In 1986 or thereabout I bought the Carver stories above from a shop in Plymouth whilst visiting my sister. It was the start of my obsession with all things ‘Americana’. I moved on via Granta’s Dirty Realism collection to a whole series of American authors including Lorrie Moore, Bobbie Anne Mason and then backwards towards the Deep South ( a title of a Paul Binding book I still own). Along the way stopping off in a whole number of places revealed to me by these authors. My mental map of USA is formed by them as I have only actually been there once for three days for a conference in New York City.
The subject in a lot of cases were outsiders, renegades..working class trailer trash. The characters who in the last few days have stepped out of ‘wilderness’ America and into all our front rooms as led on by the new Barnum they tried to occupy the centre-ground. The warriors of the marginalised wilds.
Trump’s misguided revolution is a drive-by shooting or a mall massacre on a huge scale. Every misfit and shamen of the dispossessed risen up like a biblical flood not forgetting the Jim Crow preachers and snake oil hucksters and medicin men waiting to profit from the carnage.
Watching this unfold like a sequal to a new series of Justified complete with guns, white supremacists and jingoistic cops leaves a hollow feeling…..
Art imitating life or the other way round?
The American Dream seems somehow tawdry and washed out right now….the idolisation of small town freaks and clowns somehow deeply compromised by their depiction.
There are many predictions of further unrest but frankly a United States Marine against spear carrying shaman is fanciful…..armed highly organised militia with military background far more realistic. Hopefully the above the sideshow to Barnum T’s assault on democracy but who knows what tigers he has in his circus cages or skeletons in the Pentagon…..the next few days will tell.
Hopefully it will be Trump’s Skeleton history stands in line to see not democracy’s….
The first session in Nottingham Contemporary’s season of Southern Writers organised by Graham Caveney was excellent and not only was it a pleasure listening to Richard H. King speak about Southern Writing but there was the added pleasure of meeting the crime novelist John Harvey and his daughter too (John was a American Studies student on M.A. back in the day as they say).
I did not know Flannery O’Connor’s work although I had purchased her Complete Short Stories many years ago..it had languished on my very full and very unread shelves.
The session was a revelation and I have since been working my way through her ‘Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose’ collection which is wonderful. I always knew that one of my favourite writers Raymond Carver had referenced her as a major influence but it only now I seeing why. Her observations on ‘Creative Writing’ courses and their effectiveness made me laugh out loud (see her lecture ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’) ….she speaks of what she knows having been an early Iowa Writers Workshop student where she met John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren.
Here her major works in contemporary covers which shows how she was an illustrator’s dream commission… which leads on to yet another revelation..she was herself a budding cartoonist whilst at College!
The Signature below combines her initials into the form of a bird on her lino-cuts (her chosen medium).
Here some examples and what interesting is there is some stylistic similarity with another Catholic writer/artist Eric Gill possibly somebody she familiar with through Catholic journals. There also a sense of W Heath Robinson too….who possibly she saw as a child..
My favourite photo is this one of her on the veranda at her family farm in Andalusia with one of her beloved chickens ( a interesting connection with fellow Southern writer Alice Walker)
There an interesting blog published by the Museum that the farm has now become:
When she was six, living in a house still standing (now preserved as the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home), she experienced her first brush with celebrity status. The Pathé News people filmed “Little Mary O’Connor” with her trained chicken and showed the film around the country. She said: “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”
What I have responded most strongly to in her writing so far is the confluence of regional identity..humour and this particularly visuality which I shown above.
John Huston’s film of Wise Blood seems embedded with Flannery’s visuality which may be why it seems so sharply drawn from the ‘directions’ in the text. We ‘see’ her world very sharply through her pen in an almost Dickensian sense…I have not read any criticism linking the two but I sure she would have been familiar with Dickens especially ‘American Notes’.
As I mentioned in last post the last three years have been difficult…that an understatement. After my Fine Art M.A. I tried to disengage with art school research and politics and reset my compass entirely to reconnect with my writing past.
I was lucky enough to be published by Salt in 2010 but the majority of the poems in that slim volume (now OOP) were poems I had written in my exciting debut back in 1992 and through my Scottish phase up until 1996.
Between 1997 and 2007 my output slowed from a drip to nothing but in my head I was still writing.
This culminated in a brief and not entirely fruitful term on the NTU Creative Writing course which I left after a miserable first term..I simply wasn’t ready to break the art school connection then. I can now see that this was the start of three years of depression which I now can at least recognise and treat.
