Raymond Carver Carver, Raymond (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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.)

Geoffrey Wolff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Dean Flower

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Gary L. Fisketjon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Meredith Marsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"'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...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Michael Koepf

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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James Atlas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Houston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Kubal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 316 words.)