Literary Crush – Raymond Carver

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

 

The most disturbing of reads I find are not the supernatural tales or horror stories or even crime thrillers but those works that meticulously describe the human condition in a state of poverty.

By ‘poverty’ I not only mean financial strain but in particular the all-pervading poverty of spirit which has a soul crushing bleakness that blows through the reader as the coldest of winds. Raymond Carver is a master of conveying this state and the characters that inhabit it.

 

The short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a perfect example of the form of writing known as ‘dirty realism’ or ‘literary minimalism’. Carver explores the lives of predominately working class Americans living or perhaps more correctly struggling to survive in the Pacific Northwest region. Prevalent themes across the collection include the breakdown of marriage through boredom and or infidelity, the devastation of grief, and the futility of both aspirational ambition and love in a world diminished by financial and social pressure.

Images resonate long after the stories finish of claustrophobic lives only tolerable with the short-lived relief provided by alcohol, cigarettes, and or sex. Given this, unsurprisingly, there is also a palpable sense of violence barely restrained within the wafer-thin constraints and facade of a ‘civilised life’.

The closing story ‘One More Thing’ for example, is haunting in its depiction of the anger and desperation of a husband forced out of his home by his wife and child following his own deplorable behaviour of drink and aggression. There is so much pain and so much futility.

‘L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up his suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”

But then he could not think what it could possibly be.’

Carver employs a stripped-back language as the stories unfold through the naturalistic observations and conversations of his characters. This minimalist technique gets the reader right inside the head of the character. We feel what the character feels and see what the character sees and fully inhabit their world. The detail of the writing is visually striking and in just a line of text he crafts the landscape and sets the mood of the moment. In the story ‘The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off’ Carver writes,

‘It was a warm, drifty day. You could see the dust hanging in the air.’

Beyond setting, Carver keenly captures the physical traits that succinctly depict a character.  In the tragic and powerful story ‘The Bath’ about a child knocked over by a car on his birthday, Carver observes of the mother staring lost and anxious at her son lying in the hospital bed,

‘The woman stood there a while longer, working her lip with her teeth.’

With each story you get the sense of arriving into the narrative where something has happened outside of it, with the effect that the drama builds and lives on in your imagination from what is implicit as much as what is explicitly described.  In the opening story ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ a man’s possessions, the entirety of his belongings, sit in the driveway for sale. The question is why? We are never given the answer, just the careful detail of each object that spoke of a life now changed or ended.

But the most disturbing story of the collection for me is its title namesake ‘What We Talk about When We Talk about Love ’. In this penultimate story two couples in love sit around a dinner table slowly getting drunk. They discuss in a rambling way what they think love is. One suggests even violence and suicide is forgivable in the name of love. Another ends their discussion by suggesting to his horrified lover and friends that love simply doesn’t last, even true love is only true for a limited time. In the context of the whole collection it is a message which is devastating, after all the only thing that doesn’t rely on money is love. The only thing that perhaps can lift a life from poverty is love. The loss of love is the loss of the purpose for life itself. This devastation is embodied by the narrator’s final observation,

‘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.’

Commentators note that Carver’s own life carries the themes within it that his writing explores. This makes perfect sense and explains that the power in his work comes from personal experience, adding fuel if it is needed to the writing adage ‘write from your heart’ even if perhaps the end result is hard to read.

 

 

Anna Larner – Author of Highland FlingHooper Street and Love’s Portrait.

Finalist in the 2019 Foreword INDIES Book of The Year, 2019 Rainbow Awards and 2018 Golden Crown Literary Society Awards.

Featured in women.com, DIVA magazine, Gscene magazine, AfterEllen (Top Ten Summer Reads of 2017) and Publishers Weekly.

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Kirsty Logan

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I first came across Kirsty Logan at a special event, marking the 40th anniversary of Gay’s The Word, at the British Library.

She read from ‘Underskirts’, a short story from her collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales and I  was immediately struck by the sensuality of the evocative language, the vivid images, and thought-provoking premise so much so that I bought her collection, curious to read and learn more of this story and the many others.

‘Underskirts’, I discovered, is about the indiscretions of an aristocratic Lady with a not-so-private passion for her maids.

“They love love as I do. They see the straight line of my jaw along the length of their thighs and they see how it fits, the geometry of bodies…I know how to fill the gaps in a girl.”

The best short stories grip the reader with a tension inherent within them and ‘Underskirts’ exemplifies this as every word is heady with sexuality and power, fizzing with the peril of transgression. The reader senses that it is only a matter of time before the Lady’s behaviour is challenged by one of the many onlookers we hear from.

It is perversely fitting that it is her daughter and the thought of her mother’s ‘‘sins’’ that is the Lady’s undoing. The daughter ‘‘tells’’ her father, blind to his wife’s actions by his arrogance, of her mother’s ‘‘wickedness’’.  The Lady’s banishment to isolated confinement for the rest of her days does not shake the Lady’s deep belief that her passions are not needing of repentance but are rather the very essence of ‘‘grace” and “glory’’.