I failed the first assignment as I was struggling to complete my first ever paid poetry commission for RIBA…..
I managed to complete that but the course suffered……
That essay tried to lay the ghost of my possible grandfather (see Coppard essay below) and I was gone…
With a final diva-like flourish I delivered the Fiction module short story…..I was too good for them I convinced myself burying the mental block once again..
David Belbin (standing in for the recently deceased Graham Joyce) was kind and marked it rigorously with his editors pencil and announced it a good ‘tough’ story which made me smile as I deliberately imitated the hard-boiled approach and dirty realism we both admired and played up to his stylistic tics. I put the story away in a draw until today..metaphorically it available online all the time here….
I think it good now I re-read it after nearly three years. I was going to change the detail of letting off the leash which I now know you can never do with a ex racing greyhound but the story still works because it suggests the woman and dog have a trust beyond its training and it could be read as the man provokes the running away….so I have not re-edited at all.
Little did I know that far from opening the floodgates of a irrepressible new fiction talent it was closing the door….since then I have struggled to ward off depression whilst dealing with circumstances of a personal nature that to be frank almost overwhelming.
But I have come through and part of my dealing with the mental block, the lack of an occupation ( I resigned from academic lecturing in January 2016) and my wife’s concurrent illness has meant that I now ‘re-engaging’ with the writing world.
Last night I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by academic Richard H. King on Flannery O’Connor where I met again John Harvey himself ( the person who published my very first poem way back in 1992 in Slowdancer thus starting my literary ‘non-career’ ) and Graham Caveney who has taken a similarly circuitous route back to writing as me and shares a love of obscure musical knowledge and the band The Feelies 🙂
It feels like everything has come full circle…maybe just maybe this time I can keep going but as I known to my cost it never easy.
As Carver writes in a wonderful essay on writing here …
Having self-published the latest pamphlet in an intentionally ongoing series ( I aim to publish a ’round-up’ pamphlet twice a year from now on) here some author’s notes on the poems.
The latest is ‘Burning Books’ Horseshoe Press Pamphlet No. 2 and I thought I’d try and describe what influenced the poems and what I think I doing which invariably different to what the reader imputes.
Burning Books and Buying Time ..education, morals, politics..everything can be bought these days. I am literally buying time at present using up savings before the next employment…..if there is a next one…
The Dance of Debt
The dance of debt been going on since time immemorial but never has it been such a mantra from the ruling classes..
Things are not getting any better no matter how many J.K.Rowling novels we burn….
Iggy Pop in a sideboard
True story on Foundation Art at Oxford Polytechnic I suddenly had enough money to buy my third ever vinyl album. The first was an MFP Oliver the musical soundtrack. The second was Alice Cooper’s Bilion Dollar babies then this. The copy I purchased was so warped it kept skidding when played on the Dansette tweed record player kept in my parent’s sideboard. I returned it to Woolworths and traded it for a flat copy of XTC’s White Music. I heard just enough of The Passenger to ‘get it’ and the details about Berlin are fantasy thoughts prompted by a documentary and footage shown after Bowie’s death.
Just for fun completely random stuff which has overtones of suicide airline pilots from the news owing something to Prynne and Oliver but not sure what. I never been a strident modernist in that vain and frankly get bored with poetry that needs decyphering or pretends to be something it isn’t. The factionalism of contemporary poetry means that if you go down that road you will have a loyal and small audience and not much else. It a good route for academics. A love of Bob Cobbing helps..the poetic equivalent of trainspotting.
London Calling (45)
Start of a series of Vinyl 45 related poems. Short and lyrical …that’s it with overtones of political comment just like the original songs.
Working on a Building of love (45)
See above any link to Corbyn is purely coincidental and anyway I ditched Labour for the Greens.
A Poundland sonnet
Both these ‘sonnets’ written pre-election. Angry squibs. Didn’t help the shits won anyway.
A Wreckless scheme
A retort to the great God Armitage’s dull work in the field. Armitage is like New Labour very successfull and very dull.
Edwin Smith – Catching Light
A commission, a PAID commission no less, for R.I.B.A. Now online at RIBA website too. Loved it as gave free rein to my retro-technology obsessions. Each verse dedicated to a particular camera Smith used at different times in his life. Lead to some interesting places which will explore further like Zeppelins over Wembley, 1930s Camden, Orwell and Fascism.
