Carver’s first two collections of short stories shocked readers with their violence and puzzled them with their laconic, Chekhovian style. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? contains twenty-two stories that provide stark images of lives lived in quiet desperation. In many of the stories in this collection, the characters are thrown out of their everyday routines and caught in situations in which they feel helpless and estranged.
Whereas the stories in Carver’s first important collection are relatively drained of imagery and recall the style of Ernest Hemingway, the stories in his second major collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, are even more radically sparing in their language; indeed, they are so minimal that they seem mere dehumanized patterns with no life in them at all. Whatever theme they may have is embodied in the bare outlines of sometimes shocking, sometimes trivial events and in the spare and reticent dialogue of the characters, who seem utterly unable to articulate the nature of their isolation. Characters often have no names or only first names and are so briefly described that they seem to have no physical presence at all.
The lyricism of Carver’s style lies in a “will to style” in which reality is stripped of its physicality and exists only in the hard, bare outlines of the event. Carver’s stories have more of the ambience of dream than of everyday reality. They are unconcerned with social issues, yet the stories are not parables in the usual sense. His characters give a feeling of emotional reality that reaches the level of myth, even as they refuse to give a feeling of physical or simple psychological reality. The most basic theme of Carver’s stories is the tenuous union between men and women and the mysterious separations that always seem imminent.
The stories that appear in Carver’s last two collections, however, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, perhaps because they were mainly written after Carver had been cured of alcoholism and had met Gallagher, are more optimistic and hopeful than the earlier stories; they also are more voluble and detailed, exhibiting an increasing willingness by Carver and his narrators to discuss, explain, and explore the emotions and situations that give rise to the stories.
Instead of separation, Carver’s later stories move toward union or reunion. They are characterized by a mood of reconciliation and calm self-knowledge and acceptance. Although this shift in moral perspective moves Carver’s fiction toward a more conventional short-story form, all of his stories are told in such a way that the universal human mystery of union and separation is exposed, even if it is not always explained. The simple, yet complex humanity revealed by Carver can neither be understood nor cured by the pop psychology of modern life; as in the great short stories of his predecessors, it can only be captured in the pure and painful events of human beings who mysteriously come together and come apart.
Carver was the most important figure in the renaissance of short fiction sparked in American literature in the 1980’s. He belongs to a line of short-story writers that begins with Anton Chekhov and progresses through such masters of the form as Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, and Bernard Malamud. On the basis of a small output of stories, Carver will remain a significant figure in the history of modern American literature.
First published: 1976 (collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, 1976)
Type of work: Short story
A young couple fantasize about taking the place of their vacationing neighbors.
“Neighbors” is one of the most puzzling and shocking stories in Carver’s collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? It focuses on Bill and Arlene Miller, a young couple who feel that the lives of their neighbors Harriet and Jim Stone are somehow brighter and fuller than their own. The story begins when the Stones go on a trip and ask the Millers to look after their apartment and water the plants. When Bill begins routinely to perform this task, however, his visits to the apartment make him sexually aroused. Moreover, he begins to stay longer and longer in the apartment, taking trivial things such as cigarettes and a container of pills, and nibbling food from the refrigerator.
Bill’s fascination with the apartment becomes more bizarre when he secretly takes time off from work and slips in to spend the day alone there. He first tries on a pair of Bermuda shorts belonging to Jim Stone, then a brassiere and pair of panties belonging to Harriet. The story comes to a climax that evening when his wife goes over to the apartment and the reader discovers that she is similarly fascinated, telling her husband that she found some pictures in a drawer. Although the reader is not told what kind of pictures they are, one may assume they depict the secret life of the Stones. When the couple go back across the hall to their own apartment, they consider that maybe the Stones will not come back. When they discover that they have locked the key to the Stones’ apartment inside, they feel desperate.“Don’t worry,” he said into her ear. “For God’s sake, don’t worry.” They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.
Typical of Carver’s early work, the story offers no explanation for the fascination the apartment holds for the young couple; the closest Carver will come to an explanation is Arlene saying, “It’s funny . . . to go in someone’s place like that,” to which her husband replies, “It is funny.” This is not a story about a sexually perverted couple; rather, it is a story about the fascination of visiting the secret inner reality of someone else and the excitement of temporarily taking on his or her identity. To enter into the dark and secret world of the “neighbors” is to experience a voyeuristic thrill.
The dissatisfaction that everyone feels at times with being merely themselves and the universal inner desire to change places with someone else is delicately handled in the story. For example, Bill’s fantasy of changing places with his neighbor is suggested by the simple act of his looking into the bathroom mirror, closing his eyes, and then looking again—as if by that blink, a transformation could take place. Moreover, the fact that Bill wants to make love to his wife after visiting the apartment reflects the erotic thrill of peeking into the life of someone else and then, almost in an act of autoeroticism, fulfilling that fantasy with whomever is at hand. The desperation the couple feel at the end as they find themselves locked out of the apartment, bracing themselves “as if against a wind,” points to the impossibility of truly entering into the lives of others, except to visit and, inevitably, to violate.
“Why Don’t You Dance?”
First published: 1981 (collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, 1981)
Type of work: Short story
A young couple inspects the furniture a man has set up on his front lawn, but more is at stake than a yard sale.
This first story in Carver’s controversial collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is characteristic of the qualities of his short fiction at the high point of his career. The story begins with an unidentified man who has, for some unexplained reason, put all of his furniture out on his front lawn. What makes this event more than merely a yard sale is the fact that the man has arranged the furniture exactly as it was when it was in the house and has even plugged in the television and other appliances so that they work as they did inside. The only mention of the homeowner’s wife is the fact that the bed has a nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed and a nightstand and reading lamp on “her” side of the bed; this is Carver’s typical unstated way of suggesting that the man’s marriage has collapsed and that his wife is no longer around.
The story begins its muted dramatic turn when a young couple furnishing their first apartment stop by and begin to inspect the furniture. As the young woman tries out the bed and the young man turns on the television, their dialogue is clipped and cryptic, reminiscent of the dialogue of characters in stories by Ernest Hemingway. When the homeowner returns from a trip to the store, the dialogue continues in its understated and laconic way as the couple makes offers for some of the furnishings, and the homeowner indifferently accepts whatever they offer. The homeowner plays a record on the phonograph; the young man and the young woman, then the homeowner and the woman, dance. The story ends with a brief epilogue as, weeks later, the woman is telling a friend about the incident. The story ends: “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked...
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