Sunday, 12 July 2009

Carver's 'Vitamins'

This is a story of endless branching. Right from the opening line: 'I had a job and Patti didn't', Carver constantly divides (carves?) the action, taking the reader up to a point when things can go either way, then sending them down the path less taken, less anticipated. The effect is to always keep the reader on their toes. I found myself wondering where he was taking me throughout the read.

The payoff for this strategy absolutely has to be a killer last line - the kind of line that just nails it, leaves you stunned. And Carver certainly delivers in that respect. The entire mitotic structure ultimately underpins that one line, and that line gives purpose to the process. It's a thrilling experience to read and I can see how it has influenced the final lines of many flash pieces - the ones that reach for resonance, anyway.

Carver leans a lot on the Hemingway inheritance, but he pares it down even more, right to the bone. This approach makes the odd flourish light up like a firework. Take the double meaning and striking oddness of 'tended' in: 'Patti and I and somebody else lugged her out to the back porch and put her down in a cot and tended to forget about her.' In times of such scarcity, the universal duality is your friend. This happens a lot in flash pieces too - a seemingly simple declarative line that has a specific meaning in the context of the piece also takes on a universal quality when read as a statement in its own right. Carver does this a lot. One quick example: 'There was no end of girls.' It's not perfect though. I found one sentence (one!) that jarred for me, because it used that 'began' word which grates and grates like tinfoil against a filling: 'Donna and I began getting out of the booth'.

The vitamins of the title symbolize, for me, a false vitality - a consumerist product that attempts to package life and meaning all in one handy capsule. They paint the background for Carver. One of his characters, Patti, struggles to sell the pills door to door. Her exhaustion comes across with vivid clarity when she complains of lack of sleep due to dreaming about making sales. It comes as no surprise that she herself is using the product by the handful. The optimist in me wants to see the vitamin thing as at least offering the hope of a true vitality - even it is entirely corrupted, it seems to exist. Perhaps the religious minded might read something else into that.

The casual sexism of Carver always gets to me. Whether it is supposed to be simply a reflection of reality or not, reading him can sometimes feel like being trapped in a room with a particularly eloquent boor. In this tale we have the usual weak chase-skirting man, beaten down by life in capital letters, betraying his hard-struggling partner for no apparent reason - at least not any reason that is apparent to him. I cannot identify with this kind of character. All I can do is look down on them with a kind of squeamish pity while admiring the surface texture of the text.

The thing with the ear, though - now that's inspired.


  1. Great post, thank you. I'm a huge Carver fan, and can read his stories over and over and still get something new out of them. Congratulations on "Slanguistic Lipstick" in Smokelong 25. You have such a unique and distinctive voice.

  2. "Slanguistic Lipstick" is great...

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