The description of the down-land cottage all true. My dad was a farm labourer in early 1960s. We were so poor he bred rabbits to sell. The memory of Matilda comes from school history lessons. Matilda fled Oxford and was given refuge at Wallingford (my school’s location) Castle. Her action changed history and ensured that the Plantagenet line was in power later. No Matilda no QEII..which despite all the 90th Birthday celebrations might have been a good thing..in fact how about no Royals at all? Personal note I fled Oxford too but on a London bound overcrowded National Express coach. Not quite as romantic…
The selling of England by the Pound was most brutal in the destruction of William Morris’s original company. Rover was the biggest employer when I a child now it the University. They let it rust….
Postcard to Okinawa
I hate acronyms especially nasty little ones that belittle the working class which most of them seem to be funnily enough…
The Oxford Professor of Poverty
Dedicated to Simon Armitage who has hoovered up everything I could ever aspire too with some of the dullest poetry I ever read.
Success in Britain is never offending anybody…and toeing the line forever…..New Labour through and through. His first book is where it ended for me…
Self-explanatory. Whilst writing I referred to Edwin Muir.
I was also was reading Cesar Vallejo in great translations published by Richard Price ( a proper poet) at Southfields.
Awfully Middle Class
Again says it on the tin. A classist rant and I aint apologising. If you are going to publish boring self-referential holiday snaps about reading Dante on the beach then be prepared for a slagging..naming no names..
Self-explanatory but I lost count of the number of times privileged i.e. wealthy middle class people have told me that life is what you make it, you make your own luck, you only have yourself to blame etc etc. BULLSHIT..this country is totally controlled and run by money and the class system has become MORE not less embedded in my lifetime. I would not have had a decent education in post Thatcher Britain because that is how the Middle Class voted and would like it to stay…if you poor you don’t get in the door…
SHORT STORY: THE LEASH
About the only thing I got out of my brief tenure on a creative writing course at NTU. Heavily influenced by David Belbin’s particularly rigorous copy-editing. He would make a great editor. It a parody of a Scottish Working Class realist story from mid 1980s. Not bad for a first attempt. More James Kelman than Irvine Welsh thank god …
The full story and a ‘contextual document’ about influences we had to submit alongside it are available on the blog here:
We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…
The leash to the greyhound tightened around her red raw hand. Across the river the lights of the car factory flickered and bounced in the water and she finally let go. The dog hesitated,then was gone, streaking off across the frosty ground toward the derelict bandstand that was disappearing in the dusk. She watched the dog circle the bandstand and head back across the icy grass. She suddenly thought of the family car her father drove when she was a child. The memory of warm leatherette seats and chrome trim around the dashboard vividly came to mind. Sometimes it smelt of his mistress. A sweet smell that was different to her mother. She wondered about the furtive kissing and hasty meetings that must have happened in that old car. She thought of his hand resting on the back seat on another cheap night out holding a cigarette. There was always a cigarette. Most times the car just smelt of the stubbed out butts in the ashtray. She remembered the ash swirling up and over her when the door opened once and her angry mother brushing it off her party dress.
The dog bounded away then returned. She always did. Her sides panting with the exertion of a few laps of the park. One time the dog had just kept going. She went home and had taken the back of Jimmy’s hand when she told him. He told her off for being ‘so fuckin stupid’. The two of them spent hours in another twilight looking for the pale grey dog. They were about to give up when she suddenly appeared from some bushes. Her right paw was dripping blood and leaving red paw marks on the tarmac path. It was probably caused by a broken bottle left in the undergrowth by the drunks that used the bandstand during the day or one of the teenagers who collected there of an evening. Jimmy said he’d never trust her with the dog again. A class dog in its day so he said,so he’d be walking her now. Just him. It didn’t last long. After a week he gave up walking her every night. He preferred the pub and his mates after a day as a plumber’s mate. So here they were again, her and that dog, circling the same dumb riverside park. The council estate behind them ricocheted to the sound of joy-riders cars and helicopters overhead as usual on a Sunday evening. She’d always liked the dog, more than Jimmy if she was honest. The dog was gentle and curled up at her feet when Jimmy shouted at her or showed her the back of his hand.
