Cecily's Reviews > Beginners

Beginners by Raymond Carver
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's review
Mar 08, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: canada-and-usa, short-stories-and-novellas

This is the original versions of the stories that were first published as "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", which I reread alongside this and reviewed HERE.

Differences: Edited and Unedited

Some of the versions here are more than double the length, and most of them are darker and with more ambiguous endings.

I would like to believe that Carver's words were butchered by an over-zealous editor, and many say that is the case, but I'm not sure that's entirely true. The two versions of each story are often quite different, but it is hard to say which is better. In some cases, shorter is pithier, but in others, the originals contain backstory that adds depth and richness. However, some of the changes are more gratuitous, such as renaming Mel McGinniss to be Herb McGinniss.

See Stephen King's claim that "The editor is always right", from his book, On Writing, my review HERE.

Themes and Style

All the stories involve sad, dysfunctional people: a vivid glimpse of people at a troubling time in their lives. Most concern recent or imminent loss, whether a partner, child, friend or home. Often matters are exacerbated by problems with drink and fidelity. But there is often a glimmer of hope.

Many are beguiling, a few are grisly, but towards the end of the collection I lost the impetus to continue, so I put it aside for a while. I'm not sure what the problem was.

A few stories are positively disturbing (e.g. a brutal and pointless murder), but there are insights and questions too:
* Where does love go when it dies?
* How do you come to terms with the violation of the sanctity of your home?
* Can there be love if there is also violence?
* How does a functional family fall apart?

Some of the characters are keen to explore these matters overtly ("There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out" and "We'd reached the end of something, and the thing was to find out where new to start"), but others are victims of circumstance or just go, unthinkingly, with the flow.

One of the early stories contains the line "Booze takes a lot of effort if you're going to do a good job with it" and one expects that to sum up the collection, but they're more varied than that.


There are few really likeable characters; more references to fishing than might be expected; misogynistic aspects and not much humour, yet they were fascinating to read.

The Stories

The summaries are more to jog my memory in future than to add great insight for anyone reading.

"Why don't you Dance?" is about a yard sale. A young couple come by, dance on the driveway and linger.

"Viewfinder" has a wonderful opening line, "A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photo of my house".

"Where is Everyone?" is about an alcoholic relationships.

"Gazebo" is about a couple running a declining motel. Drinking "consumes a great deal of time and effort if you devote yourself to it fully".

"Want to See Something?" concerns a neighbourhood feud and how the killing of a slug leads to reappraisal of a marriage. It is told from the woman's perspective and is very different from the edited version.

"The Fling" is what a man tells his visiting adult son about. The extra detail and backstory of this original version make it much darker.

"A Small, Good Thing" is one that I think I've seen a film of. A mother orders a birthday cake for her son's birthday. When she doesn't turn up to collect it, the baker takes a nasty turn. This longer version is much more elegiac.

"Tell the Women we're Going" starts with the mundane but gets very nasty. This version is more nuanced than the edited one.

"If it Please You" follows a couple to bingo where they are annoyed by the presence of a hippie couple (oh, how dated that makes it sound). "He liked to be on time, which meant a few minutes early." I can relate to that bit.

"So Much Water so Close to Home" is when three men go on a fishing weekend, find a body, but do nothing about it straight away. Their wives are horrified, to the detriment of their marriages. It was filmed as Jindabyne (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0382765/).

"Dummy" explores the mysterious obsession (fish) of a mute, and its tragic consequences.

"Pie" is about the aftermath of a broken relationship and particularly the strains of Christmas.

"The Calm" did nothing for me. A man chats to his barber.

"Mine" is about possession, rather than excavation: a separating couple dividing the spoils - including their baby!

"Distance" is a vignette of a father telling his daughter of one incident shortly after she was born, that illustrates the relationship pressures of the early days of parenthood.

"Beginners" has couples pondering the meaning of love and whether it's incompatible with physical abuse.

"One More Thing" has a man rowing with his teenage daughter who thinks mind over matter can fix his attachment to drink.
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Reading Progress

March 8, 2011 – Started Reading
March 8, 2011 – Shelved
March 8, 2011 – Shelved as: canada-and-usa
March 8, 2011 – Shelved as: short-stories-and-novellas
May 1, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Steve (new)

Steve It must be interesting to see the contrasts in the two versions. I should try the side-by-side technique, too.

Cecily It was a strange but worthwhile thing to do in this case. Because I'd read the edited version a year earlier (and reread it with this), all the basic stories were familiar, but comparing them was a whole new angle.

I expected to conclude, firmly, that either Carver was a genius who was ill-served by a dreadful editor, or else that Carver's reputation was overhyped, and that his editor was the better writer.

Nothing so simple, though: I thought some were better in their original form and some in the edited.

There must be others on GR who've done a similar comparison; I should track them down...

Anushree I was wondering: the closing lines of story What We Talk About When We Talk About love, are some of my favourite lines of all time -- are they in the short story Beginners as well?

Cecily I read this in 2011 (the date at the top of the review is when I last edited it, possibly for something as minor as a typo), and I don't have my copy to hand. In general, all the stories are longer in this collection than in What We Talk About, but there are other changes and rewordings, so I can't guarantee the lines you love are in both.

Anushree Oh, okay.
Thank you. :)

message 6: by Leo (new)

Leo Robertson Surprising result! I'd warded off reading this one because of the whole editing thing- good to know :)

Cecily Leo wrote: "Surprising result! I'd warded off reading this one because of the whole editing thing- good to know :)"

I think reading the two, side-by-side is the best way to approach this. See which you prefer and report back!

message 8: by Mala (new)

Mala @Cecily: Nice review! It's amusing though that despite the four stars accorded to Mr Carver, we both have mixed feelings about his writing.

Cecily Yes! It's tricky to give a meaningful rating in such circumstances, but the best of these were brilliant, and the worst... were not to my taste, rather than being bad.

all around atlantis "However, some of the changes are more gratuitous, such as renaming Mel McGinniss to be Herb McGinniss."

One cannot state that, if one cannot know what drove the author to change the name.

Cecily all around atlantis wrote: "One cannot state that, if one cannot know what drove the author to change the name."

Well, like most reviews, it's just an opinion. However, it wasn't the author who changed the name, but the editor. I think that makes a difference.

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