Sunday, March 28, 2021

"What's in Alaska?" (1972)

This story by Raymond Carver is an interesting and peculiar period piece. Written in 1972, it features an evening get-together pot party with two young couples, one with children. It surprised me because I haven't seen this kind of thing attempted often in literature. It does feel a bit like the depictions on the '60s Dragnet TV show, especially when it reminds us one couple has children (though they don't appear to be accidentally drowned in the bathtub as in the Jack Webb episode). It also trades in cliches that are cliches because so true, e.g., the ravenous appetite for snacks, the empty laughter, the disconnected conversation. Carver is as specific on the treats as he is accurate—corn chips, popsicles, cream soda, etc.—and there's also a "new" water pipe, a hookah. The only name used for what they're smoking is "stuff," which is probably wise because the attempt to choose one usually reflects more about the writer, whether it's cannabis, marijuana, grass, pot, weed, reefer, flower, or whatever. There are also strange intimations of infidelity across the couples, which felt jarring and out of place in a way, as if this unusual Carver story had been intruded upon by more typical Carver stories. So I'm not sure, overall, how well it works. But I appreciate the attempt, not least because I haven't seen it much, or at least not working so well on the social dynamics. Others such as Norman Mailer and Thomas Pynchon have addressed the issue one way or another but they haven't been as convincing on the level of social manners. There must be much more out there. For that matter, the pot party is not the only thing going on in this story, which is also about infidelity, alienation, loneliness—Carver's constants. But smoking dope is the main point in the foreground and likely what most people would say the story is about. So that's what I focus on, as the rest seems pro forma, there for the reflexive gravitas. Carver captures well the aimlessness of smoking-up conversation, quite sharply in a couple places. He's good with the constant giggling self-conscious laughter, which can break for hysterics for no apparent reason, often based on nothing or very little that is actually funny. He's obviously been in the situation and noticed things. But overall the story also misses as least as often as it hits.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

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