‘Why Don’t You Dance’ by Raymond Carver

McEwan, Paley and Ballard were my models, and I spent most of my time as an MA student at UEA trying – and failing – to emulate them. If Malcolm Bradbury had an opinion on this he didn’t say, but my other MA teacher was Angela Carter, and she did. I submitted a single page of single-spaced typewriting that attempted to be McEwan, Paley and Ballard all at once. “Oh Andrew,” she sighed, “why don’t you just write about what you know.” She gave me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. She had no use for it, but assumed I might – and I did. In the years that followed it seemed that everyone aspired to be Raymond Carver, if they didn’t already aspire to be Angela Carter. For a short while I tried – and repeatedly failed – to emulate ‘Why Don’t You Dance’. It’s still mysterious to me how it works, but when I began to write about what I knew, in a voice that sounded more plausibly like mine, the permission came from Raymond Carter – via Angela Carter – and has much to do with his embrace of the everyday and the quixotic in the quotidian.

First published in Quarterly West, 1978. Collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1983, as well as Where I’m Calling From and Collected Stories

‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ by Raymond Carver

I first read this story in my teens as a result of seeing the brilliant Short Cuts by Robert Altman. The story interests me in part because it’s about a gulf of understanding, about a deep disparity of knowledge and feeling that can arise between men and women around questions of violence, degradation, and bodily dignity – something I am thinking a lot about these days. The narrator’s husband goes on a weekend fishing trip with friends; they discover a dead girl’s body floating in the river, but choose not to curtail their trip or inconvenience themselves by finding a phonebox to call the police. Carver makes economical use of the queasy mingling of the fish they acquire and the female corpse they ignore. The narrator’s subsequent horror at the men’s indifference, and her anxiety about her husband’s implication in the story, draw an increasingly violent wedge between husband and wife. There are some killer lines: “He put his arms around me and rubbed his hands up and down my back, the same hands he’d left with two days before.” It’s an uncomfortable and astute rendering of the sickly knowledge of male violence with which women live.

In Where I’m Calling From: The Collected Stories, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988

‘Elephant’ by Raymond Carver

My mother and my daughter and my former wife. That’s three people on the payroll right there, not counting my brother. But my son needed money, too.

It was hard to choose just one Raymond Carver story but this is the one that has stayed with me the longest, perhaps because of the hopelessly unfair situation the narrator is in. He works long hours in a dead-end job in order to support various family members whose demands become increasingly unreasonable. Carver perfectly captures the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that the narrator feels. Yet despite this he still manages almost angelic moments of optimism and good will towards the world and even his hapless and predatory relatives.
Published in The New Yorker, June 9, 1986 and collected in Elephant and Other Stories, The Harvill Press, 1988 and Where I’m Calling From, The Harvill Press, 1993. Read it online here

‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver

‘My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.’

A prejudiced, bitter, stoned narrator is asked by his blind guest, a friend of his wife, to draw a cathedral. Their hands both holding the pen, the guest says: “‘Go ahead, bub, draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.” It leads to an emotional moment of catharsis and transformation for the narrator ‘like nothing else in life up to now’; he keeps his eyes closed and keeps drawing even when he doesn’t have to. Early Carver includes stories I like a lot, including ‘Fat’ and ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’, but they always seem to be written outside of his own skin. I find the Carver brand of nihilism somewhat distancing. This story was the first Carver I read where it felt he was writing with real feeling – he had stopped drinking, had re-evaluated life and in his own words, “was in a period of generosity. The story affirms something” as a result.

In Cathedral (Vintage, 1983)

‘Errand’, by Raymond Carver

As a Chekhov devotee it might seem odd I should choose a story about, not by, Chekhov. But in truth, I prefer his plays, and this, about Chekhov’s final moments and death by champagne is classic Carver – or classic Gordon Lish (Carver’s editor), as we might now be led to believe. Regardless of that, it has all the precision, sobriety and exquisite timing of Carver’s best work with an added Russian flourish, and is the last story in Elephant, the collection published in the final year of Carver’s life. (Carver died aged 50 in 1988). My best friend, Sonia Misak, with whom I’ve been sharing stories both real and imagined  for most of our lives, gave me my copy of Elephant at New Year 1990. Carver was quite possibly already terminally ill when he wrote ‘Errand’, but in it he is exploring Chekhov the writer rather than Chekhov the dying man; and reading it calls to mind that great line of Virginia Woolf’s: ‘I meant to write about death, but life kept breaking in as usual.’

(Originally published in Elephant. Also in from Where I’m Calling From, Harvill, 1993)