WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE [By Raymond Carver]. This is one of those books and one of those American writers like Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald that I never read at the time. Not old enough; not interested or more likely, not mature enough to appreciate them. So as a consequence American culture, American mores and in particular a wide range of post-war American social and economic policies with the prime purpose I suspect of reinforcing the belief that individuals are responsible for their own destiny have rather passed me by. And I am not now interested in catching-up.
It’s a series of  short stories. Can’t remember the last collection of short stories I read; was it Olive Kitteridge [Elizabeth Strout]? . . . [which I adored], so I am not against fiction in this format. All the reviewers refer to his pared-down writing style as if it is to be admired. One reviewer refers to the similarities between Carver and the singer/actor and songwriter, Tom Waites.
Not a Tom Waites fan. They seem to have booze in common.
So anyway, this is a novel comprising of bleak vignettes about men mostly blue collar, mostly drunks, mostly in broken or almost broken marriages in the American Mid-west in the sixties. It is an attempt I think to blend the particular and the universal, moving away from a straight narrative retelling in search of a larger truth. As I said it is very lean, which I do quite like although this is too big a dose for me: I think writing a short story well is pretty difficult but generally he is an artist of show, not tell as in this little exchange:
Mel and Terri are married both on second [could be twelfth] marriages. The old couple are a couple in their seventies who have miraculously survived a head-on collision.
‘’What about the old couple? Laura said. ‘You didn’t finish that story you started’.
Laura was having a hard time lighting her cigarette. Her matches kept going out.
‘Yes, what about the old couple?’ I said.
‘Older but wiser’, Terri said.
Mel stared at her.
Terri said, ’Go on with your story, hon. I was only kidding. Then what happened?’
‘Terri, sometimes,’ Mel said.
’Please, Mel,’ Terri said. ‘Don’t always be so serious, sweetie. Can’t you take a joke?’
‘Where’s the joke? Mel said.
He held his glass and gazed steadily at his wife.
‘What happened?’ Laura said.
I am writing a kind of biography at the moment [it is more Elizabeth Strout or Knausgaard than Carver] and have set it up as a sequence of scenes, short stories I suppose about people and events that I remember from my life; the piece about Rick Taylor a few weeks ago [Its all over now Baby Blue] is from that manuscript. I’m not trying to break the literary mould: the piece would be meaningless if I didn’t explain at the end that the kid was in terror of Taylor. If I had left the reader to fill in the gaps, as I suspect Carver would have done, one might have filled the gap with something else entirely.
LIFE [By Keith Richards]. In 1964 I was living in Easterhouse in Glasgow, commuting into the city where I had a job, my first job, at Boyds in Buchanan Street. I loved the Stones; their music, their attitude as represented by the long hair and their total lack of respect for the previous order and the way things must be . . . were expected to be.
Somehow, I heard they were playing the Barrowlands Ballroom where I had been on a couple of previous occasions to the Saturday night dance, where you might get lucky with a girl. Like Easterhouse however, Barrowlands was a famously tough venue for both performer and punter. The Stones couldn’t have been looking forward to the gig much given that their normal stamping grounds were the green pastures of Richmond, Surrey at that time.
I still say to this day that this gig was the greatest single gig/concert I have ever been to: there are no words. They were incredible. I had seen The Animals a couple of times and they were the benchmark, no-one came close to Eric and we had several very good Blues-rock bands: Lulu and the Lovers for example, Miss Lawrie and her amazing blues-shouter voice and delivery but the Stones? They did it the way it was supposed to be done, with one of the best rhythm sections on the planet, not that we knew that then; the astonishingly accomplished Keith who could play the Malaguena at age seven then studied the Chicago Blues masters from the age of fifteen or so. In depth and I mean from the ground up. And of course the magnetic, charismatic Mick with his mastery of the black man’s diction and the idiomatic phrasing but not a copy, entirely his own.
Can’t possibly remember what they played. Route 66 was probably in there and I think Round and Round was in their set. I do remember that I Wanna be your Man was one of the highlights; it hadn’t yet been released but was due out very soon but you could have been in Detroit or Chicago, so perfectly had they recreated that authentic American sound.
Keith describes this actual gig in Life:
We got bigger and bigger and more and more crazy until basically all we thought about was how to get into a gig and how to get out. For eighteen months, I’d say, we never finished a show. The only question was how it would end, with a riot, with the cops breaking it up, with too many medical cases and how the hell to get out of there. Nothing like three thousand chicks throwing themselves at you. Or being carried out on stretchers. All the bouffants awry, skirts up to their waists, sweating, red, eyes rolling.
The limp and fainted bodies going by us after the first ten minutes of playing, that happened every night. Or sometimes they would stack them up on the side of the stage because there were so many of them.
Myself, I had literally never seen anything like it; maybe I had been attending the wrong gigs but certainly girls weren’t being passed overhead at Animals shows. I’ve wondered since then how spontaneous it all was: did the girls knew from some grapevine or other that this was how you behaved at a Rolling Stones gig? Later, I saw them escape; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and saw them running across the road and getting into a transit van literally sixty seconds after they finished the set. Someone else must have collected the instruments together. And, there were no chicks with them: all left behind.
