Carver, Raymond (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Raymond Carver 1938–
American short story writer and poet.
Carver's portrayal of the stark existentialism of everyday life may signal a new literary trend toward a reappraisal of traditional realism. The characters of his stories are ordinary people who are victims of their inability to communicate and live in a dehumanizing, hostile society.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
In most of [the 22 short fictions in "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"], the objects of Raymond Carver's close attention are men and women out of work, or between jobs, at loose ends, confused and often terrified. If they are kids, they play hooky. Husbands and wives lie beside each other in bed, touch cautiously, retreat, feign sleep, lie, each bewildered by what has just happened and by what might happen next. The stories themselves are not at all confused; they have been carefully shaped, shorn of ornamentation and directed away from anything that might mislead. They are brief stories but by no means stark: they imply complexities of action and motive and they are especially artful in their suggestion of repressed violence.
No human blood is shed in any of these stories, yet almost all of them hold a promise of mayhem, of some final, awful breaking out from confines, and breaking through to liberty….
Such turmoils are, as in all of these stories, elliptically revealed, and potent with division as well as coupling. They are menacing, as are the spells of quiet and tensed apprehension that characterize Mr. Carver's method. His prose, for all its simplicity, carries his mark everywhere: I would like to believe that having read these stories I could identify him on the evidence of a paragraph, or at most two. His effect, which suggests but does not in any way duplicate the effect of Harold Pinter, is a function of...
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Thomas R. Edwards
Raymond Carver's stories are marvels of … "completion"—the foreknowledge of nakedness—of which Cynthia Ozick speaks. Carver's stories are very short and naked, proving that it's usually better to say too little than a little too much, and also that endings matter more than beginnings.
His stories [in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?] in fact begin flatly, with no effort to engage the reader in anything more than plain statements about perfectly plain lives…. This is a world whose people worry about whether their old cars will start, where unemployment or personal bankruptcy are present dangers, where a good time consists of smoking pot with the neighbors, with a little cream soda and M&M's on the side, Carver's characters are waitresses, mechanics, postmen, high school teachers, factory workers, door-to-door salesmen. They live in the Pacific Northwest, not for them a still unspoiled scenic wonderland but a place where making a living is as hard, and the texture of life as drab, for those without money, as anywhere else….
The stories are domestic, familial, often involving a married couple, but they aren't really stories of domestic or marital "difficulty." His couples get along pretty well, they accommodate themselves. Their problems come when their marginal lives are intruded upon by mystery, a sense of something larger and more elemental than they're used to feeling, possibilities that either...
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In their terse objectivity as well as subject matter (fathers and sons, marriages at impasse, Indians, boys fishing, insomniacs) … [the stories in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?] suggest Carver as a descendent of Hemingway, relocated in the Pacific Northwest. But where Hemingway's purified style was meant to imply volumes of unspoken knowledge, like the seven-eighths of an iceberg underwater, Carver's method suggests that the other seven-eighths either isn't there or isn't knowable.
Carver is expert at describing various types of emotional parasitism. "Neighbors" is about the Millers who envy their interesting, much-travelled neighbors. Asked to feed the cat while their friends are away, the Millers begin spending time furtively across the hall, trying on clothes, lying in the bed, using the bathroom—and it all proves powerfully erotic. In "The Idea" another couple watches a neighbor stealing out to spy on his own wife as she undresses…. They might almost be watching television. They are the victims of our whole predictable, pointless culture, however, not just of television or the movies. They can't find their own emotions and don't know what is the matter. (p. 281)
Carver's characters frequently discover violence in themselves, alarmingly close to the surface. But it is a weak-kneed violence, shaken by cowardice, and they do their best to dispose of it quickly…. Most of these stories are very...
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Gary L. Fisketjon
The region to which much of [Raymond Carver's Furious Seasons and Other Stories] is affixed is, roughly, the Pacific Northwest—magnificent scenery notwithstanding, never prime stomping grounds for a major writer. (Kesey, you might say, but he's too much the Merry Prankster to rest easy in the Willamette Valley; likewise Tom Robbins, bard of Puget Sound, who in the end appropriates the entire universe as his private, and cosmic, pinball machine.) Carver, though, has roots somewhere, or most places, between northern California and the Washington-British Columbia border. Not that he has erected his own version of Yoknapatawpha County; one gets a name only here and there (Wenatchee, Yakima, Eureka), and many of the locations go unidentified.
