism; he simply needed to know that it worked. In his final story, Carver perfected his use of uncommon objects to carry emotional significance, but he didn’t get to develop it further. He did, of course, leave a wonderful legacy for the writers who came after him.
Peter Jordan is a short story writer from Belfast. He has won numerous bursaries and awards, including three Arts Council Grants. In 2018, he was nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of Net. In 2017, he won the Bare Fiction prize, came second in the Fish and was shortlisted for the Bridport. Over 50 of his stories have appeared in literary magazines and journals, including Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, The Nottingham Review, The Pygmy Giant, Flash500, Thresholds, Litro, The Incubator, The Honest Ulsterman, Dogzplot, Spelk, Fictive Dream, FlashBack Fiction & WordFactory. He has taken time out from a PhD in Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre to complete the edits on his short story collection,Calls To Distant Places, which will be published in May 2019. You will find him on twitter @pm_jordan.