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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...
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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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
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 accumulation. No single sentence lodges in the memory, but, taken together, Mr. Carver's locutions, exact and suggestive as they are, insinuate themselves into a reader's imagination and provoke startling, even shameful, expectations.
In his choice of plots and materials Mr. Carver is in the modernist train of Kafka…. Mr. Carver, by contrast, anchors his men and women, his children, even his dogs and cats, in stable identities. With a speed common to all his stories he fixes the special tic or manner he wishes to develop: "I was out of work," says the narrator of "Collectors" in the story's first sentence. "But any day I expected to hear from up north. I lay on the sofa and listened to the rain. Now and then I'd lift up and look through the curtain for the mailman."
That rain and lassitude, the dangerous quality of expectation and delay, is "Collectors'" signature. (pp. 4-5)
My favorites among these stories are "Why, Honey?" (notice how often the titles form questions), about a governor who may have been a murderer as a child and whose mother fears for her life so long as her son knows where to find her, and "Nobody Said Anything," a perfectly realized story about a kid faking sickness to give the slip to school and spend a day fishing. This story has in its few pages two wholly realized characters, a suggestion of potential murder, accurately adolescent dialogue and one of the best erotic sequences (unrealized sexuality, as usual here) that I have ever read. Also it has an ending that is both astonishing and just. But the essential Carver curtain-close is that in "Ducks": a husband tries to awaken his wife beside him in bed: "She kept on sleeping. 'Wake up,' he whispered. 'I hear something outside.'" What he hears, what it means, what will happen next, is for you to imagine. Mr. Carver's work here is done, and wonderfully. (p. 5)
Geoffrey Wolff. "'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?'" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 7, 1976, pp. 4-5.
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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 frighten them or elude their intellectual categories. The stories' endings, although less plain than their openings, are still understated…. (p. 35)
Carver's remarkable talent for short fiction proves itself in the movement of his stories from beginning to end and not in their enigmatic outcomes. The story "Neighbors" will do as an example. A couple—he a bookkeeper, she a secretary—agrees to look after the apartment across the hall for vacationing friends whom they envy…. In the course of watering the plants and feeding the cat, both Bill and Arlene Miller begin, separately at first, to live the Stones' imagined better lives, nibbling their food and drinking their scotch, pinching their cigarettes, using their bathroom, trying on their clothes, looking at themselves in their mirrors. Each finds this strangely stimulating, and their sex life prospers, though neither can find anything much to say about it all…. In their excitement about [the] unspeakable possibilities [of the Stones returning home and finding them together], they lock their only key to the place inside it, and the story ends with them clinging together in a mutual recognition that something immense, if also shameful, has been lost, though neither of them quite knows what it is.
Other writers might invite us to pity the Millers—how little they need to arouse their diminished selves, but Carver does not pity them. His tight, laconic stories illuminate a kind of life that sophisticated fiction seldom deals with without condescension or sentimentality. (p. 36)
Thomas R. Edwards, "The Short View: 'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?'" in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 23, No. 5, April 1, 1976, pp. 35-6.
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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 short; all of them are written in a factual, unadorned style that never offers to explain, never indulges in commentary. As in a relentless close-up, we hear and see exactly what these people do, but why they do it—or whether anything intelligible goes through their minds as they do it—we cannot confidently explain. Carver's is an art of disconcerting, and he's very good at it. (p. 282)
Dean Flower, "Fiction Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 270-82.∗
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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 in his characters. The men: "He and Gordon Johnson, Mel Dorn, Vern Williams. They play poker, bowl, and fish together…. They are decent men, family men, responsible at their jobs." The women (Lorraine, Iris, Bea, and Doreen, among others) might be single, married, or divorced, they might have kids, a job, or both, but like the men they conduct relatively sane, sensible lives.
These individuals and families, if perhaps scraping by in a tight economy, are not outwardly disturbed…. Unlike many characters today, Carver's do not lean against the wall and hold forth on intellectual subjects; the only such instance in Furious Seasons is when a man, who is reading a biography of Tolstoy, offers that "He has some interesting ideas…. He was quite a character." So much for writing about writers. These people read National Geographic and, I suspect, Reader's Digest, but more likely they're thinking about the weather, or bass and geese, or some everyday sort of thing.