She bent forward and just managed to catch a hold of the collar. Felt the studs scratch the back of her hand as she struggled to attach the lead. Finally it was secure and she tugged the dog gently back towards captivity. They started the slow walk back down the side street that led home from the park. She watched the frost on the chain-link glisten. It was almost festive. The moon and stars above were fast being hidden by cloud as rain clouds came in. The quarter-moon above flashed and then disappeared like a coin in a drain. A woman in high heels and a tight dress careered into her, obviously in a hurry. The stupid woman almost fell over the dog’s lead. She shivered, just a little, then heard the first siren. Then another and blue lights flashing in the bay windows of the houses at the top of their street. Distant foreign and English voices merged as they echoed down the street toward her. She heard crying. Loud men’s voices shouting. Then she saw the van. Jimmy’s van. It was parked at a weird angle, half on, half off the pavement. She felt confused. It wasn’t time for him to be back from the pub yet. Every Sunday evening he’d leave her cooking mid-afternoon to watch the football and be back by seven. Always. It was half past six. Then she saw him sat on the pavement head in hands, not moving. Sat on the frosty pavement with a police-woman standing over him speaking into a radio. The police-woman’s hand on his shoulder half in sympathy, half restraining. As she got closer the voices became clearer but the foreign accents still confused her. The dog sensed Jimmy and started tugging hard on the leash. She wanted to go to him but held them both back.
Then she saw the bundle of rags under the front wheel. At least that what she thought it was until the shape of a small child’s shoe became clear. A paramedic was cutting the clothing from the child’s legs. The body was so still. She was now close enough to see a dark pool of what must be blood. Shone like a patch oil in the headlights. A woman in a long dress was being held back by a large bearded man. Other men were arriving or coming out of a local house. There was a lot of shouting in a language she did not understand. She had never talked to the people down the road. Jimmy said they were immigrants, or worse asylum seekers. Jimmy wasn’t the type to mix with anybody he didn’t know let alone their sort. He locked his tools away each night just in case after they had moved in. He’d heard stories down the pub. She stopped and could now see things clearly. Nobody seemed to see her or the dog. Jimmy’s van door was open. She could see the mess inside. Empty beer cans, empty sandwich wrappers. She stopped dead. Heart racing. The dog dragging at her outstretched hand which was now raw from holding on. Clouds still scudding across the quarter moon and the pavement glistening white under the streetlights. She could hear Jimmy sobbing now. Something was being said to him. A policeman got out of a second police car and pushed a breathalyzer at him. Head down at first Jimmy didn’t see it. The sobbing was making his body rock like the dog panting earlier. She’d never seen him cry. He was the tough guy. Always. The big man when out with his mates. He did things his way always. She just stayed out of the way. Most evenings she’d spend in that dimly lit front room with the telly on. Sometimes she’d light a cigarette from one of Jimmy’s smuggled packs even though she was trying to give up. Occasionally if lucky she’d treat herself to a single glass of cheap white wine from Tesco. She never got to join in the lad’s nights outs. ‘Girls was not allowed’, that was what Jimmy said. Most nights it was just her and the dog, watching Eastenders or some shit.
All of that had just changed. A third police car passed her and an ambulance pulled in behind. She couldn’t quite take it all in but like the clouds above her things were changing and moving on. The dog still tugged hard on the lead trying to join in the action. Suddenly there was a burst of activity and the child was lifted into the back of the ambulance at the same time as Jimmy was finally pulled to his feet and led to the second police car. There was a small bundle of rags left on the pavement soaked in blood. The second car disappeared with Jimmy. The ambulance left and there was just the first police woman inside her car now talking to her radio. She got out and started winding blue and white tape around Jimmy’s van and up on to the pavement.
She felt like she’d been watching T.V. Nothing seemed quite real. This was not the kind of thing that happened to her. Everything had a dull routine. Now this. She eased the tight lead on her fingers to try and get some circulation into her frozen fingers. The dog continued to pull at the leash. It was getting agitated and started to bark. She had to do something. Instead of walking past the police woman she turned and hauled the dog back towards the darkened path and the park where they’d come from. The dog sensed something had changed. She did too. She tried to take it all in. She wanted to be in their front room as if nothing had happened. Back in that dimly lit space with the dusty cheese-plant, the dodgy video player and the telly. She walked back around the park in the exact same pattern as before. She even pulled the lead off the dog but she just stared back at her and didn’t move. She shouted ‘go on…off you go’ but nothing. She gave up knelt down and held her tight and re-attached the collar. She could feel the dog’s heart pounding through its bony chest. She knew things like this happened to other people but she still couldn’t relate it to her and Jimmy. She remembered her mum used to say….’you don’t know what you don’t know’. It had never made any sense before. She started crying. She led the dog towards what used to be home.
