Raymond Carver Essay, Research Paper
A silence fell in August of 1988, when Raymond Carver died, in the very prime of his career. Yet, if one looks closely at his work, there is always something of that silence present in his stories, in his style which seems to tell so little, yet suggest so much. As Susan Lohafer had described reading him, While it might seem that we could be bored by Carver s lean style (as we surely are by imitations of Hemingway), we are in fact kept alert by having to look through the interstices for the meaning-and by being rewarded for doing so (Lohafer 65). What Lohafer is speaking of, the interstices within a story, are the holes which other writers might have filled with even more language and more description; whereas, Carver leaves us with a kind of absence, a silence, the empty space between the lines of his stories which we are invited to fill. Beyond that however, there lies an even greater idea. The collaboration of his stories invite us to look at not only the connections between the lines, but also those which are prevalent between the stories themselves. Through the use of similar themes and literary devices, Carver creates not just a collection of short stories, but a continuous cycle of events and characters, giving us the impression of a single story which will seemingly never end. In private desperation, Raymond Carver s characters struggle through their lives, knowing, with occasional clarity, that the good life they had once hoped would be achieved through hard work will not come about. Early on, Carver felt, along with his wife, that hard work would take care of nearly everything. We thought we could do it all, he said in one interview, We were poor but we thought that if we kept working, if we did the right things, the right things would happen. (Gentry 123) Somewhere in the headlong rush of dead end jobs and child raising, he realized, much like one of his own characters, that things would not change. He recounts one of these moments in an essay on influences, Fires. On a Saturday afternoon in the 1960 s Carver is at the laundromat, doing chores and taking care of their two children. He is waiting for a dryer: But I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing – and brother, I mean nothing – that ever happened to me on this earth could come close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction. (Fires 32-33) This sort of epiphany is what Carver deals with in almost all of his stories – the daily responsibilities of life weighing down upon one s shoulders when nothing is certain, not one s marriage, one s sobriety, not even a dryer to finish drying the clothes. Almost all the characters in my stories come to the point where they realize that compromise, giving in, plays a major role in their lives, Carver said. Then one single moment of revelation disrupts the pattern of their daily lives. It s a fleeting moment where they don t want to compromise anymore. And afterwards they realize that nothing ever really changes. (Gentry 80) This sort of thematic link-up lets us delve even deeper into the underlying interstices which connect Carver s stories, ones which he won t tell us about in any of the interviews. The connections between his stories are not entirely apparent to the reader, nor are they surrounded by flashing lights or anything of that nature. Truly, the links come from the collaboration of the stories, the order in which they are presented in his collections. When this is discovered by the reader, then and only then will Carver s works become one. One vehicle through which he communicates a sense of continuity is through the use of a similar theme connecting a pair, sometimes more, of stories. In Sixty Acres, Lee Waite is a father who must return home to a disappointment: his own – he could not understand why he felt something crucial had happened, a failure (Quiet 70) He feels as though he has betrayed his ancestors – the Waites are American Indians – to the extent of permitting poachers to escape with their lives from invading their sacred land. Lee feels even more guilty about what he is thinking of doing, leasing out his sixty acres for a thousand dollars to a duck club. The story immediately following, What s in Alaska? deals with the same issue as does Sixty Acres. What s in Alaska? likewise concerns a man willing to abandon to another his claim to some empty land – and not only land, in this instance, but his wife. That she is having an affair with his best friend becomes apparent when Carl and Mary go to Jack and Helen s house to try out their hosts new water-pipe. When Mary and Jack go into the kitchen together, for example, Carl sees Mary move against Jack from behind and put her arms around his waist. (Quiet 84) A short while later, Mary addresses Jack as honey, then tries to explain it away: I ll have another one too, honey. What did I say? I mean Jack. Excuse me. I thought I was talking to Carl. (Quiet 86) Before they left to go to Jack and Helen s, Mary announced to her husband that she had a job interview that day and believes that they re going to offer me a job- in Fairbanks. Alaska? Carl asked. I ve always wanted to go to Alaska. (Quiet 76) But when they arrive at their friends house it becomes increasingly unlikely that it is Carl who is going to go with her there. Under the influence of whatever was in the water pipe, Jack lets loose the truth of the situation. Carl had told his hosts they were contemplating moving to Alaska; meanwhile Jack and Helen s cat