Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Reading Carver's 'A Small Good Thing' with a class this morning, reading round, voice by voice, some with colds, some with voice almost gone. We are bearing Carver's own 'On Writing' in mind as we go, so we take a paragraph or episode at a time. In fact, though I have often read this story before, I hadn't quite noticed how episodic it is, how filmic ("Came out best in Short Cuts," one student pipes up), and how determined it is to do things its own way. The sentences are reiterations of the same simple structure: She saw... She went... She stood... She turned... one after the other like a riff. Same with motifs: coma, hand... It is the blue collar man's distrust of fancy language, the preference for honest assembly line work.
And how beautiful it is. The short Hemingwayesque sentences, those stumpy fingers, are feeling very carefully round the edges of the mind under stress. 'On Writing' quotes Isaac Babel's "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place." It is the poetry of such curt, considerate craftsmanship that can be quite breathtaking.
In the story, about a car accident, the worried mother of the victim, comes across someone else in the hosptial, whose son who has been stabbed at a party. That person is as worried as she is. Later, on returning to the hospital, she asks about the stabbed boy and is told that he has died.
She does not register it. Or rather we are not shown her registering it. She has her own troubles. But we register it. It pierces our hearts with terrible force. He is nothing to us, but it is how things are.
How things are, is what he writes about so beautifully. Although I had read the story, as I say, many times, I had forgotten this incident, or maybe did not want to remember it. I could have wept for a moment. Then it passed.