She started to think about the child. Was it dead. Was Jimmy in really big trouble? What was happening? She was shivering from being out in the cold too long. Turning into their street again she saw the police woman driving toward them leaving the blue and white tape flapping around the van. She summoned up the courage to walk past on the other side of the road. The bundle of rags was still on the pavement glistening with frost under the street-light. She started to feel sick. She passed the house the people had come out of earlier. All the lights were on and she saw men talking in the front room. There were even more men than she remembered and more people arriving as she got to their front door. The key turned easily for the first time in months. She usually had to wrestle with it. The door swung open. The main light was on. Jimmy must have been back whilst they were at the park which was odd. Suddenly she could smell stale ash and the sweet smell of sex just like in her father’s car. Maybe she was imagining it. There were a couple of empty beer cans on the table. She didn’t remember them being there earlier.
She felt sick and let the dog go, still on its lead, then ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet bowl. She looked in the mirror. She wiped the blur of mascara from round her eyes and rinsed the taste of sick from her mouth. She stood there listening to the familiar sound of the dog lapping water from its bowl downstairs. She’d left the front door open and could hear foreign voices from down the road again. A siren could be heard but far away. Somebody else’s problem. Finally she went downstairs and closed the door. She sat for what seemed like ages looking at the cream plastic receiver on the wall. It never rang. Suddenly she went to the kitchen and fed the dog, grabbed some packets of crisps from the kitchen cupboard and went back upstairs to the bedroom. It took ten minutes to cram her few clothes into her old holiday suitcase. Grabbing her thickest coat she started explaining to the dog why they were leaving. She picked up the trailing leash and pulled the dog after her. They passed the blue and white tape, the frosted van, and the now stiff and frozen bundle of blood-stained rags and were gone.
Thanks Ray….and Tess.
Get in, Get Out: Writing the Short Story ‘The Leash’
These words are from Raymond Carver’s 1985 collection ‘Fires’ which was a starting point for my own engagement with the idea of writing short stories. Apart from a few false starts, which were closer to prose poetry than the traditional short story, ‘The Leash’ is my first attempt at the form. From the 1980s onwards I was drawn to the works of Thomas McGuane, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Anne Phillips. I became familiar with the concept of ‘dirty realism’ as defining American fiction from this period. The notion of ‘Sudden Fiction’ (the title of a 1986 anthology also known as ‘Flash Fiction’ or ‘Short Short Fiction’) appealed as it related to song-writing in its brevity. It was a style I felt familiar with both artistically and politically and it connected to the kind of music and lyric-writing I was engaged in. I wrote poetry but did not consider myself a prose writer. I have found the process of starting from zero in fiction very difficult. Far more difficult than I expected. Having lost the connection to writing poetry until recently and not reading fiction I found myself a complete beginner again. Apart from the Americans the most important writers to me historically were Chekhov (discovered through Carver) and Scottish and Irish writers. I did not and still do not consider myself as part of a particularly ‘English’ scene or style.
To ‘jump-start’ so to speak the learning process I read as many and various short stories as I could in the first term. The emphasis in class on constant reading producing writing made perfect sense to me and it was the reading that I lacked. I read as many short stories as I could including Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, John Burnside, Matthew Licht, John McGahern, Arthur Machen, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, John Romano etc. I liked some, hated others but used each reading experience and published an online critique for each as ‘Daily Shorts’. This experience was really useful as it started me analysing exactly what I might want from the fiction I wrote. The writers I selected were sometimes deliberate e.g. poets who wrote fiction like Carver and Burnside and other writers which outside my comfort zone like Machen and Romano (a scriptwriter). I found the experience both pleasurable as I reacquainted myself with past heroes like McGahern and Carver and also troubling as I struggled with more contemporary short story writers like Gaffney and Licht. My age was a factor that also coloured my experience here and in class as the generational changes in writing fiction, the new ideas of what fiction was or could be and the emphasis on generic styles like fantasy and historical fiction helped to challenge my ‘older white male’ literary boundaries. I have now completed two 2000 word pieces of fiction. The first of these in hindsight was where I made most of my mistakes. Leaving aside the number of ‘as’ or the over long sentences I now feel that jumping in at the deep end with a pseudo-historical Zeppelin spy novel with embedded images in the manner of W.G. Sebald may have been a tad ambitious. However just the physical act of creating 2000 words was a major achievement for somebody who had not got past 1000 words of any fiction before. My bizarre version of ‘Riddle of The Sands’ set on the Norfolk coast received the feedback it deserved and although there were good ideas embedded in the piece it has gone into the bottom draw for now.