Cindy has brought in a dead mouse: What the hell, Jack said. Cindy s got to learn to hunt if we re going to Alaska. Alaska? Helen said. What s all this about Alaska? Don t ask me, Jack said… Mary and Carl said they re going to Alaska. Cindy s got to learn to hunt. (Quiet 87) In his stupor, Jack has attempted to cover up for having said that we – apparently he and Mary – were going to Alaska, but evidently forgot to explain why his cat – his own and Helen s cat – would be going. The question the title poses is asked several times throughout the story and is given an interesting answer by Carl: There s nothing in Alaska, Carl said. He s on a bummer, Mary said. What ll you guys do in Alaska? Jack said. There s nothing to do in Alaska, Carl said. (Quiet 85), evidently depressed by the realization of what has really been going on between his friend and his wife. There is nothing in Alaska, as there is nothing in Lee Waite s untenanted and irresistible sixty acres. (Quiet 60) There is nothing there, that is, for Carl; though for Jack who apparently finds Mary as irresistible as the poachers find Waite s untenanted acres, there will be plenty to do. Mary and Alaska are interchangeable in What s in Alaska? as are Alaska and Waite s sixty acres in the parallel structure these two stories display. Another example of similar themes pairing stories can be found later in Carver s collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?. The twelfth and thirteenth stories, What Do You Do in San Francisco and The Student s Wife complement each other as well. Both are about unhappy marriages. Though in neither story is the husband or the wife the narrator, one focuses on the effect of a wife s unlovingness on her husband, and the other on that of a husband s unlovingness on his wife. The student s wife has our sympathy in the second story, the painter s husband in the first. Henry Robinson found Marston s (the painter s husband) wife to be inattentive and negligent: put me down for saying she wasn t a good wife and mother. She was a painter. (Quiet 110) When the Welcome Wagon lady came to visit, One minute the woman would be sitting and listening to Sallie run on – all ears, it seemed – and the next she d get up while Sallie was still talking and start to work on her painting as if Sallie wasn t there. (Quiet 114) On the other hand, Nan, the student s wife, likewise has trouble getting her husband to listen to her. Mike, it seems, is quite willing to read poetry aloud but has no patience for listening to his wife. She wants to talk and he fakes falling asleep. Besides husbands and wives ignoring one another, Carver s characters often begin to resemble one another from one story to the next, thus linking them even further. In The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off, Dummy is a mute half-wit who is an acquaintance of the narrator s father. The problem was, though, that his wife had a reputation for flirting with other men, and Dummy had no chance to retrieve her after she was seen sitting in the Sportsman s Club with a big Mexican fellow. (Love 101) Not too long after that the news came that Dummy did in his wife with a hammer and drowned himself. (Love 102) Consequently, a wife s betrayals and a husband s violent response are the subject of A Serious Talk as well, which is the story immediately following The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off. And like Dummy, this husband too suffers from an inability to talk. Burt and Vera s marriage has broken up, but Burt insists on visiting his wife and children on Christmas, even though he is not entirely welcome there, and must, as Vera warned him, be out by six o clock because her friend and his children were coming for dinner. As he sits there watching them prepare for the dinner to which he is not invited, his rage grows even more intense. On his way out, he saw the pies lined up on the sideboard. He stacked them in his arms, all six, one for every ten times she had betrayed him. In the driveway in the dark, he d let one fall as he fumbled with the door. (Love 106-107) When he returns the next day to apologize and have a serious talk with Vera, he is unable to do so, incapable of saying all of the grieving things, consoling things, things like that. And like Burt, Dummy was incapable of having a serious (or any other kind of) talk. I don t think he was really deaf…But he sure couldn t talk. That was for certain. (Love 90) Carver s characters may even share the same fantasies. In Fat an extraordinarily fat man appears in the restaurant where the narrator is a waitress. Everything about him is big. But it is the fingers I remember best…They look three times the size of a normal person s fingers-long, thick, creamy fingers. (Quiet 1) Throughout the course of the story we see the waitress become increasingly ensconced with the idea of becoming fat. Later, when she and her husband go home from work, she expresses these thoughts. When he gets on me, I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all. (Quiet 6) Rudy is a tiny thing and has a tiny thing, to put it bluntly. And this might have us recall the description of the fat man s fingers, the ideal description of exactly the opposite of what Rudy has. To be fat, then, is to be sexually powerful, even virile. For the waitress-narrator, to be as overwhelmingly large as the man in the restaurant is to be able to turn the tide against her usually dominant husband, who as a result has shrunk to practically nothing, hardly there at all.
