BOOK REVIEW / Screening out small unpardonable crimes: 'Short Cuts' - Raymond Carver: Harvill, 6.99 pounds

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THIS slim volume contains the nine stories on which Robert Altman has based his sumptuous new three-hour exploration of American life, so we can hardly avoid seeing it as the book of the film. It is certainly refreshing to see how the late author has turned the crude formulae of movie-making into literature of such an intense and exacting sort.

Altman's film Short Cuts describes, in the everyone-knows-everyone manner of a soap opera, a group of characters whose lives swirl around and bump up against each other; some of them get bruised, but there's a melting frisson of kiss-and-make-up at the end. In the book, however, Carver untangles the various episodes and makes each one seem stern and truthful. It is rather like taking the diamonds off a necklace: they make a flashing and impressive band, but only if you shake away the string can you see that every one is a gem.

As Mark Lawson has declared more than once in this space, it was a mistake ever to imagine that films and television would succeed in shouting down literature. We live in an age of mass reproduction, yet the huge crowds currently washing across Millbank outside the Tate's Picasso exhibition are a tribute to our urgent desire for originals. Sales of Middlemarch confirm that film dramatisations work partly as trailers for the book, just as Amadeus did a good job as Mozart: the video.

Joan Didion once quipped that Hollywood people talked about books as 'basic material' - they went round saying, 'Hi, had time to catch up with the basic material on Anna Karenina yet?' Altman's surface material is remarkable enough in its own right, and does not need to be compared to the basic literature (few recent Hollywood visions of domestic life have this star-studded, epic feel). But one of the most pleasing and interesting aspects of the film is the view it gives us - we can see what has been taken and what has been left - of the work that inspired it.

Carver has been called the American Chekhov, the father of dirty realism, the poet of blue-collar America; he has been called many things. But what you notice in the stories is his high, quiet straightforwardness about men and women. 'Literature is about people,' he wrote once. 'Does that need saying?' His stories are bleak, sentimental and at times unutterably sad, but also kind: the characters struggle to cope with the things that happen in life, but even when things go badly it is not always their fault, because life is hard, and hard to understand. The ones who seem to know the answers - with their forlorn slogans: 'Do the right things and the right things will happen' - are either bluffing, or deluded, or both.

In the stories included here, people commit small unpardonable crimes that are symptoms of stronger feelings they are not sure how to articulate: one man tries to get rid of the family dog, another refuses to let the body of a dead girl disturb his weekend's fishing. But more often than not these are merely characters who are failing to rise to the occasion: one husband is tormented by an ancient infidelity, another loses his footing when he hears the guys in the diner making lewd jokes about his wife. The key thing is: we are witnessing a decisive moment, not a passing low point.

The fisherman's wife hears how they tethered the nude corpse and carried on casting for trout, and glimpses a heartlessness she won't easily forget. The story ends with his saying 'I love you', and her replying, 'For God's sake, she was only a child.' It feels like the end of the world, or the end of something, at least. But in the film these characters wind up Jacuzzi-hopping and drinking wine into the night with pals. This heigh-ho, life-goes-on atmosphere is fine and admirable, but in Carver's work there is much more at stake.

The film's episodes are musically linked by a jazz singer (an invention, along with the melodrama of her suicide-beauty cellist daughter). The implication is that these people have the blues. But in Carver even the smallest incidents are rather more than a rich pageant of life's ups and downs. His light, darting style surrounds minor events with tense, heartwrenching poetry. In 'A Small Good Thing' the man with the son in hospital is very conscious of the slender thread from which his life hangs.

'He was happy and, so far, lucky - he knew that. His parents were still living, his brothers and his sister were established, his friends from college had gone out to take their places in the world. So far, he had kept away from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man if the luck went bad, if things suddenly turned. He pulled into the driveway and parked. His left leg began to tremble.'

It is unusual for one of Carver's characters to have such a refined sense of his own good fortune. In the film, though, this self-consciousness is freakily amplified: the mother is safety- neurotic, the father casual; the son's collision, we feel, was an accident waiting to happen, and not much more than they deserved. This might be just a question of acting: from the start, Andie MacDowell is a panicky mum whose son is about to be whacked by a car. Or it could be to do with cinema's unerring sniffiness about bourgeois habits: MacDowell is punished for having inhumanly clean carpets. Either way, it is bracing to return to the story and be given no warning at all:

'On Monday morning, the birthday boy was walking to school with another boy. They were passing a bag of potato chips back and forth and the birthday boy was trying to find out what his friend intended to give him for his birthday that afternoon. Without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was immediately knocked down by a car. He fell on his side with his head in the gutter and his legs out in the road. His eyes were closed, but his legs moved back and forth as if he were trying to climb over something.'

The film also overlooks the mystery of the emotional landscape in Carver's stories. People get up in the night, gaze at their deep-breathing lovers, stare at the red winking light of the television tower, and feel miserable; they do not know what is oppressing them - their nature, their sex, their parents, their jobs, their bad habits, their ignorance and the world they live in fuse into a generalised, abstract pressure that wrestles, often successfully, with their better instincts. The film, reluctant to leave things dangling, wants to fill in the gaps with something specific: it's a discursive parable about the difficulties of daily life in America's sex'n'violence culture. This is fine in its own right, but a bit like Kafka coming clean about what was bothering him.

It is shocking to see how strong, even in a so-called maverick like Altman, is the Hollywood insistence on the formulaic, moralising idea that character is action, and that bad things can't just happen for no reason. At the end of the film there's an earthquake, but this is not just a whim of geology: it is a figurative version of a rather unpleasant interior eruption in one of the male leads. Once again we can feel Altman boosting the volume by leaning on the aspect of Carver least cherished by his admirers. But even in neglecting the hard-won gentleness that might be Carver's most endearing quality, he has helped to expose it. That is all to the good, and no small thing.

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