Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3876
Nearly everything written about Raymond Carver begins with two observations: He is a minimalist, and he writes about working-class people. Even when the critic is sympathetic, this dual categorization tends to stigmatize Carver as a minor artist writing little stories about little people. Although it is true that most of Carver’s characters belong to the working class, their problems are universal. Carver writes about divorce, infidelity, spiritual alienation, alcoholism, bankruptcy, rootlessness, and existential dread; none of these afflictions is peculiar to the working class, and in fact, all were once more common to members of the higher social classes.
Carver was a minimalist by preference and by necessity. His lifelong experience had been with working-class people. It would have been inappropriate to write about simple people in an ornate style, and, furthermore, his limited education would have made it impossible for him to do so effectively. The spare, objective style that he admired in some of Hemingway’s short stories, such as “The Killers” and “Hills Like White Elephants,” was perfectly suited to Carver’s needs.
The advantage and appeal of minimalism in literature is that it draws readers into the story by forcing them to conceptualize missing details. One drawback is that it allows insecure writers to imply that they know more than they know and mean more than they are actually saying. This was true of the early stories that Carver collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? A good example of Carver’s strengths and weaknesses is a short story in that volume titled “Fat.”
As the title suggests, “Fat” is about a fat man. It is little more than a character sketch; nothing happens in the story. Throughout his career, Carver based stories and poems on people or incidents that he observed or scraps of conversation that he overheard; these things seemed to serve as living metaphors or symbols with broader implications. Carver frames his story by setting it in a restaurant and by describing the fat man from the point of view of a waitress. She says that she has never seen such a fat person in her life and is somewhat awestruck by his appearance, by his gracious manners, and by the amount of food that he can consume at one sitting. After she goes home at night, she is still thinking about him. She says that she herself feels “terrifically fat”; she feels depressed, and finally ends by saying, “My life is going to change. I feel it.”
The reader can feel it too but might be hard pressed to say what “it” is. The story leaves a strong impression but an ambiguous one. No two readers would agree on what the story means, if anything. It demonstrates Carver’s talent for characterization through dialogue and action, which was his greatest asset. Both the waitress and her fat customer come alive as people, partially through the deliberate contrast between them. His treatment of the humble, kindly waitress demonstrates his sensitivity to the feelings of women. His former wife, Maryann Carver, said of him, “Ray loved and understood women, and women loved him.”
“Fat” also shows Carver’s unique sense of humor, which was another trait that set him apart from other writers. Carver was so constituted that he could not help seeing the humorous side of the tragic or the grotesque. His early, experimental short stories most closely resemble the early short stories of William Saroyan reprinted in The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Other Stories (1934) and subsequent collections of his stories that appeared in the 1930’s. Saroyan is perhaps best remembered for his novel The Human Comedy (1943), and it might be said that the human comedy was Carver’s theme and thesis throughout his career. Like the early stories of Saroyan, Carver’s stories are the tentative vignettes of a novice who knows very well that he wants to be a writer but still does not know exactly what he wants to say.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? includes the tragicomic “Neighbors,” the first of Carver’s stories to appear in a slick magazine with a large circulation. Gordon Lish, editor of the men’s magazine Esquire, recognized Carver’s talent early but did not immediately accept any of his submissions. Lish’s welcome encouragement, painful rejections, and eventual acceptance represented major influences in Carver’s career. “Neighbors” deals with ordinary people but has a surrealistic humor, which was to become a Carver trademark.
Bill and Arlene Miller, a couple in their thirties, have agreed to feed their neighbors’ cat and water the plants while they are away. The Stones’ apartment holds a mysterious fascination, and they both find excuses to enter it more often than necessary. Bill helps himself to the Chivas Regal, eats food out of their refrigerator, and goes through their closets and dresser drawers. He tries on some of Jim Stone’s clothes and lies on their bed masturbating. Then he goes so far as to try on Harriet Stone’s brassiere and panties and then a skirt and blouse. Bill’s wife also disappears into the neighbors’ apartment on her own mysterious errands. They fantasize that they have assumed the identities of their neighbors, whom they regard as happier people leading fuller lives. The shared guilty adventure arouses both Bill and Arlene sexually, and they have better lovemaking than they have experienced in a long while. Then disaster strikes: Arlene discovers that she has inadvertently locked the Stones’ key inside the apartment. The cat may starve; the plants may wither; the Stones may find evidence that they have been rummaging through their possessions. The story ends with the frightened Millers clinging to each other outside their lost garden of Eden.
