With or without minimalist editing, the humanity of Raymond Carver's storytelling puts him in the same league as Chekhov
Whenever I look at Giacometti's attenuated sculptures I think of Raymond Carver's bleakly poetic early stories. Offering realism stripped to its barest essence, those that make up two of his early collections,Would You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, conform to what John Barth called "hyperrealistic minimalism", and represent an influential return to the the blueprint of the modern short story as outlined by Chekhov.
To dispense with the lately reignited controversy pertaining to the impact of editor Gordon Lish to Carver's early style, yes, it's true to say Lish rewrote the endings to at least 10 of Carver's stories, and scrapped no less than 70% of the story Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit. The evidence is there for all to see at Indiana University, to which institution Lish sold his papers in 1991. Carver's later, post-Lish collections, Cathedral and Elephant, the latter left unfinished when he died of lung cancer in 1988, aged 50, are notably more voluble and optimistic than what came before.
But while Lish undeniably had a hand in the noteworthy style of Carver's earlier work, the editor's own fiction is a mostly indigestible blend of metafictional tricks and bathetic humour. This would seem to confirm that however skilfully he accentuated or downplayed certain elements in Carver's work, the person who imbued that work with emotion was Carver and Carver alone.
And for all the talk of minimalism and terseness, Carver's stories are full of feeling. Whether considering the early-period reticence of Why Don't You Dance? or the relative expansiveness of a later story like Cathedral, all these stories, like Chekhov's, are driven by a desire to map what it is to be human. That their construction, their seemingly arbitrary but in fact painstakingly chosen beginning and endpoints, implies both the impossibility of realising this goal and the necessity of making the attempt anyway, is what makes them beautiful, even heroic.
Carver's switch from despair to hope has long divided critics, but to characterise this split as being a chiaroscuro division of darkness and light is simplistic. Take The Bath and its expanded rewrite, A Small, Good Thing. On his birthday a boy falls into a coma after being hit by a car. As his parents fret, the baker who has prepared Scotty's uncollected birthday cake pesters them with a series of increasingly menacing phonecalls. The Bath ends with almost sadistic inconclusiveness, exploiting both the reader's urge to know whether Scotty lives or dies and his mother Ann's bewilderment. "'Is it about Scotty?'" she asks the unknown caller, assuming it's the hospital. "'It has to do with Scotty, yes.'" the voice replies. Led by the tone of the story, which implies life's cruel randomness, the reader assumes both that the voice belongs to the disgruntled baker and that Scotty will most likely die.
In A Small, Good Thing, by contrast, not only is the forged compassion between Scotty's mother and father explored, but following the boy's death the parents confront the baker, who realises the grotesqueness of his actions and apologises. The story ends with them eating fresh bread in the bakery: "They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving."
While vastly different in outlook and effect, to term the latter story sentimental, as it often has been, is fundamentally to misunderstand Carver's modus operandi. His stories, again like Chekhov's, are signposts as opposed to destinations, and have beginnings and endings that lie beyond the parameters of the stories themselves. While Scotty's parents experience a moment of grace that morning, there's no reason to suggest their grief has run its course. Ann's has already ebbed and flowed several times in a matter of pages, and it will no doubt continue to do so for a long time to come. Rather than a pat ending, Carver locates a moment of hope in the midst of sorrow. The later story, while less formally adventurous than its forerunner, is more emotionally daring.
Carver's work continued to develop beyond this point. The last story he ever wrote, Errand, is unique in his oeuvre, and suggests that his death cut short a fresh departure in his writing. It's somehow pleasing, though, that the final work by this writer who idolised Chekhov, and deserves comparison with him, should be both about the Russian's death and a definitive statement about the nature of storytelling. It's so neat a happenstance as to be denied inclusion in the fiction of either man.