Elephant and Other Stories
Was it Trotsky who complained that artists could not be trusted because they always insisted on their own ability to create art above and beyond any intervening ideology. This is true of Raymond Carver’s world, in which the characters refuse to comply with what might be expected of them in the confines of the society in which they were living. This was the America of the post-war decades, where people smoke, drink and eat the dreadful American food of the time. The characters cannot quite fit into society but cannot tell why or even how. The truth is that society was moving into a more intensive form of capitalism and generating, as a result, greater feelings of alienation and isolation as familiar social relations are replaced by market relations and life becomes centred on production and consumption. Not everyone, of course, is able to make sense of this transition and so cannot fill the role expected of them by themselves or by others.
In the first story in this extraordinary collection, ‘Boxes,’ the protagonist’s mother spends her life packing and unpacking the eponymous boxes as she cannot find a place to live that suits her. She wants to live somewhere warm but then it is too warm and people disappoint her and life is impossible, so then she goes to live in the same town as her son but then her relationship with him fails to live up to her expectations and other problems emerge and so she decides to move on somewhere else. Her peregrinations are the outward sign of the internal turmoil that the other characters feel and that both affect her and are affected by her. All of this is expressed in the most extraordinary immersion into everyday life and the use of a form of discourse that is thoroughly conditioned by it:
“My mother passes the chicken to Jill and say, ‘I wrote that lady I rented from before. She wrote back and said she had a nice first-floor place I could have. It’s close to the bus stop and there’s lots of stores in the area. There’s a bank and a Safeway. It’s the nicest place. I don’t know why I left there.’ She says that and helps herself to some coleslaw (p.18).”
The inability to deal with capitalism is revealed in a different aspect in the title story ‘Elephant,’ which chronicles the life of a patient working man, who has to provide financial support for his children, mother, inadequate brother and others who are all struggling to reach their own form of accommodation with society, their aspirations for what they each consider to be a decent standard of living and their ability to mobilize the resources for that standard of living.
Failed and failing relationships fill these stories and most of the others. The exception is the final one, ‘Errand,’ which is a dramatic retelling of the facts of the death of Chekhov, with whom Carver was often compared. Here, the purpose of the fiction appears to be the separation of what is real or perhaps authentic from what is not, as in the meaning of the art separated from the way in which it is expressed:
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Olga said to the young man. Leave the glasses. Don’t worry about them. Forget about crystal wineglasses and such. Leave the room as it is. Everything is ready now. We’re ready. Will you go (p.124)?”
Carver was a great genius and this short volume portrays this to considerable effect. I wonder what his fiction would have been like if he had attempted to write consistently in a long-form? If anything, he moved in the opposite direction towards poetry in the attempt, as it seems to me in any case, to identify the meaning of things in the skein of everyday things. T.S. Eliot famously wrote of John Webster that he could see the skull beneath the skin. Here, Carver sees the nature of American society beneath the cigarette and the possibly-not-cooked-properly chicken breast.