Where I'm Calling From

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Since his second collection of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (1976), was nominated for the National Book Award, Raymond Carver has perhaps been the most admired short-story writer in American literature. The dust jacket of this, his fourth collection of stories, proclaims that for his enormous following it will be a sort of testament. No one knew at the time that it would be his last testament, for only a few months after the appearance of the book, Carver was dead at the age of fifty. Because Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories reprints stories spanning the entire twenty-five years of Carver’s career, it is indeed a one-volume compendium of his work and a memorable testament to an astonishing writing career.

Although Carver was proclaimed an overnight success in 1977, when he received a National Book Award nomination for Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, he had been publishing stories and poems in small presses for about ten years. With his next collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that, in the terms of one critic, Carver was a “full-blown” master. Carver was the leader of a revival of interest in the short story in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, part of a trend of short fiction which author John Barth playfully termed “hyperrealistic minimalism,” or the “less-is-more” school. Indeed, Carver’s stories are stubbornly taciturn and reluctant to speak. Like the stories of his mentors Anton Chekhov and Ernest Hemingway, they communicate by indirection, suggesting much by saying little.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please contains twenty-two stories, of which twelve have been chosen by Carver for reprinting in this new collection. The stories are like stark black-and-white snapshots of lives lived in a kind of quiet, even silent, desperation, told in a language that, even as it seems simple and straightforward, is highly studied and stylized. Although Carver does not include the title piece of the original collection among the dozen reprinted stories from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, he does include such puzzling and powerful shockers as “Neighbors,” “The Student’s Wife,” “Fat,” and “What Is It?” (which has been retitled “Are These Actual Miles?” for this collection).

“Neighbors” is typical of Carver’s early fiction. The plot line of the story is simple: A young couple is asked to look after a neighbor couple’s apartment while they are away. The husband’s visits to the apartment begin to affect him in a mysterious but powerful way; each time he goes over he stays longer, rummaging through drawers, using the bathroom, trying on the other couple’s clothes. The story then reveals that his wife is similarly fascinated by the apartment, and they go over together, thinking in some fantastic way that the neighbors may not come back. When they lock the door after one such visit, they are horrified to discover that they have locked the key inside and cannot get back in. The story suggests not merely a simple kind of voyeurism but also a subtle desire to exchange lives with someone else and thus live vicariously.

Although the stories in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please are relatively drained of imagery and thus reminiscent of the works of Chekhov or Hemingway, Carver pushed the technique to even further extremes in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection from which ten of the original seventeen are reprinted in Where I’m Calling From. “Why Don’t You Dance?” is typical. Once again, plot is minimal, the event is mysterious, and the characters are merely etched in outline. A man puts all of his furniture in the front yard and runs an extension cord to the lamps, television, and phonograph so that they work as they did when they were inside. A young couple stop by, look at the furniture, try out the bed, and have a drink, and the girl dances with the owner. The conversation is functional, devoted primarily to making purchases. The story has no conclusion, but rather a sort of coda in which the girl tries to “talk out” the event, sensing that there was more to it. As in most Carver stories, however, the problem cannot be “talked out”; it can only be objectified in the story itself. The bare events communicate what no amount of exposition can: The man has externalized the secret life of his home on the lawn in a desperate metaphor of his broken marriage; the young couple play out a mock scenario of that marriage, which presages their own.

Carver has revised some of the stories originally published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the most striking example of which is “So Much Water So Close to Home.” The story is told by the wife of a man who, on a fishing trip in the back-country with some friends, discovers the nude body of a young girl wedged in some branches near the stream. The men make excuses for doing nothing; they set up...

(The entire section is 2070 words.)