Welcome to Middle America, hovering not far from the West Coast. Yet however ordinary these down-the-block people may seem, within their lives is found Carver's true concern—the terrifying implications of Normal Life, apparently serene but filled with a desperate and hopeless sense of something-gone-wrong…. [In Furious Seasons life is] complicated and tortured in the relationship of one person to another; for it is the pull between two lives, whether over the obstacle of sex or of generation, that is always too strong or too weak. And here is the focus of Carver's vision. As William Gass wrote of other ordinary people, "The loneliness trapped in these figures is overwhelming, and one thinks of the country, and how in the country, space counts for something … that the tyranny of the group can here be claustrophobic, crushing, total."
Clearly, nothing good will come of this. The circumstances vary from story to story, but common to all is a soured domesticity…. And beyond the inability to act is violence—the compulsion toward random action. In this suffocating atmosphere, death is an inevitable consequence of the private nightmare turned actual terror.
Furious Seasons has, in addition to the violence, traces of the bizarre, though not to the same degree as Carver's first book of stories. But if a character is at times pathetic, he is never ludicrous. Carver refuses to set up straw dogs dry enough to self-destruct immediately when touched with easy irony or black humor. These characters are presented cleanly, and Carver is neither patronizing nor sentimental; his compact fiction, written in a simple prose, is full of the emotion that starts in the stomach and moves upward, choking, to the chest and throat. (pp. 132, 134)
Gary L. Fisketjon, "Normal Nightmares" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIII, No. 38, September 18, 1978, pp. 132, 134.∗
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[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 about characters whose lives are in suspended animation, verging on disarray: the salesman between jobs, the writer between stories, the student between semesters, the husband or wife between marriages, and the insomniac, caught between waking consciousness and the escape of sleep. Carver's chosen task is to convey through the most fitting language and symbols the special moments when these people have sudden, astonishing glimpses behind the curtain which separates their empty lives from chaos.
We see these dynamics at work in "Neighbors," whose ominous subtext is, at first, hidden behind Carver's ironic, deadpan style. (pp. 75-6)
["Neighbors"] is about two rather hollow and thoroughly "average" people who encounter something in themselves they don't quite understand. [When they visit their neighbor's vacant apartment, try on their neighbor's clothes, eat their neighbor's food, etc., the Millers] cast away from the terra firma of their mousy existence without charting a destination….
It is hardly gratuitous that Carver places a great number of his characters before mirrors and windows. Mirrors, we know, have the disconcerting capacity of making one a stranger to oneself. Bill Miller looks in the bathroom mirror in the Stones' apartment and sees only his own reflection there. He closes his eyes and opens them. Again, it is himself. But who is that? Wearing the Stones' clothes, Bill again seeks some kind of confirmation from the mirror, though Carver never tells us exactly what he sees….
If the mirror is an emblem of Carverian dissociation, the window, appropriately, is a complementary symbol of voyeurism. Dressed in one of Harriet Stones' outfits, Bill Miller drifts to the living room window, pulls the curtain aside and peers out "for a long time." In doing so, he's looking at the world as a different person, Harriet Stone, might. (p. 77)
The relationship between voyeurism and literature—the reading as well as writing of it—has yet to be fully explored. In the absence of a larger framework, we've found it useful to think of the voyeur as a thief, who possesses what he observes. Looking itself becomes experience, not merely vicarious experience. It is a transforming act, one which changes the character of that which is seen. (p. 79)
In Carver's works, the gulf between the seer and the seen—that is, between writer and subject—is very small indeed. His voice barely impinges upon the story being told, unlike the way a Barthelme's or Pynchon's might. Carver stays as close to the simple truth of his observations as a writer possibly can. He seems to have appropriated what he's writing about and to have kept the stolen thing closely intact out of fascination or respect. And so, as we read his stories, we feel we're accomplices in this faintly stealthy act of appropriation. Like the writer, we're voyeurs, peering into the disturbed lives of these unsuspecting characters. This is what is unique about Carver, his thorough but subtle manipulation of the metaphor of the voyeur at every level of his writing.
