Style and Technique
Raymond Carver’s fiction, especially his earlier stories, has been described as minimalist because of its remarkable flatness of tone, unadorned language, spare plot lines, and characters bereft of identity and affect. This was the story with which Carver first entered American popular magazines, and it launched his career as a major literary figure. In keeping with this minimalist style, “Neighbors” follows an ordinary couple whose lives have little pleasure, little drama, little distinction, through three days behind doors not just closed but locked. When the story ends, neither they nor the reader can say exactly what transpired, if anything. These are protagonists who live unexamined lives on deadend streets.
One recurring image is that of the mirror. Invading some new corner of the Stones’ private realm, Bill frequently turns to a mirror as if he is uncertain who he is. Perhaps he is looking for an outward sign of the life transformation he seeks. Has the shadow of discontent that darkens his every moment been lightened? Perhaps he just wants to be sure he still exists. This dependence on a reflection to be assured of the status of his own being is a powerful metaphor for his inner emptiness and lack of sense of self. In contrast, Arlene is not seen looking into a mirror. Bill is her mirror. She responds to and repeats the changes in him. The Millers misunderstand the nature of their quest so badly that even when they symbolically appropriate others’ lives, they expect that their transformations into more alive, more exciting, human beings will show up in the mirror.
Some critics have found Carver’s flat prose, arid landscape, muddled and unhappy characters, and enigmatic endings nihilistic, vapid, or pointlessly bizarre. Others argue that such unhappy and empty people, unable to even articulate their own pains much less fix their own lives, are powerful evocations of the modern experience of living lives without significance.