I had gone with a couple of girls I knew and one of them had been one of the one’s who had fainted and been passed overhead to the front. Groped every inch of the way, she was a bright intelligent girl from a good home with about a million A-Levels and a good job, not at all the sort one would think to surrender herself like that. On the bus home I tried to ask her what on earth had overtaken her emotions but all she muttered was ‘Mick’ and that was all I could get out of her. He was there, in relatively close proximity, if she played her part; moving dancing turning and shaking his Maraccas . . . one of the sexiest men in the world, within reach. Within reach now.
Hardly a word of this incredible effect Jagger had on young women in Life. Later, much later in the book when Keith is comparing Mick to Bowie, we get an understated, measured summation of Jagger’s remarkable potency. It’s not grudging exactly he does recognise Mick Jagger’s qualities as a singer, dancer and front-man but it is the same old, same old . . . Mick doesn’t play. He composes [pretty much every lyric on every song] but he doesn’t play and Keith perhaps not unreasonably, rates his and Charlie’s contribution to the success of the band higher because it is the music that kept the group at the top for 25-years, not Mick Jagger’s sexual persona.
It’s very honest, almost soul-searchingly so; didn’t expect that. When it is interesting, for example on learning how to play the Chicago Blues in the early part of the book, it is tremendous. I like Chicago Blues, not to the same degree as Keith does but his insights and explanations are quite riveting. He later opines that the Stones greatest contribution to popular music is to have re-introduced the Blues, in all forms, to Americans. I think he has a point.
When he gets to the salacious sex & drugs he loses me; not interested and clearly no sign of self-abnegation despite his ‘honesty’. Its six-hundred and ten pages long, a little too detailed for my taste especially the almost daily diary of Anita Pallenberg’s latest drug abuses. But when he is talking about the music which is often, I loved it.
He doesn’t make any particular claim to be at the intersection of desire and power but the Book is full of clarity and disdain for hypocrisy; I for one would like to see it challenged more rigorously. The main takeaway I personally had however was the . . . find me an adjective . . . incredible, amazing, astonishing . . . fact of these two South London guys even meeting. A chance in ten zillion.
GOLDEN HILL [By Francis Spufford]. This is a popular work of fiction [No 88 in the Amazon Fiction charts at the moment]; it has recently been high in the UK Paperback top-ten. I liked it, it sags a bit [a lot] in the middle but it picks up in the second half. Has absolutely incredible reviews: ‘Dazzlingly written’ according to the Sunday Times; ‘Ingenious’ sez the Guardian. ‘Virtuoso’ according to the FT. Can’t be clearer than that. The author is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, so he will know his punctuation and his pronunciation backwards, and it shows: he is very, very good at selecting just the right word, just the correct noun although as one finds with this kind of writing, there are a hell of a lot of adverbs. Me? I couldn’t write a novel like this to save my life. I haven’t got the Greek, or the Latin which I guess someone who teaches writing at Goldsmiths very much does. It’s a little bit cluttered with words for my taste but there are certainly sufficient high-brow reviewers in places like the Telegraph and The Times more than happy with this kind of exposition.
Its set in New York in 1748 still effectively a frontier town caught up to a greater or lesser extent by the Anglo-French wars in Europe. The putative main character is Mr Smith who arrives on Halloween [1st November] straight off a boat from London with a money order in his pocket for a thousand pounds. We do not learn what he intends to spend the money on until 3-pages from the end. It starts off written in a pseudo-Georgian style language which it is hinted at replicates the form of the times; Smollet, Fielding and Hogarth are mentioned as sources but since I have never read any of these writers and am unlikely ever to want to, it is stylistically over my head. In any case, he soon drops this style, realising pretty quickly that you cannot do that these days if you want to sell books. A smattering of authentic-sounding 1748-dialogue in the first couple of pages, such as, ‘You impudent pup, flirting your mangled scripture at me! Speak plain, or your precious paper goes in the fire.’[page 7]. But by page 103 we have long arrived at conventionality, with, ‘For heaven’s sake,’ said Smith, ‘I am not trying to blackmail you. I am not trying to blackmail you!’
It is descriptively rich but Stufford has given himself an almost impossible task with his plot-line: withholding. He has to withhold the key information about Smith, who he is and why he is in New York until almost literally the last page. It is an impossible task. And the OMG moment when it does come, is a let-down to say the least.
So instead of being able to develop his main character and sketch in some background and motivation to explain his actions he is forced to divert off into other side-shows; a playlet; an arresting homosexual relationship; an extended dinner-party scene with the possibility of a relationship with an heiress. These scenes are imaginatively well done and turn out to be in fact the meat and backbone of the narrative but they are a substitute for what we thought the book was going to be about: the note for a thousand pounds and when the reader begins to realise that this is it, so to speak and that yes, there are no oblique references or hints about what he is really about then he or she starts to wonder well, what’s the point: just a stylistic exercise? It’s hard not to notice that we are being manipulated, which is death to the enjoyment of suspense.