The voyeuristic quality of Carver's style comes through brilliantly in the story, "What's in Alaska?". Carl and Mary are visiting their neighbors, Jack and Helen, for an evening of pot smoking from Jack's new water pipe. (pp. 79-80)
There's a transcribed quality to [their] conversation …, as if Carver had been sitting in the corner noting down each comment, pause and peal of laughter. He has it down exactly, the directionless quality, the silliness, the halting rhythm of talk among people under the influence of marijuana. But there's more to this conversation than a technical prowess which conveys the illusion of eavesdropping. What seems to be casual talk, virtually empty of "communication," is really very deliberately and finely wrought. The typical out-of-synch effect of marijuana operates on a metaphorical level with Carl's own existential out-of-synch feelings. By tuning in obliquely to Carl's sullenness and the "bummer" he's on, by including the business about his shoes and the comments on Alaska and Mary's slip of the tongue (and embarrassed explanation), the conversation resonates with the meaning of the story itself. Carl, for instance, like the prehistoric man in Helen's newspaper story, is in a kind of emotional "block of ice." Even the seemingly innocuous episode of the Popsicles is endowed with meaning when the cat drags in a dead mouse and proceeds to lick it slowly "from head to tail" under the coffee table. The evening is bound to be a bummer for all. This is realistic writing of a different sort—a probe stuck beneath the skin of dissociation itself. Passivity is the strength of this language; little seems to be said, yet much is conveyed. If Carver's eye is that of the voyeur, his voice is that of dissociation.
At its most distinctive, Carver's language is unadorned, and, except for occasional bolts of metaphor, as laconic and unmannered as the outward lives of his characters. He flattens his prose to mirror the flatness of his characters' lives. The words in the stories are by and large those of the characters, we think, until we look a little closer: humor, irony and glimmers of the absurd affirm the writer's authority. Carver has perfected a style precisely calibrated with the emotional movement, or stasis, as the case may be, of his singularly ordinary characters. Nor, with few exceptions, does he choose to interpret the thoughts or actions of his subjects. The colloquial language, the first-person persona pieces, the dialogue's recorded quality, all suggest that the writer consciously has slipped into the lives of his characters and caught them at unguarded moments. Carver is the writer as voyeur, a chronicler of overheard conversations and secretly witnessed actions.
Thus it is that compared to the more "mannered" writers of the sixties and seventies—Barth, Pynchon, Barthelme, for example—Carver's style seems ingenuously simple, almost photo-realistic. (pp. 80-1)
If Carver the artist has cast himself in the role of the voyeur, he's played, as we've suggested earlier, an even more subtle trick on the reader. With all but the window pane removed, the reader too becomes a voyeur, a peeping Tom comfortably out of danger of getting caught. (Isn't this one of the appeals of all fiction?) But Carver has laid a trap for us too, for, along with the characters, we may experience the benignly familiar suddenly becoming strange and even frightening…. The effect is somewhat similar to that of reading Kafka. But what Kafka projects through the lens of a nightmarish reality, Carver, at his most distinctive, forces us to see through the most conventional and habitual experiences of everyday life. It is the familiar, the seemingly "known," which is the true mask of the terrifying.
Nowhere is this message more explicit than in "The Father," a two-page story which could be read as Carver's homage to Kafka. A family, consisting of grandmother, mother, and three little girls, clusters around a crib watching and playing with the new baby, a boy. The father, meanwhile, sits in the kitchen, his back to them, in the aloof style of a man bored with women-talk. The five females are debating who the baby resembles in the fatuous way that such things are discussed. One of the girls declares, "I know! I know!… He looks like Daddy!" But if the baby looks like Daddy, asks another, then who does Daddy look like? The answer, terrifying to the children, is "Daddy doesn't look like anybody!" At this point, all turn to look at the father sitting in the kitchen. His reaction, described in the last sentence, reveals that even daddies hover close to the existential abyss: "He had turned around in his chair and his face was white and without expression." His is the face of fear; it is drained of expression and identity. The comfortable fellow known as Daddy has been erased. The story is mannered; we can't help but think of Kafka and other writers of the real unreal. But Carver also tells us something about his own obsession with the theme of dissociation, disconnection from the familiar in the most common surroundings. And if this story doesn't make that theme new for us in the way it is made new in Carver's more representative stories, it at least points a way to an understanding of precisely why we feel the ground shift beneath us in reading Carver.
