My reading plans typically go in chronological order, but I’m taking a big leap in my Carver plan to talk about Beginners. It’s the first official publication of Carver’s original manuscript for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I read this book in tandem with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and I think that’s the way these books should be read. Carver’s stories here are longer, sometimes extremely so, and it’s typically a toss-up which version of the story is better. A lot of times you’ll find that Carver’s versions of the stories are, while still quite bitter and sad, somewhat more compassionate. If It Please You, for instance, is the original version of After the Denim and they’re both really great. But If It Please You continues past the bitter ending of After the Denim to follow the main character into his room at night and lets us eavesdrop on his pained prayers in the darkness. It’s still brutally sad, but it has a kind of poetry that After the Denim doesn’t. The most obvious example is A Small Good Thing, Carver’s original version of The Bath. The Bath is a great story and it has a brilliant, Alfred Hitchcock Presents style ending, but A Small Good Thing is its own kind of intense masterpiece. It continues a good ten to fifteen pages past the ending of The Bath and it achieves a really transcendent beauty and empathy which is kind of shocking. It’s Carver’s best story to that point and easily his most redemptive. There’s still deep sorrow and longing, but the title says it all. Sometimes we find a measure of redemption in just a small good thing; the smallest acts of kindness or connection offer a tiny bit of hope and sometimes even the tiniest bits are worth a lot. Anyway, I think it’s best to read this book right in conjunction with Lish’s version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I recommend reading each individual story first out of What We Talk About and then out of Beginners; then go back to What We Talk About for the next story and so on. Beginners is a raw, powerful masterpiece with an entirely different tone and style from the version of it that was originally published. Considered on its own, it’s a masterpiece; in tandem with the final version, it becomes both a masterpiece and a fascinating exploration of literature and creativity. 4 stars.
tl;dr – breathtaking collection of stories finds Carver allowing more empathy than in his prior works, though sadness and isolation still rule the day; a beautiful, deeply powerful work. 4 stars.