A striking feature of this collection is the scope of storytelling, sweeping from artificial hearts as the answer to broken ones, to coin operated rent boys and to tiger palaces.  Themes blend and contrast together. The notions of “grace” and “glory” explored in ‘Underskirts’ for example are in stark contrast with the unsettling brutal tale of two young men’s search for their brother, amongst the hard-edged drinkers in the bars in the story ‘The Broken West’.

The reader follows the brothers from bar to bar as they desperately seek the intimacy of the blood bond of their brother, so much so the pressure of it bleeds out from an emotional need to a physical one. Sex with men becomes blurred with the search for the physically familiar, the consolation of the same. Every man and no man they meet have at first-glimpse the potential to meet that need, so their search, their “Investigation” seems endless in all its damaging futility.

“Faces look different close up, and the only way to get that close to a stranger is to kiss them or choke them.”

Throughout the tale the one brother Daniel is desperate for the sexual and physical connection of the other brother Jack. Gay love is entwined with incest in a tortured knot of need.  The twist comes in the final paragraph when Daniel encounters a random man who has all the features of their lost brother. Daniel says nothing. The reader is left knowing that finding what they both seek will lose what one brother wants most.

The theme of longing for something runs through the collection, with all the desperation and emptiness that accompanies it. It is a theme mastered and explored in all its forms, notably the search for love, for identity, for freedom and for home. Arguably, the worst longing perhaps is for that which is gone for good – the longing that accompanies grief.

The story ‘Feeding’, for example, is truly haunting in its vivid depiction of a mother’s loss of a baby. The parched earth of the garden the bereaved tries to nurture into life symbolises the hopelessness of bereavement. The emotional toll is embodied in the stark unravelling of the mother starving herself to death. When the relief of the rain comes it is too late.

“Shelley lies among the tomato plants…Her cheeks are concave, her collarbones so sharp they seem about to pierce her chest. Her belly is famine-swollen, tight and round in the cup of her hip bones. The rain falls into her eyes.”

Kirsty Logan is a writer’s writer. By that I mean she inspires a creative vision which is expansive and borderless. She reminds the writer that your work is only limited by the courage to write down the idea, the vision conjured in your head.

I am excited by the further work of hers I will read and excited by the prospect of the work she has inspired in me to write.

 


Kirsty Logan is a professional daydreamer. She is the author of two novels, The Gloaming and The Gracekeepers, and two story collections, A Portable Shelter and The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales. She lives in Glasgow with her wife and their rescue dog. She has tattooed toes. www.kirstylogan.com

 

 

 

Anna Larner – Author of Highland FlingHooper Street and Love’s Portrait.

Finalist in the 2019 Foreword INDIES Book of The Year, 2019 Rainbow Awards and 2018 Golden Crown Literary Society Awards.

Featured in women.com, DIVA magazine, Gscene magazine, AfterEllen (Top Ten Summer Reads of 2017) and Publishers Weekly.

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Carol Ann Duffy

carol-ann-duffyCarol Ann Duffy – the compassionate and authentic Poet Laureate.

As the UK’s first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy has re-imagined the role on her own terms. Gone is the notion of a patriarchal remote, aloof honour and in its place the Poet Laureate has become an open, engaged, and fearless defender of not only poetry but of social justice and equality.

Her impulse to address questions of justice and equality means that Duffy does not shy away from emotive subject matters such as climate change, the banking crisis, and more recently the Orlando nightclub massacre. It is these sorts of life-events that ignite her imagination and stir her to write.

Of her writing intention and process Duffy explains, “It all comes from the same place. There’ll be what you might call a moment of inspiration – a way of seeing or feeling or remembering, an instance or a person that’s made a large impression. Like the sand and the oyster, it’s a creative irritant. In each poem, I’m trying to reveal a truth, so it can’t have a fictional beginning.”1

I particularly admire Duffy’s compassionate search for the truth, her desire to remind us of the simple humanity of things. Her uncomplicated explanation of sexuality in Pink News, for example, was not just simply wonderful but important for people to hear “…it’s fantastic that I’m an openly gay writer, and anyone…who feels shy or uncomfortable about their sexuality should celebrate and be confident and be happy. It’s a lovely, ordinary, normal thing.”2

In my favourite poetry collection ‘Rapture’, Duffy invites the reader to experience the joy of new love, the ache of a lover’s absence and the heartbreak of love lost. The images of the natural world and of the changing seasons are frequently employed and personified to embody emotion, and to enlarge the landscape of the unfolding narratives. But also everyday objects, such as a mobile phone, are drawn into the drama and become the focus for action and feeling. In the poem ‘Text’ the obsessive beginnings of love is found in the words ‘I…look for your small xx feeling absurd.’3

Duffy’s poetry works so well because the reader can relate to it. It is authentic to our experience. She does not want poetry to be remote, either in subject matter or availability.