In the more representative—i.e., less consciously stylized—stories, Carver is even more unsettling with his dissection of the mundane. Like most of us, his characters aren't heroes. They don't teach us how to behave nobly or honorably or even intelligently in moments of crisis. Like the voyeurs they are or resemble, Carver's characters shy away from dramatic confrontation, they avoid existential tests of character. These people are completely removed from Mailer's or Hemingway's preoccupation with masculine assertion. Although there are showdowns in these stories, no one really wants them to occur. Betraying wives are threatened with bodily harm, but rarely do their husbands actually make good on their threats. (pp. 83-4)
Nothing happens because in the main Carver's dissociated characters prefer it that way. Living in a world of unarticulated longing, a world verging on silence, they may even, like the couples in "Neighbors" and "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?", consider themselves "happy." But such happiness is fragile, Carver tells us. Something or someone always happens along to disturb the uneasy equilibrium, forcing a sudden confrontation with a hidden or suppressed part of the self. The disturbance itself acts as a trigger to larger revelations of self-alienation. (p. 84)
It is in moments like the conclusion of "Are You a Doctor?" that Carver's characters realize, with varying degrees of understanding, their aloneness, their dissociation even from their families. And it's appropriate that many of these "awakenings" occur in bed, during bouts of insomnia when the spouse lies soundly asleep, unknowing. Where there should be greatest intimacy, there is, instead, a dark and final sense of isolation. (p. 85)
Carver's characters, on the bottom, often (not always) sink lower. In "Collectors," one of Carver's strangest and most compelling stories, a man—the narrator—is shown at the lowest ebb of his life. He has no job, no family, no interests in anything but is waiting for a letter from "up north" about a job. "I lay on the sofa and listened to the rain. Now and then I'd lift up and look through the curtain for the mailman."… Like Carver's other window images, this one suggests a kind of lonely voyeurism. Into this state of suspended animation pops a very pushy and talkative vacuum cleaner salesman who "collects" from the narrator his remaining dregs of self, much as the miraculous vacuum cleaner the salesman demonstrates "collects" the "bits and pieces" of a person's body…. (p. 86)
The vacuum cleaner salesman introduces himself as Aubrey Bell, a name suggesting the kind of noisy intrusiveness Carver's laconic characters desperately avoid. Not only does Bell poke his machine into the corners and crevices of the narrator's rooms, but he continually challenges the narrator to give his name. The narrator … refuses to surrender this last vestige of self to the curious salesman, who may be making off with it anyway at the end. Although none quite as strange as the vacuum cleaner salesman, there are many other Bell-like characters in Carver's stories…. In many stories, it's the sound of the wife's voice that ripples the quiet surface of the marriage. (p. 87)
[The title and title story of Carver's collection, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"] indicates a desire for detachment, and the sort of clenched politeness that masks the impulse to shout, "Shut up!" In the midst of pressuring his wife, Marian, to tell the full tale of her infidelity, Ralph Wyman feels the temptation to withdraw from revelation, to "leave it at that." He has a womb-like vision of such a withdrawal: "He thought fleetingly that he would be someplace else tonight doing something else, that it would be silent somewhere if he had not married."… Ralph finally leaves the house and goes to skid row in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the noise of his wife's confession. When he returns home at dawn, he locks himself in the bathroom. Marian rattles the door knob and begs to be let in. Ralph pleads in return, "Will you please be quiet, please?"
The title story is Carver's longest and most complex. It's placed last in the collection. It's also one of only three or four stories which end other than bleakly. Carver seems to endow his more complex, introspective "heroes," Ralph Wyman in this story,… with at least the possibility of brighter futures…. [He] discovers an ability to grow and change, and the strength to discard the cherished but unrealistic vision of Marian and himself, and to accept his own as well as Marian's sensual nature. Much of this is conveyed in the imagistic description, at the end of the story, of release and sensual movement:
He tensed at her fingers, and then he let go a little. Her hand moved over his hip and over his stomach and she was pressing her body over his now and moving over him and back and forth over him. He held himself, he later considered, as long as he could. And then he turned to her. He turned and turned in what might have been a stupendous sleep, and he was still turning, marveling at the impossible changes he felt moving over him….