This early story displays some of Carver’s strengths: his sense of humor, his powers of description, and his ability to characterize people through what they do and say. It also has the two main qualities that editors look for: timeliness and universality. It is therefore easy to understand why Lish bought this piece after rejecting so many others. “Neighbors” portrays the alienated condition of many contemporary Americans of all social classes.
“Neighbors,” however, has certain characteristics that have allowed hostile critics to damn Carver’s stories as “vignettes,” “anecdotes,” “sketches,” and “slices-of-life.” For one thing, readers realize that the terror they briefly share with the Millers is unnecessary: They can go to the building manager for a passkey or call a locksmith. It is hard to understand how two people who are so bold about violating their neighbors’ apartment should suddenly feel so helpless in the face of an everyday mishap. The point of the story is blunted by the unsatisfactory ending.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
The publication of the collection titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love made Carver famous. These short, rather ambiguous stories also got him permanently saddled with the term “minimalist.” Carver never accepted that label and claimed that he did not even understand what it meant. He had a healthy mistrust of critics who attempted to categorize writers with such epithets: It was as if he sensed their antagonism and felt that they themselves were trying to “minimize” him as an author. A friend of Carver said that he thought a minimalist was a “taker-out” rather than a “putter-in.” In that sense, Carver was a minimalist. It was his practice to go over and over his stories trying to delete all superfluous words and even superfluous punctuation marks. He said that he knew he was finished with a story when he found himself putting back punctuation marks that he had previously deleted. It would be more accurate to call Carver a perfectionist rather than a minimalist.
“Why Don’t You Dance?”
One of the best short stories reprinted in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is “Why Don’t You Dance?” It is one of the most representative, the most “Carveresque” of all Carver’s short stories. A man who is never given a name has placed all of his furniture and personal possessions outside on the front lawn and has whimsically arranged them as if they were still indoors. He has run an extension cord from the house and hooked up lamps, a television, and a record player. He is sitting outside drinking whiskey, totally indifferent to the amazement and curiosity of his neighbors. One feels as if the worst is over for him: He is the survivor of some great catastrophe, like a marooned sailor who has managed to salvage some flotsam and jetsam.
A young couple, referred to throughout the story as “the boy” and “the girl,” drive by and assume that the man is holding a yard sale. They stop and inquire about prices. The man offers them drinks. The boy and girl get into a party spirit. They put old records on the turntable and start dancing in the driveway. The man is anxious to get rid of his possessions and accepts whatever they are willing to offer. He even makes them presents of things that they do not really want. Weeks later, the girl is still talking about the man, but she cannot find the words to express what she really feels about the incident. Perhaps she and her young friends will understand the incident much better after they have worked and worried and bickered and moved from one place to another for ten or twenty years.
“Why Don’t You Dance?” is a humorous treatment of a serious subject, in characteristic Carver fashion. The man’s tragedy is never spelled out, but the reader can piece the story together quite easily from the clues. Evidently there has been a divorce or separation. Evidently there were financial problems, which are so often associated with divorce, and the man has been evicted. Judging from the fact that he is doing so much drinking, alcoholism is either the cause or the effect of his other problems. The man has given up all hope and now sees hope only in other people, represented by this young couple just starting out in life and trying to collect a few pieces of furniture for their rented apartment.
Divorce, infidelity, domestic strife, financial worry, bankruptcy, alcoholism, rootlessness, consumerism as a substitute for intimacy, and disillusionment with the American Dream are common themes throughout Carver’s stories. The symbol of a man sitting outside on his front lawn drinking whiskey, with all of his worldly possessions placed around him but soon to be scattered to the four winds, is a striking symbol of modern human beings. It is easy to acquire possessions but nearly impossible to keep a real home.
Carver did not actually witness such an event but had a similar episode described to him by a friend and eventually used it in this story. A glance at the titles of some of Carver’s stories shows his penchant for finding in his mundane environment external symbols of subjective states: “Fat,” “Gazebo,” “Vitamins,” “Feathers,” “Cathedral,” “Boxes,” “Menudo.” The same tendency is even more striking in the titles of his poems, for example, “The Car,” “Jean’s TV,” “NyQuil,” “My Dad’s Wallet,” “The Phone Booth,” “Heels.”
In his famous essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote that he wanted an image that would be “emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance,” so he created his famous raven perched on the bust of Pallas Athena and croaking the refrain “nevermore.” To highlight the difference in Carver’s method, Carver might have seen a real raven perched on a real statue, and it would have suggested mournful and never-ending remembrance. This kind of “reverse symbolism” seems characteristic of modern American minimalists in general, and Carver’s influence on their movement is paramount.
