Bed early one night this week, exhausted from busy day. Body collapsed into deep sleep. Woke at 6am and read more Raymond Carver short stories. Read two in a row, both about alcoholism. ‘Careful’, then, ‘Where I’m Calling From’. Used to have a copy of a thick anthology of that name – ‘Where I’m Calling From’. I can see Carver on the cover, black and white picture of him sitting at a desk looking strong and handsome, a post-alcoholic picture of him. You can tell from these stories he has sympathy for those who drink, further, he doesn’t judge – who knows what’s behind the drinking.
There is a sense in these stories, I think, of the drink taking the drinker by surprise. I found ‘Careful’ particularly tender and moving. A wife has had enough of her husband. He moves out to a bedsit where he keeps drinking. She drops in on him from time to time. I get the sense that she’s checking to see if he is still alive. Carver humanises failure, he normalises the drop-out. This could be you drinking in the morning, he says, it could, it really could; you never know what might befall you and push you to despair. I read and re-read these lines: “Time was he would have considered this a mildly crazy thing to do, something to tell friends about. Then, the more he thought about it, the more he could see it didn’t matter much one way or the other. He’d had doughnuts and champagne for breakfast. So what?”
As the story goes on, we discover that amid the chaotic lifestyle he suffers from the same prosaic ailments as the rest of us: right now, he has wax in his ear and it’s driving him mad. When his wife comes over, she fixes it, it takes a few attempts, but she gets there. Although his alcoholic decline is apparent to her, she says nothing about him sinking further into the arms of drink, she just fixes his ear and leaves. She knows she can’t save him, yet this small act of care and love could almost save him, but it doesn’t, at least not yet.
At the end of the story Carver pulls the camera lens of his storytelling away and we see the man alone, drinking from the neck of the champagne bottle. The glass he had been drinking from is dirty now, having been used by his wife to decant oil into his wax-clogged ear. She has gone, he can’t rinse it properly, so he glugs straight from the bottle.
“So What?” He doesn’t say it again, but that’s what the action of drinking from the neck of the bottle says to me. It’s what so many wordless, helpless actions say: “So What?” Most of the people in the world – like the wife – are taking so much care of themselves and others, while a small number – like the husband – shrug and get busy with destroying themselves (and others into the bargain), saying, “So What?” And they don’t want an answer, they don’t even know any more what their question is. Something to do with why everything is the way it is. How did they get here? How can they fix it? And if they can’t fix it, so what?
He’s kind of depressingly uplifting, Carver. Life is sad, make the most of it: that’s what I take from him.
My husband picked a Carver poem to read at our wedding. He chose, ‘Late Fragment’, six lines declaring that life is simple, that we are all only after one thing. Love, that’s what.
2 thoughts on “So What?”
Beautiful! I’m sitting on my own today, on Mother’s Day, above the shop, by the window, where I can hear the people milling about outside but can’t see them, the sun warming my right cheek and leg, eating a tunnocks teacake sandwiched between two chocolate biscuits, no one can see this act of greed,so I can without guilt! and feeling exactly like what you’ve written!
Love reading your blogs(if that’s the right term)
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Thanks, Alice, and Happy Mother’s Day. Enjoy a guilt-free tunnocks! Eimear x