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Soft-Spoken

By Josh Potter

Livability

By Jon Raymond

Bloomsbury, 260 pages, $15

The terms “atmospheric” and “impressionistic” are not infrequently assigned to works of fiction that unfold at a humble pace or involve the simple travails of pedestrian characters. But the literal physical space, the quiet breathing room to which these terms refer, is a quality many first associate with film. Similarly, the American author whose work may, at the moment, best represent these qualities is perhaps known best for the adaptations of his short work that have made it to the big screen. Jon Raymond’s stories first earned a national audience in 2006 with his friend and collaborator Kelly Reichardt’s film Old Joy. The low-budget indie film garnered about as much acclaim as a film of its stature can carry, and last year the two shot their follow-up Wendy and Lucy, which is still showing in the Capital Region. Reichardt has since been heralded as matron saint of the new American realist film movement, but like one of his own characters, Raymond has remained mostly anonymous.

In 2004, Raymond published a vast historical novel, The Half-Life, which packed a century’s worth of identity politics into overlapping story arcs—and it went, for the most part, unnoticed. Livability is a collection of short stories that distill many of these same concerns into lithe, digestible morsels, set mostly in Raymond’s hometown, Portland, Ore. Raymond’s characters are perfectly ordinary and properly contemporary, but more significantly, they’re rendered in a style that has become rare in the face of baroque postmodernity. A recent New Yorker article described the sort of bliss David Foster Wallace hoped to explore on the other side of boredom, just before he died, and it’s on this tender border that Raymond’s stories tiptoe. Like another Raymond—Raymond Carver—Jon Raymond’s realism is reflective without being reflexive, trading artifice and the wink-nudge of clever framing for genuine pathos and the organic trajectory of human drama.

The first thing you’ll notice about Raymond’s quiet stories, either on page or on screen (Reichardt has remained quite true to Raymond’s texts in both adaptations), is the narrative pacing. “Old Joy” (the original short story, which leads off Livability), the story of two old friends on a hiking trip, literally emerges from “the sound of a bell.” Mark, the main character, has been meditating. The act isn’t some florid moment of transcendence, though, nor is it used to say anything more about Mark than that he’s trying to gain control of his life. He might as well be cleaning the garage. The phone rings. It’s Kurt. It’s been a while. Kurt knows about some hot springs. They decide to check them out.

The rest of the story is just as simple. Simple enough, in fact, that Raymond’s pursuit of the mundane would drive a lesser writer into snoozeville. The plot is basic enough, but Mark and Kurt’s relationship is not, and it’s the laborious process of two people attempting to reconnect that makes the events engaging. Reichardt had the benefit of pretty camera work, talented actors (including Will Oldham) and a whimsical soundtrack (Yo La Tengo) to conjure this sublime melancholia, but Raymond follows the conventions of text, namely Mark’s simple internal monologue, to illustrate that sorrow is just “old, worn-out joy.” When the two return from their trip, little is resolved, but much has been demonstrated.

The other stories in this collection cradle equally simple conceits. In “The Wind,” a boy prepares to fight another boy to appease the kids he thinks are his friends. In “Train Choir” (the basis for Wendy and Lucy), a girl breaks down halfway to an imagined future in Alaska. In “Benny,” a man sets out to find an old friend out of domestic obligation, with only the kind of hope one can muster for a far-gone addict. When we reach the end of these episodes, we haven’t been surprised or convinced of anything. The effect, instead, is a sort of affirmation. Without tipping into meta terrain, the problem of beginning and end is present throughout. Most stories seem like some middle episode—an event that happens long after larger-order dynamics have been set in motion, and one that will only be fully understood in retrospect. And so, the endings are often accordingly muted. It is of little importance whether or not the father and aspiring filmmaker in “New Shoes” sells his idea to producers and so acheives the career he’s always longed for. In his trip to the store to buy his young daughter shoes, we understand how he will react under either outcome. Whether or not the two teenagers who get locked in a mall clothing store overnight (“Young Bodies”) get caught and arrested the following day is inconsequential to what the reader learns about these characters over the course of the night.

Social realism is the highest objective in Raymond’s work, so the tiny topical flags he inserts into his stories make each story feel current without making political implications the point. Issues of gentrification, immigration, electoral politics, and even the housing bubble show up, but only as context for human drama. Raymond isn’t interested in exceptional figures of power, but rather those who hold only half-formed opinions on the day’s big issues and perform the drama of their lives against this backdrop. In his work, there are no heroes or villains, because reality is not that simple. Most of our lives take place in that vast gray area between the moral poles, and so Raymond doesn’t dabble in extremes. If he did, his stories would demand firmer consequences that either constitute a cruel-world outlook or one that’s more facile and conciliatory. Either choice would be dishonest and sensational. The stories in Livability feel real because they’re believable, and believable because they’re never sensational.


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