More importantly, Carver has a remarkable feel for the pace of life in these parts. He knows these small one- or two-horse towns, which possess neither the splendor and neuroses of the city nor the purity and boredom of the country. These are neither/nor places, and nothing much is going on down Main Street. The weather doesn't help: "Rain threatens. Already the tops of the hills across the valley are obscured by the heavy grey mist. Quick shifting black clouds with white furls and caps are over the fields and vacant lots in front of the apartment house."
Leaving mere geography behind, Carver leads directly to the heart of the heart of the country. And this location is found...
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DAVID BOXER and CASSANDRA PHILLIPS
[Many] of the stories of Raymond Carver [are woven into] a double strand of voyeurism and dissociation. The term "voyeurism" is used advisedly here, to mean not just sexual spying, but the wistful identification with some distant, unattainable idea of self. Dissociation is a sense of disengagement from one's own identity and life, a state of standing apart from whatever defines the self, or of being unselfed. As his dissociated characters tentatively reach out toward otherness, Carver ambushes them, giving them sudden, hideously clear visions of the emptiness of their lives; even the most familiar takes on the sharp definition of the strangely unfamiliar. They become voyeurs, then, of their own experience.
While it can't be said that each of the twenty-two stories in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (the very title suggests a backing off from involvement) incorporates voyeurism and dissociation, most contain elements of one, the other or both. Further, these ideas suggest a way of looking at Carver the artist, whose unique voice embodies the very cadences of anomie. His characters are the unemployed and the unhappily employed, laconic members of the non-upwardly mobile working and middle classes. Their marriages are without intimacy, their needs unexpressed, unrealized or sublimated into vague dreams of change for the better. They are the folks next door, familiar representatives of "the real America." Typically, Carver writes...
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"'I'll see if anybody's home,'" says the nameless boy in "Why don't You Dance?," the first short story of Raymond Carver's masterful collection [What We Talk About When We Talk About Love]. The boy and his girlfriend, who are furnishing their first apartment, have happened upon an odd yard-sale in which the contents of the house have been reassembled on the lawn exactly as they stood inside. An extension cord even allows the blender, television, and lamps to keep on whizzing and glowing in the twilight. "'Whatever they ask, offer ten dollars less,'" the girl advises. "'… they must be desperate or something.'" She is wrong only in using the plural pronoun. All the occupants of Carver's houses are desperately alone, whether or not they are living with each other.
Apparently the enigmatic man who lives in this house has been left by someone, and he sells the furnishings of his broken life at prices that the youngsters find absurdly low….
Later, the girl keeps retelling the story of the yard sale and the haunting sympathy she felt for the stranger who virtually bequeathed her his youth. She is trying somehow to express a meaning greater than the actions, but what she helplessly dwells on is the good bargain she got. So much stuff so cheap. Words fail her.
As the title of the book implies, the difficulty of talking about what really matters is a subject that haunts Raymond Carver. A story...
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[Here is how] most of the stories that make up Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love [can] be described: low-rent tragedies involving people who read Popular Mechanics and Field and Stream, people who play bingo, hunt deer, fish, and drink. They work at shopping centers, sell books, have milk routes, or try, drunkenly, to manage a motel. Mostly they live in the Pacific Northwest, but they could just as easily live in Pensacola, Florida, or Manchester, New Hampshire; in any case they drift a lot….
In this remarkable collection as well as in his first, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?…, Raymond Carver has displayed before us a series of delicately mounted specimens taken from a population—a vast population—that most often eludes or falls through the net of our fiction. Carver's people are not grotesque or notably eccentric, nor rascally or amusingly loquacious. They have no regional or ethnic characteristics that might catch the eye (or ear) of a Eudora Welty or Bernard Malamud, and, despite their mostly Anglo-Saxon derivation, they have nothing in common with the upper-middle-class WASPs of Peter Taylor and John Cheever. Their ordinariness is unredeemed, their failures and fatalities of a sort that goes unnoticed except, perhaps, for an occasional paragraph in some small-town newspaper.
What are the tragedies that these stories relate? Drunkenness and/or...