She is actively seeking out new poetry talent4 and wants poetry to be everywhere. As Jeanette Winterson observes, Duffy ‘has often spoken about poetry as an everyday event and not as a special occasion. She wants us to enjoy poetry, to have as much as we like, to be able to help ourselves to a good, fresh supply, to let poetry be as daily as talking – because poetry is talking.’5

The skill of ‘talking’, however, escaped me when I met Carol Ann Duffy.  I recall standing in the queue at the Warwick Words Festival in 2009, nervously waiting for her to sign my copy of ‘Rapture’. When I reached the front I told myself ‘say something memorable to her’. I managed to mumble shyly “Thank you for your poetry reading”. I remember she looked up at me, pen in hand, the edge of her hand pressing against the open title page “Thank you for coming” she replied, holding my blushing gaze, as she signed a kiss beneath her name and across my heart.

 

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/dec/04/poetry.features
  2. http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2009/05/01/carol-ann-duffy-sexuality-is-a-lovely-ordinary-normal-thing/
  3. page 2, ‘Text’, Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy, Picador, London, 2005 (paperback 2006)
  4. http://poetrysociety.org.uk/competitions/ted-hughes-award/ and https://web.archive.org/web/20121127102519/http://www.picador.com/Blogs/2011/9/Message-from-Carol-Ann-Duffy
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/17/jeanette-winterson-on-carol-ann-duffys-the-worlds-wife

 

 

Anna Larner – Author of Highland FlingHooper Street and Love’s Portrait.

Finalist in the 2019 Foreword INDIES Book of The Year, 2019 Rainbow Awards and 2018 Golden Crown Literary Society Awards.

Featured in women.com, DIVA magazine, Gscene magazine, AfterEllen (Top Ten Summer Reads of 2017) and Publishers Weekly.

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

rita-mae-brown
1.  Rita Mae Brown

“The most revolutionary thing you can do is to be yourself.”2

These are the words of Rita Mae Brown, the 2015 Winner of the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award, and winner of the Lee Lynch Classic Book Award, and author of the seminal novel Rubyfruit Jungle.

Written in 1971, and published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle tells the story of the feisty, resolute and unapologetic heroine Molly Bolt. It was an immediate hit, outselling the capacity of its small press Daughters Inc. 3

Told in the first person through the voice of Molly, the reader intimately follows her development from childhood to her early twenties. Molly is determined not to be told who she is, or who she should be or what she can’t do or think. Her unapologetic attitude to sex in particular is liberating to read. She is her own person and that is her strength and allure. Her confidence glows out to the reader.

“I don’t care whether they [people] like me or not. Everybody’s stupid that’s what I think. I care if I like me that’s what I truly care about.”4

The story of Rubyfruit Jungle is one of a battle, bravely fought, against the casual horrors of Molly’s life. She fights hard to not be limited or defined by her illegitimacy, poverty, homelessness, sexuality, class, societal expectations, racism or by sexism.

However, as with true heroism, she does not escape scar free. When she is expelled from college for causing a scandal by sleeping with her female college roommate, it shapes Molly for good.

“I closed the door forever on idealism and the essential goodness of human nature.”5

And yet she is not a cynical character. She swallows her bitterness and refuses to give in on her ambition to be a film maker, despite the evidence to suggest her dreams are futile. This is inspiring.

Molly becomes a symbolic figure of defiance, a character of contrast to those around her who aren’t as smart or as bravely determined not to be limited by circumstance. Molly’s childhood friends and lovers succumb to their seemingly inevitable fates of marriage and jobs which fit society rather than them. The individual is seen to be lost if it is not claimed, created and fought for, particularly if your start in life presumes against this.

And that for me is the essence of the book – fight to find and be yourself.

Observers are often dismayed when Rita Mae Brown distances herself from seeing Rubyfruit Jungle as a lesbian novel.6 But if you step back from reading Molly purely as a lesbian role model to see Molly also as a campaigner for individual freedom, then you hit upon why Rubyfruit Jungle is so meaningful to so many.

Ultimately Rubyfruit Jungle is about the championing of free will, without which we have nothing other than that imposed on us by others.

“If Rubyfruit Jungle helped to push you on your path to freedom, I’ve done something right.”7   Rita Mae Brown.

  1. The Lavender Menace was an informal group of lesbian radical feminists formed to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_Menace
  2. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2016/jun/rita-mae-brown-introduces-a-new-edition-of-rubyfruit-jungle/
  3. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/rita-mae-brown-rubyfruit-jungle-interview
  4. p. 36, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Penguin Books, 1994.
  5. p. 131, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Penguin Books, 1994.
  6. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/rita-mae-brown-awarded-as-pioneer-of-lesbian-literature-scoffs-at-the-term/2015/05/30/60169a62-00a5-11e5-833c-a2de05b6b2a4_story.html
  7. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2016/jun/rita-mae-brown-introduces-a-new-edition-of-rubyfruit-jungle/

 

Anna Larner – Author of Highland Fling, Hooper Street and Love’s Portrait.

Finalist in the 2019 Foreword INDIES Book of The Year, 2019 Rainbow Awards and 2018 Golden Crown Literary Society Awards.

Featured in women.com, DIVA magazine, Gscene magazine, AfterEllen (Top Ten Summer Reads of 2017) and Publishers Weekly.

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.