We see this woman s fantasy of becoming as fat as the man in the restaurant in order to assume sexual dominance and in the process change her sex finds a curious counterpart in the next story, Neighbors. It is an account of a man who entered his neighbors’ apartment and rummaged through the top drawers until he found a pair of panties and a brassiere. He stepped into the panties and fastened the brassiere, then looked through the closet for an outfit. He put on a black and white checkered skirt and tried to zip it up. He put on a burgundy blouse that buttoned up the front. He considered her shoes, but understood they would not fit. (Quiet 12) Bill Miller s visits to that apartment across the hall increase his sexual potency too. He comes home early from work and proposes to his wife that they go directly to bed before supper. Arlene Miller is willing to go along with this, for her own visits to the Stones residence, fully authorized by their having volunteered to feed the Stones cat and water their plants, have given her as much of an erotic thrill as they have her husband. Could it be merely coincidence that these two stories, placed right after one another in Carver s first collection, echo each other so closely? Maybe so, but one detail at the end of Fat may negate any such feelings. On the last page of Fat, the story which is about to come is announced within the text itself. This announcement also serves to link the titles of the two stories. Rudy recalls a fat guy he knew once. We called him Fat, the kid who lived next door to me. He was a neighbor. (Quiet 6) Here we have seen an example of how Carver uses narrative thread to create a connection between his stories. This is demonstrated once again in the stories A Serious Talk and The Calm. In A Serious Talk, Burt and Vera s conversation nears violence because of Burt s dangerous actions. He cuts the telephone cord in the midst of a conversation of Vera s with her supposed lover. He acts as if to throw an ashtray at her when she demands that he leaves. Consequently, in The Calm another discussion threatens to erupt into violence. The conversation in a barber shop centers around Charles and his hunting. When asked if he got his deer, we find out that indeed he did not. Apparently he had wounded a deer, begun to track it to put it out of its misery, but gave up the search because of ensuing darkness. To the other men in the shop this is a sign of bad sportsmanship, a subject which is seemingly very important to them. The older man put his cigarette out and turned to the guard [Charles]… You ought to be out there right now looking for that deer instead of in here getting a haircut. You can t talk like that, the guard said. You old fart… (Love 119) Charles threatens to box his ears; the older man dares him to try it; the barber calls for peace. Carver s method here of connecting his stories is using two successive stories with the same plot, only the second one continues a bit further. Consequently, the next story in the line will capitalize on that bit : it becomes an integral part of the next story. In The Calm, the argument comes even nearer to violence than it did in A Serious Talk. Likewise, in the next story, Popular Mechanics, the argument actually becomes violent, as a divorced husband and wife fight for possession of the baby. Only this fight is not carried out in any court, as they fight over it physically – the wife having hold of one wrist of the baby and the husband another. …he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard. In this manner, the issue was decided. (Love 125) Both the husband and wife, in this version of King Solomon s decision, got the baby and didn t, too: it appears as though the infant was torn apart by their tug-of-war, a much more violent outcome than that of the argument in The Calm. We see the same process occur in the next story, Everything Stuck to Him. This story concerns a husband and wife fighting over a child as in the preceding stories, but differs in that this particular tale has a much happier ending. A harsh argument does threaten to develop at first when the husband insists on going on a hunting trip with his friend even though his daughter is sick. I don t want to be left alone with her like this…The girl said, I m your wife. This is your baby. She s sick or something. Look at her…You re going to have to choose, the girl said. Carl or us. I mean it. (Love 132-133) The husband goes through the motions of leaving for his hunting trip while his wife goes back to bed, but then comes back into the house, starts to make breakfast, his wife apologizes for what she said, and the situation is brought to a happy conclusion. These two stories, Popular Mechanics and Everything Stuck to Him are in many ways complementary to each other, much to the extent that one is the missing half of the other, such as the baby being torn in half being symbolic of the relationship the two stories possess. One wife wants her husband to stay; the other wants him to leave: I m glad you re leaving! she said. (Love 123) Just get your things and get out. (Love 124) One husband wants to leave the baby behind with its mother; the other wants to take it with him. In a broader