‘The Leash’ is my first short story. It is just under 2000 words and the statement at the beginning is a reminder to myself of what I trying to do which draws on both A.E.Coppard and Jonathan Taylor’s introductions concerning the ‘orality’ of specifically short fiction.
We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…
It is simply a note to self….do not run, walk. Craft before imagination. Get in and get out. Write about what you know first. Written in one go no editing it relates to how I write poetry now. As a young man I constantly rewrote pieces to the point of destruction. I employed similar techniques in painting often losing work because of over working. Having hand-written it (important to me as this how I write best) I then re-edited a couple of times on the laptop. This feels right to me. I have read many descriptions of writing technique and this what suits me best others may have different approaches. I am happier with the story. It relates to a poem called ‘Greyhound in Frost’ written in 2002 but takes a completely different approach to the mid-1990s subject matter. It is my first attempt to write from a third person narrator point of view about a female character which means it not completely ‘authentic’ but I did my best. I still struggle with the idea of dialogue. It may form part of a sequence of short stories to be called ‘The Oxford Stories’. I think it is the first time I have found a ‘voice’ that like my poetry in fiction. Political, realist, working-class it is definitely not academic, historical nor particularly English in terms of influence. I have more in common with James Kelman than any Oxbridge writer…..hence the greyhound in the story is a tip of my hat to all of that.
 Raymond Carver, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.
 Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction:American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)
I have waited 22 years to talk about this….there are many reasons for that.
I hope this page explains all of them and offends no-one but truth will always be stranger than fiction. I dedicate the page to Daisy and Ivo Belcher.
I have finally after 30 years of thinking about it produced 2000 words of prose fiction which a relief as I had built up a mental block of ever actually doing it because I have been so immersed in art and poetry. The document has been sent to my class for discussion Tuesday evening so I am not posting the actual document until after the work-shopping.
I not sure it short story length already maybe 7000 do-able but it could be the start of a novel! Not quite the story I expected either but that the beauty of the internet one can find wormholes that set you off down a new path. In this case the mention of ‘spies’ in Norfolk set me off on a completely different angle to the original plot:-).
I was a big fan of action stories as a kid and consumed vast amounts of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, W.E.Johns,Ian Fleming, Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley etc etc.
Who would have thought that would come back to me now but it is fun…. 🙂
My first Atwood short story. Fairly long approximately 6000 words long. This length allows a fair amount of third person P.O.V. switching as the ‘hidden’ narrator which feels a lot like Ms Atwood such is the strength of her voice to ‘inhabit’ each of the different actors on the stage. The stage in this instance being a particularly creepy ‘new money’ lodge built in the Canadian wilderness which is more David Lynch than Twin Peaks and makes one wonder if Atwood influenced the young Lynch at all.
The story even ends with a ‘almost’ drowning scene that could have come straight from a Lynch movie although Atwood is sufficiently skilled to leave the ending open-ended.
In between we are first introduced to post-war emigrant, gangster and falsely named ‘George’ who only reveals his Hungarian roots with an accurate Hungarian curse mid story. It soon apparent that all the ‘actors’ Atwood assembles are in some way symbolic and deliberately set against the ‘wilderness’ for a reason.
The three sisters (muses…goddesses etc) represent the three states of womanhood….aggressive, academic and victim. Atwood’s seminal study of Canadian Literature ‘Survival’ focused on the victim theme in literature and also delineated a lot of the minor themes brushed up against in passing through this story. Atwood is no slouch in minor detail opening up wide vistas as in her description of the grandfather’s bookcase and the book which gives the story its title. (There is however no actual book called ‘Wilderness Tips’ apart from the author’s own which a neat trick to defeat all but the most diligent Googler).
The characters are not filled in too much but reflect the psychologies attached to them the least satisfying being the depiction of the office-bound ‘weak’ man of brother Roland. I never quite lost the feeling that Atwood was sermonising here and never sufficiently suspended my disbelief to get involved in the plot which boils down to bad man sleeps with all three sisters as he bound to by his nature.
Atwood isn’t above some sharp poking of the male psyche whenever able as the collection of essays ‘Curious Pursuits’ attests. Indeed the collection contains one essay actually titled ‘Writing the male character’ which makes Lionel Shriver look like a wallflower.