Poe states that he originally thought of using a parrot in his famous poem but rejected that notion because it did not seem sufficiently poetic and might have produced a comical effect; if Carver had been faced with such a choice, he probably would have chosen the parrot. What distinguishes Carver from most minimalists is a sense of humor that is impervious to catastrophe: Like the man on the front lawn, Carver had been so far down that everyplace else looked better. He would have concurred heartily with William Shakespeare’s often-quoted lines in As You Like It (1599-1600):
Sweet are the uses of adversity,Which, like a toad, ugly and venomous,Wears yet a precious jewel in his head
On a different level, “Why Don’t You Dance?” reflects Carver’s maturation as a person and an author. The responsibilities of parenthood as well as the experience of teaching young students were bringing home to him the fact that his personal problems could hold instructional utility for others. As a teacher of creative writing, placed more and more in the limelight, interacting with writers, editors, professors, and interviewers, he was being forced to formulate his own artistic credo. The older man in the story sees himself in his young yard-sale customers and wants to help them along in life; this is evidently a reflection of the author’s own attitude. Consequently, the story itself is not merely an autobiographical protest or lament like some of Carver’s earlier works but is designed to deliver a message—perhaps a warning—for the profit of others. The melancholy wisdom of Carver’s protagonist reflects Carver’s own mellowing as he began to appreciate the universally tragic nature of human existence.
“Where I’m Calling From”
“Where I’m Calling From” is a great American short story. It originally appeared in the prestigious The New Yorker, was reprinted in the collection titled Cathedral, and appears once again as the title story in the best and most comprehensive collection of Carver’s stories, Where I’m Calling From. The story is narrated by an alcoholic staying at a “drying-out facility,” an unpretentious boardinghouse where plain meals are served family style and there is nothing to do but read, watch television, or talk. The bucolic atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of the training-camp scenes in one of Hemingway’s most brilliant short stories, “Fifty Grand.”
The narrator in Carver’s story tells about his drinking problems and interweaves his own biography with that of a friend he has made at the drying-out facility, a man he refers to as J. P. The only thing unusual about their stories is that J. P. is a chimney sweep and is married to a chimney sweep. Both J. P. and the narrator ruined their marriages through their compulsive drinking and are now terrified that they will be unable to control their craving once they get out of the facility. They have made vows of abstinence often enough before and have not kept them. They have dried out before and gone right back to the bottle.
Carver manages to convey all the feelings of guilt, remorse, terror, and helplessness experienced by people who are in the ultimate stages of alcoholism. It is noteworthy that, whereas his alcoholic protagonists of earlier stories were often isolated individuals, the protagonist-narrator of “Where I’m Calling From” not only is actively seeking help but also is surrounded by others with the same problem. This feature indicates that Carver had come to realize that the way to give his stories the point or meaning that they had previously often lacked was to suggest the existence of large-scale social problems of which his characters are victims. He had made what author Joan Didion called “the quantum leap” of realizing that his personal problems were actually social problems. The curse of alcoholism affects all social classes; even people who never touch a drop can have their lives ruined by it.
“The Bridle” first appeared in The New Yorker and was reprinted in Cathedral. It is an example of Carver’s mature period, a highly artistic story fraught with social significance. The story is told from the point of view of one of Carver’s faux-naïf narrators. Readers immediately feel that they know this good-natured soul, a woman named Marge who manages an apartment building in Arizona and “does hair” as a sideline. She tells about one of the many families who stayed a short while and then moved on as tumbleweeds being blown across the desert. Although Carver typically writes about Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, this part of Arizona is also “Carver Country,” a world of freeways, fast-food restaurants, Laundromats, mindless television entertainment, and transient living accommodations, a homogenized world of strangers with minimum-wage jobs and tabloid mentalities.
Mr. Holits pays the rent in cash every month, suggesting that he recently went bankrupt and has neither a bank account nor credit cards. Carver, like minimalists in general, loves such subtle clues. Mrs. Holits confides to Marge that they had owned a farm in Minnesota. Her husband, who “knows everything there is about horses,” still keeps one of his bridles, evidently symbolizing his hope that he may escape from “Carver Country.” Mrs. Holits proves more adaptable: She gets a job as a waitress, a favorite occupation among Carver characters. Her husband, however, cannot adjust to the service industry jobs, which are all that are available to a man his age with his limited experience. He handles the money, the two boys are his sons by a former marriage, and he has been accustomed to making the decisions, yet he finds that his wife is taking over the family leadership in this brave new postindustrial world.
