Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200
Carver is often associated with those contemporary writers who have been described as “minimalists.” The term is meant to describe, among other characteristics, a style that lacks amplitude, which handles both emotional extremes in monotone, as if true joy and pain do not exist. In this story, however, Carver’s protagonist feels deeply the pain of his wife’s revelation, even though the pain is dulled for a few hours by his drunkenness.
Another characteristic of the minimalist technique is often thought to be an extremely short and abrupt style. Carver’s word choice never reaches beyond very ordinary, contemporary language, and his sentences are often short, giving the texture of his fiction an almost machine-gunlike, staccato touch and sound. However, there is little about this story to make it anything more or less than traditional. Time is used realistically throughout; the style, while short and abrupt, never stands in the way of the story line. Carver’s descriptions are never vapid and emotionless, but instead are sharp and convincing, especially when he follows Ralph’s trek to a greater sense of his own mystery in those vivid scenes that capture the reality of dizzying drunkenness prompted by self-destroying paranoia.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1830
It is difficult for an established writer to convince a publisher to take a chance on issuing a collection of short stories. Thus, when a relatively new and unknown author comes out with such a book, the reader may rest assured that the book must succeed on its own merits. Raymond Carver, whose stories heretofore have appeared largely in the smaller literary magazines (though some have appeared in Esquire and Harper’s), specializes in very short, delicate vignettes of the commonplace. Although some of these stories have been previously anthologized in Best American Short Stories: 1967, Short Stories from the Literary Magazines, and Best Little Magazine Fiction of 1970 and 1971, they are now made available as a group to a wider reading public for the first time through the present publication. These stories are not the type to be readily understood or appreciated by a popular audience, but the more discerning reader will find a rare treat in the subtle, enigmatic portraits of modern life.
Carver does not condescend to entice readers with shocking or startling attention-getting openings. Rather, the stories almost invariably begin with flat understatement, and progress through to their subtle, inconclusive endings, leaving the reader barely aware that something of significance has happened. A closer reading, however, yields wry insights, judgments that are usually beyond the command of the characters in the stories themselves.
Carver’s short stories are masterpieces of concision and understatement. Attempts at analysis cannot do justice to the delicate spell woven by these glimpses of domestic tranquility marred by the occasional unexpected happening. The title of the book itself, which is also the title of the longest story in the collection, illustrates Carver’s basic appeal. An expression of exasperation, of a breakdown in communication familiar to all of us, it is spoken by a harried husband after spending the night trying to deal with his wife’s admitted infidelity of four years previous. His suspicions had smoldered all these years until he finally wheedled an admission from her. His reaction to the news is more of a shock to him than the fact of her unfaithfulness, and wandering about in a kind of daze, he is finally mugged at the waterfront. On his return home in the morning, his problem is still unresolved; his wife’s attempts to discuss it elicits from him on the phrase, “Will you please be quiet, please?” as he tries to sleep. As in real life, there is no neat, pat solution to his dilemma; the story ends with his marveling at the “impossible changes he felt moving over him.” Will he be able to live with his new burden, or will his relationship with his wife radically change? Many readers will wonder what occurs at the conclusion of this and several other stories in this collection, for everything, including the endings, is underplayed.
If there is a unifying theme running throughout all the stories, it is that life continues and our task is simply to endure. Crises are not disposed of with finality, never to arise again. At best one can only hope, with the hero of the title story, that such an “impossible” change may come over him and he will be able to come to terms with reality. Throughout, one is left with the feeling expressed by another of Carver’s characters from the story, “Sixty Acres”: “Yet he could not understand why he felt something crucial had happened, a failure. But nothing had happened.” Paradoxically, something has happened, but these forlorn protagonists cannot grasp its significance.
Ranging from the two-page description of relatives commenting on the appearance of the newborn child in “The Father,” to the title story of twenty-four pages, the twenty-two stories comprising this volume are very short, usually less than ten pages. Sometimes exciting things almost happen, or are alluded to, but these are not the substance of Carver’s tales. Instead, he concentrates on the commonplace. In “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” he ironically plays with this concept of the writer ignoring sensational stories to concentrate on the minor domestic quarrels of everyday life. The title of the story is a double pun, referring both to the author living other people’s lives in his writing, and to the writer in the story living in another person’s house. In this story, Myers, who has quit his job to be a writer, is vacuuming rugs at home when he is invited by his wife to an office party, an invitation he declines. He learns about the firing and subsequent suicide of one of his former coworkers. Later, visiting the couple whose home he and his wife had sublet, he hears the host tell of a boy who threw a can of soup at his estranged father, giving him a concussion. Later, the host and his wife relate an incident which they experienced in which a well-dressed woman returned their wallet which she had found. She indicated that there had been no money in it when she found it, but while speaking with them she suffered a heart attack. As they looked in her purse for identification they discovered the missing money still in the clip in which they had kept it. These are the usual subject matter for commercial short story writers, and the host is trying to be helpful in recounting them to Myers. But they are not grist for Carver’s mill. His story concerns the gradually emerging suppressed anger of the host at Myers and his wife for their misuse of the host’s home and furnishings while they had occupied it. Typically, the story ends with the host no longer able to restrain his seething rage, shouting at Myers and his wife, asking for an explanation while Myers and his wife scurry off.