This story is a different sort of fish, more writerly than most of Carver's, and richer in background information and authorial guidance. At the same time, we find here a sort of confluence of Carverian themes and images: the theme of marital crisis (which over half the twenty-two stories in the collection involve), the encounter with the dissociated self, and the kind of alienation that makes of one an observer. There are also marvelous scenes, including the one of the locked bathroom, in which Carver brings his distinctively plain style (and voyeur's intensity) to a story in the tradition of Cheever and Up-dike. (pp. 87-8)
The voyeurism in this story is tinged with narcissism. It is almost as if Ralph were standing in front of a mirror which was reflecting not his but Marian's image, acting out "certain unthinkable particularities" for Ralph's benefit. Marian's long tale of the unfaithful wife, her "confession," which is delivered in the most elaborate, vividly recalled detail, suggests that she's conscious of the game they're playing, and has need of it too. The double nature of voyeurism, which hints at the intimate bond between "voyeur" and "victim," is conveyed in [the] conjunction of "window" and "voyeur" images….
The revelation of Marian's unfaithfulness is self-revelation for Ralph. Even Ralph's accusation, "Christ!… But you've always been that way, Marian!", reveals more about him than about his wife. The self-discovery is underscored in the next line the narrator delivers: "And he knew at once that he had uttered a new and profound truth."… Then follows Ralph's desperate all-night walk on the wild side of Eureka, the small northern California city where the Wymans live…. In the course of his wanderings, he becomes "suddenly aware that he had come a long way that evening, a long way in his life." (p. 89)
At dawn, he takes his battered soul and body home. His young daughter asks innocently, "What did you do to your face, Daddy?" But the image of self-alienation isn't complete until Ralph locks himself in the bathroom:
He looked at himself in the mirror a long time. He made faces at himself. He tried many expressions. Then he gave it up. He turned away from the mirror….
For Ralph this is a mirror which reflects hope, not despair. Ralph may not have "found himself" yet, but at least he's rid of the smug, "enormously happy" Ralph who couldn't face confusion and contradiction except by dissociating himself from them. Moreover, the "new" faceless Ralph is protean: he can accept the "many expressions" life gives us to wear. He can even "give up" and "turn away" from the mirror. Thus he is prepared for the final revelation of the concluding bed scene, and perhaps the one genuine epiphany in this collection of Carver's stories, the moment in which Ralph "turned and turned … marveling at the impossible changes he felt moving over him."
Carver has "turned" too. He's come full circle in this last story to show us how self-revelation can point a way back to understanding and intimacy. Yet even in this rare hopeful tale, the relationship between Kafkaean dissociation and voyeurism remains strong. The character is an unwilling witness of something "taboo," an act which stretches his perceptions. The voyeuristic glimpse leads to a rupture in the seemingly calm surface of life, and a disaffection with the self. It is an awakening to the possible terrors of existence. What changes ultimately will come about Carver is careful not to explain, for his stories finally are as open-ended as life itself. But he does tell us that life continually presents us with small but important tests, and that little can be taken for granted…. He's also made us aware, if we weren't before, of the close kinship between reading and voyeurism. For these things alone, he deserves the accolades he's already earned and will continue to earn. But he's done one thing more. Carver the artist and Carver the voyeur have conspired to convince us that we're reading about real people in real situations. His accuracy hits home; we put ourselves in the shoes of his characters, and we find, often, that the fit is alarmingly close. Reading Raymond Carver's stories is like peering into the windows of life through very powerful binoculars. (pp. 89-90)
David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips, "'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?': Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Raymond Carver," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1979, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer, 1979), pp. 75-90.
