Tag Archives: short stories

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

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

I do not know if Raymond Carver’s America was the true America of the mid ’70s, or whether it was his own unique vision of the way things were. In a way I don’t want it to have been that America, simply because his short stories are so full of broken, fractured moments of horrible silence that I don’t know if I could have handled it.

It’s also hard to review collections of short stories, for me, anyway. Carver’s are a little easier just because the voice of them is so strong, and though the characters are different across each, the main thrust of them seems to be the same, over and over again. We have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about love. Or when we talk at all. I’m not even going to go into the debate about Carver post-Lish or pre-Lish, because the point is that the final product, the one that everyone knows, is the iconic product. The stripped down sentences, the leanness of the stories, the many things left unwritten by the author and unsaid by the characters, half-portraits of broken lives and empty bottles.

There isn’t much hope in Carver, and reading him, you can almost feel your blood alcohol level rising. There are strange moments of beauty in the ugliness, though. And that’s why I keep reading.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”
But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

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Jorge Luis Borges — Collected Fictions

Of course, again, the problem with re-reading my favorite books is that not only do I mostly have good things to say about them, but everything that you could say about them has already been said, and far more eloquently than I could ever hope to do. That is the case with Borges especially, because academics and reviewers alike love him, and for good reason (even if he was a reprehensible person sometimes, which I try not to think about, because I enjoy his writing so much).

I have mixed feelings about this particular edition of his short fiction: it collects a lot of things from across his life span, including at least a few stories from each edition, although the feeling that you’re missing something is a hard one to shake. I have yet to find a volume that is more complete than this, and it’s also hard to find the individual volumes, with the exception of Ficciones, in translation (the curse of not being good with languages strikes again). Still, for what it is, it’s pretty good (for the record I own the Andrew Hurley Collected edition). Again, I can’t speak for whether the translation is good or accurate, but it seems to be consistent with the voice I’ve seen in other versions.

As for the stories themselves it is hard to say exactly why they are so appealing. But it seems appropriate that the words and themes that run through Borges’ work are also words that are the aptest descriptions of his oeuvre: elegant, mysterious, labyrinthine, memory, infinite. Of course they would be: that sort of self-referential looping must have tickled the old man as he wrote. The stories are constructed with infinite care, unfolding like beautiful, miniature academic articles. What Borges does with history is surreal: he embroiders it just enough so that it is still believeable, but something beyond belief, as well. His language is deceptively simple, but with even such a carefully chosen adjective as “elegant” in the right place, he achieves that very simplicity and elegance in his words.

Borges’ world is one of libraries, of cowboys, of rebels and mazes, of minotaurs and men of infinite memory. It is easy to sink in and out, to forget the world around you, and just to concentrate on this parallel universe where everything is part of some mysterious plan, which you, yes you, could also be a part of.

I don’t usually read Borges more than once a year, but it’s always a treat to return to him.

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Roberto Bolaño — Last Evenings on Earth

I’m not generally a huge fan of short stories, for some reason–they’re harder to do properly; with so little space it seems as though authors sometimes have trouble saying everything that needs to be said. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And ugh, again with the gushing. Bolaño makes it work. The short stories contained within Last Evenings on Earth are thematically linked: most are about artists, most on some kind of failed quest. As with many of his other works, characters that appear there occasionally crop up; for example The Savage Detectives’ Arturo Belano makes several appearances. The stories have the dark humor and sense of muddling along that characterizes most of his work. As a cohesive grouping, they work very well, but each story is also entertaining on its own.

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Aleksandar Hemon — Love & Obstacles

Aleksandar Hemon’s writing is something really special; his The Lazarus Project was one of my favorite books I read in 2008. It is both lyrical and humorous and generally engaging. He writes often of the Bosnian experience; it’s an interesting perspective in addition to the very human, believable characters that he creates. This latest work, Love & Obstacles, is a collection of linked short stories (most of them follow the life of one man, from his childhood encountering American drug addicts in Africa, to his eventual emigration, and his attempts to write poetry). It is, like The Lazarus Project a fantastic book.

The title comes from one of those linked stories, the line of a poem that the narrator pens after trying (and failing) to seduce a married woman; the outcome is painfully comical and cringe-inducing, setting up the irony of the grand pronouncements of the title of the book, as well as the poems in that particular short story. Though the stories skip around in time and space, they will keep your attention until the end of the book, which almost (almost) functions as a novel on its own.

Part of the reason that Hemon’s writing is so effective is the strange, out-of-place bits of humor and ugliness that pepper it. Just when you’re starting to get swept up in the moment, there’s an ugly word like ass or a phrase like, for example, when a drunken poet returns home to his wife with a friend in tow:

…cursing in the most beautiful Bosnian and listing all her sins against him: her bastard son, her puritanism, her president, her decaf coffee.

How can you not love it? In some books such little details or ugly words might jar you out of the swing of the story, but here, they are simply little odd, ugly embroideries on the life of a man always out of place.

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