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This latest collection of Mr. Carver's short stories [What We Talk About When We Talk About Love] and the clear, contemporary vision it gives of the American soul is at once chilling and unforgettably powerful. Carver's stories take us into the lives of everyday people but they are characters on the cusp between oppressive normalcy and psychic despair, and at their best or worst, Carver's people only vaguely seem to sense their predicament. There's a Chekhovian clarity to Ray Carver's stories but a Kafkaesque sense that something is terribly wrong behind the scenes….
Raymond Carver is the consummate master of Now. There are no getaways of hope allowed into the future or back into the past. His immense skill as a writer forces us to constantly face up. If there was something akin to a "new wave" in American fiction, this would be it. He gives us pathos and satire without black humor, simplicity of craft juxtaposed with complexity of emotion.
And, what do we talk about when we talk about love? Two couples sit around a bucket of ice and a bottle of gin in a kitchen in Albuquerque before they go out to dinner at "the new place." There's talk of violent love, passive love, new love, old love, sexual love, adjusted love, love to commit suicide over, but there's no consensus on love amongst the drunken four. The lure of the story is that it draws the reader inextricably into the question of...
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The lives Carver depicts [in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love] are narrow, starved of context. One knows virtually nothing about these people: where they're from, what they look like, what they do for a living. They inhabit a featureless landscape. The only way for them to validate themselves is through the performance of some act—any act—that gives them the illusion of free will. In "A Serious Talk," a man visits his estranged wife and sits mutely at the kitchen table drinking vodka from a cup. "There were things he wanted to say, grieving things, consoling things, things like that"—but instead he cuts the telephone cord while his wife is on the phone. In "Tell the Women We're Going," two young married men get drunk and try to seduce a pair of girls, but end up stoning them to death. There is no motive, nothing to explain it—yet it seems plausible, a reminder that men are violent, primitive, given to murderous lust.
What happened to the conviction, so notable in American life and literature, that we create our own destinies?… Gone are the protagonists who railed against any limitation with hectic, nervous verve; instead we have nameless characters who confine themselves to sullen, monosyllabic retorts. "I just want to say one more thing," declares a man about to walk out on his wife in Carver's "One More Thing." The story ends: "But then he could not think what it could possibly be."
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Raymond Carver is a pernicious alchemist. Take [the] setting, for example, from the beginning of the title story of his new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love….
Nearly all of the elements of a Carver story are here: people with the most ordinary of local habitations and names, rootless, with busted marriages behind them, who drink cheap gin at kitchen tables and for whom the outside world arrives over kitchen sinks. Base metals, dross indeed, to most writers. How many nowadays would have the gumption to attempt to dazzle, to move, with such clay? Or more to the point, how many could succeed in molding it into some of the finest and most original stories of their generation?
That's why Raymond Carver is an alchemist. And that's why he is pernicious. With his primer-simple language, his terrible lucidity, his universe-in-a-grain-of-sand vision, he is becoming an Influence….
But what a healthy perniciousness! The good writers will soon enough realize that Carver's techniques are inseparable from his vision, which is in turn inseparable from being Raymond Carver. But what they will have come away with is freedom. They will have been with a master who tells them by his work that they can make new kinds of stories which remember that fiction is about human beings, not only ideas, and not, for heaven's sake, linguistic theory.
Just what is it that makes...
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In reading Raymond Carver's second volume of stories, [What We Talk About When We Talk About Love], while one is impressed, even stunned at times, by the brevity and harshness of the material, one begins, soon enough, to feel imposed upon by a monotony of tone, theme, and structure. Like Ann Beattie's stories, Mr. Carver's, when taken separately, have a power which is difficult to resist. Read together, however, these seventeen pieces (some are not really stories) put one out of sorts—an effect, I suspect, the author intends. But one's discomfort does not result from having to face new and unbearable truths. The theme of the inevitable and unrelieved loss of love, friendship, youth, and marriage is common enough. Rather, the cumulative effect of the book impoverishes the reader by reducing the world to a few realities. By concentrating exclusively on the disconnectedness, paucity, and sorrow of modern existence, Mr. Carver succeeds not in expanding the powers of feeling—and, therefore, of perception—but in shrinking them. Less is not more in his case.
Underneath all his stories, many told in an alcoholic haze, lies a sense of betrayal; that life has not fulfilled its early promise of peace, order, and love. On the contrary, as one grows older, one is left with a broken marriage, a house full of unwanted furniture, and an inability to understand what has happened. Mr. Carver's fiction, then, records the great disenchantment...
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