perspective, however, Everything Stuck to Him is a combination of the two stories that precede it. We have seen how the father in Popular Mechanics, so caught up in his desire to have the baby, causes it serious harm, even death. This is a response the hunter in The Calm who was also caught up in his own desires – shooting deer without taking the responsibility to make a clean kill, beating his son instead of going after the wounded deer – that he was guilty of destruction of a living thing. Everything Stuck to Him, centering on a man who wants to go hunting but who forgoes that pleasure for the sake of his baby, combines and reconciles the conflicts of the two preceding stories. Carver’s stories take on a complementary role towards each other in an almost literal sense as well as figurative; i.e. through the “missing half” scenario which occurs within the stories “Popular Mechanics” and “Everything Stuck to Him.” A similar parallel occurs between the stories “Collectors” and “What Do You Do in San Fransisco?” Here, Carver takes the “missing half” theorem and applies it in a literal sense, that is, to real objects found within the two stories. In this case it is applied to an envelope in each of the two stories: in “Collectors” a carpet cleaner salesman, in the midst of shampooing the carpet of a Mr. Slater, picks up an important letter the man had been expecting and “He read the name on the letter and looked closely at the return address. He folded the letter in half and put it in his hip pocket.” (Quiet 107) In the following story, “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” Marston shares the same actions as the salesman in the preceding story. This time, Marston took a letter and “folded it in two.” The letter was an anonymous circular addressed “Occupant.” “I’d dropped off at least seventy-five that morning” (Quiet 117) that were just like it Robinson (the mailman) tells us. Within the story itself, the letter is insignificant – bearing no impact on any of the characters – but viewed in the overall light of things it can be viewed as specific evidence as to the underlying “thread” of Carver’s stories. Looking more closely at these specific incidences, we see the actions of these two men become complimentary to one another; two pieces together form a single entity. An appropriate analogy would be the completion of an angle, two forty-five degree angles coming together to form a right angle. Just as the letters in both cases signify the connections between the stories themselves, there is a larger force at work here, just waiting to be discovered. The letters are folded in half, as if the collection of stories itself may be halved at this point as well, as “Collectors” and “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” are the eleventh and twelfth stories in the twenty-two stories of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? One could conclude, then, that the book may be divided at any point between two stories in order that the two might be read one on top of – and congruent with – the other. In the Paris Review interview Raymond Carver said of his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, “it’s much more self-conscious book in the sense of how intentional every move was, how calculated. I pushed and pulled and worked with those stories before they went into the book to an extent I’d never done with any other stories.” (Gentry 44) If it was Carver’s intention all along to create a continuous cycle of short stories, a underlying narrative which continues throughout all of his works, then his mission succeeded. In reading Carver we see patterns develop before our very eyes, events and actions echoing off one another in a complex web we call life. We see, for example, how two of Carver’s stories about neighbors are themselves neighbors. Or how two stories in the numerical middle of a collection should each contain letters folded in half by the recipient. When something like this happens we should be alert to wondering whether we should include not just the text itself but the entire sequence of stories itself in our interpretations of Carver’s work. From here we might be led to wonder whether or not there is another story hidden in the text, one in which the stories themselves become protagonists and behave like the eavesdropping and apartment-invading protagonists within them, somehow eavesdropping on each other, somehow invading their neighboring stories’ space. Carver’s stories do not so clearly confirm their coherence – the connections are less obvious and go against the grain of the normal expectations of a reader. His stories keep their individuality, their sullen separate existence, yet despite this they find ways to communicate, with each other and with us, but only if we choose to listen.
Carver, Raymond. Fires. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. —. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? New York: Vintage Books, 1992. —. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Gentry, Marshall Bruce, and William L. Stull, eds. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. Lohafer, Susan. Coming to Terms with the Short Story. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.