One of the charms of these stories is the recognition of ourselves and ordinary people we know among Carver’s antiheroes. Sometimes the things that happen are extraordinary, but the character sketches are unmistakable, such as the boy who fakes illness to stay home from school, and then after a hasty recovery, goes fishing; or the husband and wife who surreptitiously spend their evenings spying on their neighbor who, in turn, sneaks outdoors and watches his own wife as she undresses; or the postman, bothered by the lifestyle of the hippies who have just moved in, constantly dropping hints of where they can find a job in town. Although most of the settings are in Carver’s own Northwest, the people are recognizable middle-class Americans as apotheosized by innumerable Norman Rockwell magazine illustrations.
The incidents recounted herein, too, are largely those of typical, dull, everyday life. Cumulatively, the stories leave a sense of the pointless routine of most of our lives, although often the characters themselves do not realize or understand their plight. What they cannot articulate is conveyed by the author’s subtle understatement. In “The Student’s Wife,” after spending a sleepless night punctuated by the demands of her husband and children, the wife’s feelings are exquisitely conveyed in the line, “Not in pictures she had seen nor in any book she had read had she learned a sunrise was so terrible as this.” In “The Neighbors,” a husband and wife who have been vicariously sampling their more affluent neighbors’ lifestyle while taking care of their apartment for them do not understand their own motivation or feelings. After locking themselves out of the apartment, they stand bewildered. As Carver sums up, “They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.” How much self-realization is ever reached by these cultural victims is wisely left up in the air.
There are some stories which will frustrate the reader. As in Chaucer’s tale of Sir Thopas, many things almost happen, but do not, and it is the reader who is the ultimate butt of the joke. In “Are You a Doctor?” a mysterious telephone call appears to be leading to a romantic interlude between the married doctor and the mother who apparently dialed the wrong number. What actually transpires conforms more to true life experiences than what we are led to believe in most fiction. “Night School” concerns a man picked up in a bar by two women who are looking for a car to drive to the home of their adult education instructor. He walks with them to his house ostensibly to borrow his parents’ car, but instead of asking for the keys, he simply goes to bed, abandoning the girls outside. “Jerry and Molly and Sam” is a genuine shaggy dog story of a man who originally takes his children’s pet to a strange neighborhood and abandons it. Later, suffering pangs of conscience, he goes to retrieve the dog. After circling around the vicinity where he left the animal and asking people whether they have noticed a strange dog wandering about, he sees it—briefly—before it disappears forever.
Stylistically, Carver’s prose matches his subject matter. Without a superfluous detail the scene is set in a deceptively simple fashion. Carver’s lean, spare style wastes no time with indulgent commentary or needless purple patches, nor does it condescend to call attention to or summarize the underlying verities; elucidation would destroy the atmosphere created and lose the subtle essence of the stories. Even those tales which are presented from the protagonist’s point of view do not betray the author’s presence. Carver’s fictional narrators are as oblivious to their predicaments as the rest of his characters. It is as if the narrator is a camera, simply recording apparently commonplace occurrences. The technique is dramatic. Most of the action is carried by the dialogue of the principles, with the author’s narration intruding only to fill in the necessary details, and occasionally summing up the situation in an enigmatic, striking phrase or two. Economy of language is total.
When finished with this book, the reader may be hard pressed to recall very many outstanding or sensational incidents having occurred. Beyond a few family quarrels and one mugging, no real violence takes place at all. However, some rather bizarre incidents abound. A vacuum cleaner salesman walks off with the homeowner’s mail; a husband and wife vicariously sample their neighbors’ food and clothing; a husband sends his wife to sell their old car and to an almost certain assignation with the prospective buyer. Yet, none of these incidents causes the expected blow-up. The changes which overcome these people are usually intuitive and the reader must exercise his imagination.
In any event, the perceptive reader will come away from this book with a deeper insight into the lives of the characters, and ultimately a greater appreciation of the quiet desperation of the lives most people lead. Carver’s journey is into the soul of ennui, and he has succeeded in vividly creating a small segment of twentieth century American existence.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156
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