Curiosity opens doors to other worlds. And it’s always up to us how deep we venture into those worlds. It could be good, it could be bad. That depends on our own attitude.
There’s a Raymond Carver story about a couple in their kitchen, they spy on a neighbour who is spying on his own wife. The married couple are voyeurs, enjoying the view. Both acting as if they have discovered another person up to no good.
They allow their curiosity to keep them looking, so they turn the kitchen lights off to get a better view, and to ensure that the peeping tom husband creeping around in the garden doesn’t notice them watching as he watches his wife undress in her home.
The couple have done this before, we can tell because of the things they say, “He can’t see us with the lights out”, I always say this. It’s been going on for three months.
As the couple continue to look, they forget themselves and begin to enjoy the spectacle. The voyeur wife makes remarks about how shameless the wife in the window is, the voyeur husband watches and reports what the wife in the window is now doing. She’s undressing, he’s watching her. She pulls down the shades, and the husband walks back to the door, and disappears for the night.
The married couple then look for something else to do. They are obviously bored with their own company, and the view out of their back window is an exciting event each time it happens.
The man goes to bed, the wife goes back into the kitchen where she discovers ants are climbing in and out of her garbage can. She watches these small creatures for a while, then decides to get a spray can and kill them — she doesn’t like them.
Raymond Carver wrote short stories that reveal small moments in the lives of everyday people. The people in his stories are always unexceptional. The characters, like in real life, are faced with the reality of a mundane existence that they find difficult to accept as the norm. So they learn to cope with tragedies, they figure out what’s going on without asking, and end up making mistakes.
They are often stories about people snooping into other people’s thoughts and lives.
They are stories of us, your neighbours, and all those people standing in the line at the supermarket. Beautifully crafted moments that reveal human weakness.
Raymond Carver could have chosen to write stories of people attempting to be better, but then failing. He didn’t.
Imagine a story of an Instagram influencer rising and rising into the dizzy heights of fame, only to discover that it all means nothing to her. That all the chatter, the followers, the compliments that she received over time, really amount to nothing of value. She is still who she was at the beginning. Just the girl next door.
He chose to write about the point of it all, the precise idea that we live lives that have no rise to unnatural ideas of fame. We work in coffee shops, warehouses, drive cabs, look after our families best we can, and make sure others know we love them. We push buttons.
When we sit and look at social media, scrolling through Instagram, or browsing the memes and comments on Facebook, we are like the couple at the kitchen window. We are inactive. We become voyeurs gloating at things that pass. Curtain twitchers who believe there’s no harm in having a peek at what the neighbours are up to this morning. They don’t know we’re looking.
Positively Raymond Carver
I often see something positive in Raymond Carver stories. Some of his characters meet a decent person, a person who gives them a sense of warmth, or a feeling that somebody “gets them”. A feeling of recognition is often enough for us to feel better, and get on with the rest of the day.
These stories are successful because they show life as it’s happening. They don’t show us what could happen if we change things, or that we are not good enough — he leaves that up to the reader to decide. Are you like the people in the story, or not? Be honest.
Carver’s stories show us people as they interact with each other, often couples, at home, at work.
These small moments are like cracks in the wall where we can look through and discover that something is going on in another room, and it’s similar to what’s going on right where we stand. In front of the crack in the wall where see can see the eye of a stranger looking at us. Then, there’s no need to get uptight about life. We’re all pretty much the same, want the same things.
These people that Raymond Carver wrote into his stories, they are from the past. They lived lives without smartphones, or laptops, computers, and when they wanted to meet friends they’d have dinner, or arrange an evening in a bar. They talk to each other, carefully.
Nobody speaks by using acronyms and abbreviated language. Their sentences express ideas that seem to have strength behind them. They communicate with each other.
Even if you don’t like Raymond Carver’s stories, you can at least get a powerful sense of what it was like to live in a world of people without the distractions of smartphones and computers.