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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 called "A Serious Talk" describes the Christmas quarrels of a separated couple who manage to say a great deal in the language of infidelity and violent gestures without ever settling down to the discussion they keep planning. They do exchange one word that means something, however. After they have battled so furiously that it seems little of value can be left unsmashed, the husband selects a particular ashtray to throw, and his wife stops him merely by asserting that it is theirs. Not hers alone, whatever its legal status, but theirs: the plural pronoun rivets each of them. Still, it fails to fuse them together as the husband had hoped. Words retain some power, but not enough to hold our relationships together under the juggernaut of modernity. (p. 38)
[The] new stories have the fierce compression and evocativeness of fine poems. Their language suggests, however, that the author finds little in contemporary life to wax lyrical about: the pruned-down sentences and paragraphs have the authority of deliberate understatement, even withholding, like a black-and-white photograph of a fire. The first impact of all the stories is sharp and visceral. Only afterward, as the skeleton of each one keeps rattling in the mind, does the painstaking intelligence of their designer become apparent. (pp. 38-9)
For the most part … Carver writes about ordinary people, bingo-players and motel-managers, rather than the highly introspective "we" that the title seems to promise. He implies that underneath their words, intellectuals lead the same mysterious lives of everydayness shot with desire and dread that the rest of the species is doomed to, so it scarcely matters whether he records the flailings of a psvchiatrist or his patient. A father tries to talk, but not listen, to his son; an old man, scared for his sick wife, resents youth; a husband goes berserk with boredom and, in a parody of the mating ritual that first entrapped him, murders a girl; another wife wonders if her husband is capable of murder. Young parents love each other and their baby, but grow apart anyway. "Things change," the father later tells his questioning daughter. "I don't know how they do. But they do without your realizing it or wanting them to."
It is the fore-tremors and aftershocks of the changes that Carver records so well: the violence that underlies monotony; the passion that erupts and sunders people who still care about each other and then vanishes as cruelly as it came. Often his calm portraits of ravaged people read like the best of James M. Cain's novels when the murder is finished and the lust is dying and only senselessness endures. (p. 39)
Meredith Marsh, "The Mutability of the Heart," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, No. 17, April 25, 1981, pp. 38-40.∗
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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 abandonment figure in a large number of them. Since Carver works laconically, skillfully omitting what other writers might regard as essential information, it is often hard to know just what has precipitated a given situation. In "Why Don't You Dance?" a middle-aged man, apparently deserted by his wife, arranges his bedroom furniture on the front lawn and pours himself another drink….
In other stories the occasions for dismay are stark enough. In "After the Denim," the wife of a retired accountant goes to the bathroom during a bingo game at the community center and discovers with apprehension that she is "spotting" again, that "there really is something happening down there." Her husband, who has observed a young hippie couple insouciantly cheating at another table, reflects bitterly upon the unfairness of life…. This story is particularly subtle in its delineation, at once sympathetic and unsparing, of the aging man and wife, whose routinized existence masks a more turbulent past (the husband, a reformed drinker, has taken up needlework as therapy) and is now threatened by the intrusion of the amoral young as well as by a fearsome medical possibility. The old couple are crabbed, their lives contracted and dull; but their devotion to each other is fierce and their values are intact.
Again and again the values—or merely the dignity—of a doomed older generation are contrasted with the drifting lives of their successors, whether middle-aged or young. (p. 37)
The impact—often stunning—of these brief tales comes partly from our sense that Carver does not cheat, that the situations are ones into which he has fully imagined and felt his way, that his characters have not been merely set up to be knocked down again; in only two stories ("Tell the Women We're Going" and "Popular Mechanics") did I detect an element of gratuitous cruelty in the outcome. But the impact owes at least as much to the pared-down narrative technique that Carver has perfected. The stories thrive on omissions. One of them begins, "I'll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was Dummy, that Dummy died. The first thing was Pearl Harbor. And the second thing was moving to my grandfather's farm near Wenatchee."
Only the "third thing" is explored; the other two are merely stated and left as unexplained entities to reverberate in the reader's consciousness. The language, too, is pared down to the plainest of plain styles. Carver's sentences, mostly simple and declarative, keep a tight grip on the simple objects and events that they present for inspection. His style is sternly denotative, allowing no scope for metaphor or linguistic exuberance. A certain price is paid, of course, for this asceticism: one misses the sudden bursts of vivid or lurid imagery that light up some of the greatest stories in our literature.