‘George’ is a sinister depiction of a lizard like consumer of both people and property. His inner thoughts do not quite ring true but Atwood is using a broad brush to make her point. George represents the ‘machine’ in the garden to paraphrase Leo Marx and like the serpent in this natural ‘Eden’ of the Canadian wilderness represents all that bad in the male destruction of nature.
‘Token Woman’ (her words) Atwood spits venomously in the essay about male character where she defends the depiction of ‘bad’ men rather than pandering to fake’new men’ well before the term coined. This fine if we sufficiently engaged to believe in the character but not when it a poison pen portrait or a stand in for a character as here. The most creative act he makes in the entire story is to have sex with the remaining not ticked off sister.
The female characters are interesting especially the ‘proto-feminist’ intellectual and therefore obviously least ‘sexual’ Pamela. Is not Atwood here demonstrating the kind of cliched viewpoints she so pointedly rails against? Set against her is the sexually voracious Prue and the demure,homely Portia……all obvious cyphers for states of mind. The rest of the stories in the collection famously depicted various literary figures who had helped or hindered Atwood and she settled old scores
Hints of this waspishness abound in Pamela’s sharp questioning of every word…’news or olds’, or in Prue’s ‘there is a need to be nasty’. One can almost taste the scorn on the character’s tongue coming direct from the puppet master here.
Most interestingly one could read the entire tale as one woman’s various natures treading between the hunter gatherer and the home-builder. Maybe it is really an academic feminist essay on how does the female intellect prosper in the ‘wilderness’ of male dominated modern and literary life….outside of the steel and glass towers, the wars of blood and oil. In this respect Atwood seems to suggest with her ending that the women always compromise rather than fight and that is how it ends with the line..manifesto?
She would be invisible, of course. No one would hear her. And nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before.
The women survive…which was the title of the literary study.. SURVIVAL in the real wilderness of words.
First published in 1973 as ‘The Summer Steelhead’ (Seneca review, Vol. 4, no. 1 (May, 1973) and later as ‘Nobody said anything’.
Smudging was widespread practice amongst Yakima fruit-farmers. Pollution stopped crops being frost-damaged. (Source: Carol Sklenicka: Raymond Carver – A writer’s Life 2009.)
In the original story the final lines are different referring to the half-fish:
“He looked silver under the porch light. He was whole again, and he filled the creel until I thought it would burst.. I lifted him out. I held him.”
In the version I have read from the collection Will You Please be Quiet, Please? (‘The stories of Raymond Carver’- Picador 1985) the story ends:
“I went back outside. I looked into the creel.What was there looked silver under the porch light. What was there filled the creel.
I lifted him out . I held him. I held that half of him.”
Despite Carver’s insistence that this not autobigraphy the details (all except the fruit-farming’) match his upbringing and he admits to several incidents that patched together form the story.
1973 was the year he took up ‘full-time’ drinking and also three years before the publication of the short story collection this comes from.
The change in title and ending may reflect the influence of Gordon Lish whom Carver had met by now.
The change of ending maybe reflects the bitter realism of his relationship with his father who had died in 1967. The ‘half of him’ may relate to the broken relationship and the pain of his childhood.
As he says in a memoir:
Then he died. I was a long way off, in Iowa City, with things still to say to him. I didn’t have the chance to tell him goodbye, or that I thought he was doing great at his new job. That I was proud of him for making a comeback.
From My Father’s Life
the last line of Photograph of My Father also brings the two painfully together.
But the eyes give him away, and the hands that limply offer the string of dead perch and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you, yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either, and don’t even know the places to fish?
To me the poems and short stories are two sides of the same coin. The poems have been criticised formally but they are more interested in ‘saying’ than the formal concerns of language.
To me this is essential Carver. Male narrative at its best. Undertones of ecological miss-handling serving as ‘burners’ under the male indiscretions, foolishness and blind stupidity. Carver is all about how men fail and why they fail and why they cannot be saved from that failure.
He says in an interview that with this story he felt he had ‘tapped into something’ that something was the poetics of failure raised to a fine art.
Male egos as divided selves pulled apart by domestic bliss and terror as in his own life. Drink was the fuel for that burner and he doused himself in it for 4 years and almost succeeding in extinguishing his own flame just like his father. That he managed to stop the fires is a miracle.
I love Carver but I do not want to be him and write from that smoky place.