What James Franco Talks About When James Franco Talks About a Couple of Raymond Carver’s Short Stories
Yesterday I was roasted for a Comedy Central program that will air on Labor Day. All the comics at the roast were great and seeing them perform their monologues amazed me. I was just happy to be in their company because they were so skilled. Each one was experienced at performing in front of a live audience, whether it was in stand-up or sketch comedy. Comedians have an way of working that involves honing their material in front of a crowd. But I realized during the roast, that essentially they are writers—they just write with their performances in mind.
Short story writing is a different beast than live comedy, but in some ways it resembles what the comedians did at my roast. There is usually one protagonist guiding the story and there are often some insights given along the way about the human condition. When you take away the laughter, the jokes at the roast achieved the same things. Raymond Carver is generally regarded as a master of the form—he took the Hemingway iceberg theory about simple surfaces that concealed great depth and mixed that with working-class humor, alcohol, and cigarettes (or, as he insisted on spelling that word, “cigarets”). His story “The Bath” isn’t the funniest story in the world, but there is something about his writing that makes the death of a kid by a car accident not only interesting, but entertaining.
In 1981, he published “The Bath” in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, then revised the story and changed the titled to “A Small, Good Thing” (“AS, GT”) for his collection Cathedral. What We Talk About is noted for the minimalism of its stories. It was Carver’s first major success and it earned him a reputation as a godfather of the minimalist movement of the 80s. (It was also heavily edited by Gordon Lish.) But the revisions made to “The Bath” to turn it into “AS, GT” show that he was moving away from the dark, purposely vague, and cold world of minimalism into a more precise, redemptive, and descriptive form. The changes Carver made between the story told in “The Bath” and “AS, GT” are a perfect to dissect to learn about him and his evolution as a writer.