But within the limits he has set, Carver has shown himself to be a very fine artist. I hope this new collection will attract many readers and establish Carver's reputation as one of the true contemporary masters of an exacting genre. (pp. 37-8)
Robert Towers, "Low-Rent Tragedies," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 8, May 14, 1981, pp. 37-40.∗
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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 love, and before long we feel as speechless as the narrator…. The thing is, Carver beautifully demonstrates that we talk all sorts of ways about love but when the chips are down many of us haven't the slightest notion what it means.
And that might be it. It's not the bombs, nor the fiscal or international crisis that might get us. It could come quietly, draining our hearts and souls. Perhaps too many of our lives are already parts of Raymond Carver stories. Perhaps when love and its handmaidens, humanism and altruism, go we're all done for. In "I Could See The Smallest Things" Carver has a suburban housewife leave her boring husband's bed to investigate a noise in her backyard. She encounters an equally boring neighbor killing slugs in the middle of the night. "A plane passed overhead" she says to herself. "I imagined the people on it sitting belted in their seats, some of them reading, some of them staring down at the ground." In a way we're all belted to our seats, and our times, staring up or down for answers. It is only on rare occasions when a writer of Mr. Carver's talent comes along with a book such as this that we are allowed to see "some things."
Michael Koepf, "The Collapse of Love: 'What We Talk about When We Talk about Love'," in San Francisco Review of Books (copyright © by the San Francisco Review of Books 1981), May-June, 1981, p. 16.
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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."
This diffidence has given rise to a new literary idiom. Laconic and spare, devoid of lyricism, eloquence, imagery, it is a prose of declarative sentences and common nouns, of events described without comment. Dialogue appears to be unedited; everything is left in. Desultory conversations go on for pages. In Carver's first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), even the title mimes the repetitiveness of speech; and his new book is largely about what it says it's about: talk. In a typical Carver story, the characters sit around the kitchen table or in front of their television sets—talking. They talk on the phone, they loll on motel beds talking, they sit in cocktail lounges and talk. "I could hear the human noise we sat there making," says the narrator of the title story; Carver's style is a precise record of that noise.
Yet his characters are hardly garrulous; their talk is groping, rudimentary. They have no wisdom to purvey. They talk past each other, and their failure to articulate their wishes ends up ruining their lives…. Language becomes just another misfortune, without our ever quite knowing why.
When this oblique approach works, Carver's stories gather dramatic tension from his disavowal of motive or interpretation; their very minimality gives them a certain bleak power. He has a masterly narrative sense, and supplies necessary information with unobtrusive care. At its best, his willfully simple style concentrates our attention, requires us to supply our own conclusions. And he manages to articulate the longings of inarticulate people, people for whom language is intimidating, a hazard. (pp. 96-7)
For all his reticence, Carver is a versatile mimic with a range of narrative voices, but his new collection is dominated by … [a morose taciturn voice. His] characters are anhedonic, incapable of pleasure; and this depression is reflected in [his grudging prose]….
The vapid dialogue of these characters insists that the writer's responsibility is only to register what is true in a literal, documentary sense…. [Carver is] so resolute about not saying any more than … [he has] to in order to convey a story's import, so aggressive in the suppression of detail, that one is left with a hunger for richness, texture, excess, just as the cubed glass high-rises of Manhattan frustrate the eye's longing for nuance. (p. 97)
What is curious is that Carver's first collection [Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?] was more robust, more "literary," and displayed a mastery of colloquial American idioms reminiscent of Ring Lardner and Sherwood Anderson. This new book, perhaps half as long, seems thin, diminished; it recalls the landscape of Wallace Stevens's "Gubbinal," where "The world is ugly, / And the people are sad." There is the same subtlety, the same tactic of implication, but his reticence now seems stubborn, willed. "It doesn't need Tolstoy to tell it," says a woman in one of Carver's early stories, offering a writer a modest anecdote. No, but it needs some of his energy, his broad narrative strokes and exuberant sprawl….
[Too] often Carver seems determined to limit himself, as if in obedience to some vow of simplicity….