Like many other Carver males, Holits becomes a heavy drinker. He eventually injures himself while trying to show off his strength at the swimming pool. One day the Holitses with their young sons, pack and drive off down the long, straight highway without a word of explanation. When Marge trudges upstairs to clean the empty apartment, she finds that Holits has left his bridle behind.
The naïve narrator does not understand the significance of the bridle, but the reader feels its poignancy as a symbol. The bridle is one of those useless objects that everyone carts around and is reluctant to part with because it represents a memory, a hope, or a dream. It is an especially appropriate symbol because it is so utterly out of place in one of those two-story, frame-stucco, look-alike apartment buildings that disfigure the landscape and are the dominant features of “Carver Country.” Gigantic economic forces beyond the comprehension of the narrator have driven this farm family from their home and turned them into the modern equivalent of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
There is, however, a big difference between Carver and Steinbeck. Steinbeck believed in and prescribed the panacea of socialism; Carver has no prescriptions to offer. He seems to have no faith either in politicians or in preachers. His characters are more likely to go to church to play bingo than to say prayers or sing hymns. Like many of the contemporary minimalists, he seems to have gone beyond alienation, beyond existentialism, beyond despair. God is dead; so what else is new?
Carver’s working-class characters are far more complicated than Steinbeck’s Joad family. Americans have become more sophisticated in the past fifty years as a result of the influence of radio, motion pictures, television, the Internet, more abundant educational opportunities, improved automobiles and highways, cheap air transportation, alcohol and drugs, more leisure time, and the fact that their work is less enervating because of the proliferation of labor-saving machinery. Many Americans have also lost their religious faith, their work ethic, their class consciousness, their family loyalty, their integrity, and their dreams. Steinbeck saw it happening and showed how the Joad family was splitting apart after being uprooted from the soil; Carver’s people are the Joad family a half-century down the road. Oddly enough, Carver’s mature stories do not seem nihilistic or despairing because they contain the redeeming qualities of humor, compassion, and honesty.
Where I’m Calling From is the most useful volume of Carver’s short stories because it contains some of the best stories that had been printed in earlier books plus a generous selection of his later and best efforts. One of the new stories reprinted in Where I’m Calling From is “Boxes,” which first appeared in The New Yorker. When Carver’s stories began to be regularly accepted by The New Yorker, it was an indication that he had found the style of self-expression that he had been searching for since the beginning of his career. It was also a sign that his themes were evoking sympathetic chords in the hearts and minds of The New Yorker’s middle and upper-class readership, the people at whom that magazine’s sophisticated advertisements for diamonds, furs, highrise condominiums, and luxury vacation cruises are aimed.
“Boxes” is written in Carver’s characteristic tragicomic tone. It is a story in which the faux-naïf narrator, a favorite with Carver, complains about the eccentric behavior of his widowed mother who, for one specious reason or another, is always changing her place of residence. She moves so frequently that she usually seems to have the bulk of her worldly possessions packed in boxes scattered about on the floor. One of her complaints is the attitude of her landlord, whom she calls “King Larry.” Larry Hadlock is a widower and a relatively affluent property owner. It is evident through Carver’s unerring dialogue that what she is really bitter about is Larry’s indifference to her own fading charms. In the end, she returns to California but telephones to complain about the traffic, the faulty air-conditioning unit in her apartment, and the indifference of management. Her son vaguely understands that what his mother really wants, though she may not realize it herself, is love and a real home and that she can never have these things again in her lifetime no matter where she moves.
What makes the story significant is its universality: It reflects the macrocosm in a microcosm. In “Boxes,” the problem touched on is not only the rootlessness and anonymity of modern life but also the plight of millions of aging people, who are considered by some to be useless in their old age and a burden to their children. It was typical of Raymond Carver to find a metaphor for this important social phenomenon in a bunch of cardboard boxes.
Carver uses working-class people as his models, but he is not writing solely about the working class. It is simply the fact that all Americans can see themselves in his little, inarticulate, bewildered characters that makes Carver an important writer in the dominant tradition of American realism, a worthy successor to Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, all of whom wrote about humble people. Someday it may be generally appreciated that, despite the odds against him and despite the antipathy of certain mandarins, Raymond Carver managed to become the most important American fiction writer in the second half of the twentieth century.
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