Why would a writer circumscribe his talent? Is it the fear of failing at something larger? A conviction that one has found one's limits? Then again, perhaps Carver … [has] found just the right compass for … [his imagination]. Not everyone has to write the great American novel. But I suspect there is a more impersonal element in the evolution of this now-recognizable style: the anti-authoritarian temper of the sixties. Cries for "relevance" in literature are no longer heard, but there remains a suspicion of literary hierarchies, a longing to be free of what F. R. Leavis called "the great tradition." How many American writers still set out to measure themselves against that tradition—or against any tradition? The barren idiom of our time is an idiom of refusal, a repudiation of the idea of greatness. The literary finery of Updike and Styron, the new prose declares, is archaic; it belongs to a vanished era, like the bowler and the morning coat. (p. 98)
James Atlas, "Less Is Less," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 247, No. 6, June, 1981, pp. 96-8.
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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 Carver's stories, and especially the seventeen in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, as importantly innovative as they are? It's not that they startle us as messages from another universe…. I think rather that it is that they come so startlingly from our universe, the universe of working-class America, that makes them so gutwrenching. There are no Beverly Hills boutique owners in Carver, no politicians, no radicals. His people aren't articulate or introspective like Henry James's Americans; they are, in fact, as far from Henry James as Carver's style is. Nor are they "workers" in the tradition of the proletarian literature of the 1930s. They resist all pigeonholing with a stubborn, inarticulate obstinacy.
It is that inarticulateness that makes them stunningly recognizable…. His characters never have conversations; they speak blindly at one another, hinting, covering up pain, despair, even love. Everything in a Carver story is designed to hide something else. And it is Carver's genius that he has been able to make his readers feel the pathos and terror in that.
Moreover, Carver's characters never have "epiphanies," those flahes of redeeming revelation that Joyce and Flannery O'Connor were such masters of…. Yet there is revelation, a revelation that Carver locates not in the characters but in the reader. Carver's characters feel and suffer, they grope, they instinctively understand that something terrible or important is happening to them. They sense the menace of ordinary life, they feel the wind from the chasm below the cliff's edge that they, that we, all dance along. But they can never quite bring themselves to lean over and look into the chasm, to put into words just what those terrible or important things are. It is up to us to do that. We must experience those revelations for them. Carver has led us to the cliff's edge, and we must look over it. And therein lies the devastating power of the stories. (p. 23)
What makes all that work, of course, is a story whose mood is so finely tuned that the slightest knock, the briefest miss, would kill the entire engine. Carver made his reputation first as a poet, a good poet. In his fiction, he still is.
Sometimes, of course, the engine needs some tuning. In one of the stories, "Tell the Women We're Going," Carver resorts to a violence he hasn't earned for an ending, and comes near to breaking his own primal rule: "No tricks." He is trying too hard to "say something." Yet even there, the rightness of his language, the landscape of his characters, compels.
I say landscape of his characters. That is very nearly the only landscape you find in Carver and, in truth, the only landscape you need. Naturally, the stories are given physical worlds to take place in. But description is relentlessly minimal. Perhaps it is simply that the world the characters inhabit is all too familiar to call for much description. But I think Carver is after something beyond that. The world his people ultimately live in, the one they are locked into inside themselves, admits no landscape outside itself. That they live dull lives, have dull jobs in dull places, only serves to frame and accent something more important: Carver is a hunter of souls, and is wise enough to know that souls are never dull, that their scenery is infinitely more subtle than mere mountains. (pp. 23-4)
Is there a better contemporary writer of short stories than Raymond Carver? Perhaps a handful as good, but none better. Stanley Elkin says that Carver's "rumpled men and ragged women will break your heart." He's right. Yet there's more to these stories than that. Nearly 200 years ago, Wordsworth and Coleridge started a revolution when they proclaimed their aim to write in "the language really used by men." Neither of them quite achieved that. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver has. And it is terrifying. (pp. 24-5)
Robert Houston, "A Stunning Inarticulateness," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 233, No. 1, July 4, 1981, pp. 23-5.
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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 of the middle class. Assured from birth that all will be well if they do what they're told, the children of that class are unprepared for sorrow, much less tragedy. In response they make do with booze and self-pity…. Touching, perhaps, but not very moving or cogent—particularly after the seventeenth time. (pp. 459-60)
David Kubal, "Fiction Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1981, pp. 456-66.∗