Just as Flannery O'Connor's stories take place at a pivotal turning point in her characters' lives, Raymond Carver's are centred over a makeitorbreakit moment. You see, it's the breaking that matters to Carver, the breaking that he captures through his unflinching lens. His stories (which are truly short, often 68 pages) bring us straight into the broken heart, and we are left at the end to imagine or envision what comes next. What comes next isn't as important as the breaking, the crisis, which can either lead to change or healing, or can be a signpost for more of the same to come.
Published in 1976, this is Carver's first collection. Earlier this month I read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (my review here) and in those pages I discovered a new favourite writer. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (goodness, I love this title) was also a pleasure, although I found this debut collection slightly uneven, maybe a little less accessible than his later work.
Despite certain difficulties, Carver rewards a close reader with scattered Easter eggs that shed light onto deeper meaning. For example, in 'What's In Alaska?', the casual gettogether is littered with phallic symbols (hookah pipe, bottles of cream soda, popsicles). Foreshadowing of the "UNo" (you know) bars indicate that the main character is going to find out something important. Then the imagery of the cat eating the mouse which is revisited at the end is a grim vision of a cuckold and the man who defeats him.
Including the above, these are my favourite stories of the 22:
* 'Fat'a waitress is touched and changed after serving an obese man
* 'They're Not Your Husband'an out of work salesman makes his wife lose weight after he hears people making nasty remarks about her figure
* 'Jerry and Molly and Sam'a man abandons the family dog, believing it will help solve his problems
* 'Why, Honey?'a mother who lives in fear of her son, who is now a powerful politician
* 'Are These Actual Miles?'a couple who have lived the high life and now face bankruptcy, are forced to sell their convertible
* 'Signals'a couple on the verge of separation go fine dining in the hopes of reconciliation
* 'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?'a man asks his wife to tell him what really happened at a party two years ago, and the truth hurts
Each of these stories are told in his signature minimalist style. They are stripped nakedscars and flaws and ugliness there to be seen in cruel daylight. Documenting the tsunamis of every day life, these stories demand to be read with attentionevery word on the page is important, otherwise it wouldn't be there.
Oh, Raymond Carver. What a master at capturing glimpses of life, the beauty and tragedy we all experience when it breaks. It doesn't get much better than this.
“Not in pictures she had seen nor in any book she had read had she learned a sunrise was so terrible as this.”
― Raymond Carver, "The Student's Wife" in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
A collection of 22 short stories averaging about 68 pages each (a couple might stray into the 1115 page range) that Carver wrote during what Carver called his "Bad Raymond days" or "First Life" (19601974) . Disclosure, like in other short story collections, I may have put one star too many on some of these and accidentally left of a star when I should have actually included it it on several. I read these stories in San Diego drinking Diet Coke while laying under palm shade on fake grass at the Hotel del Coronado. I probably should have been drinking cheap bourbon to really get more into it. But that's it. I can't imagine getting MORE into it. Carver's spare writing guts me. I feel like I'm exposed, raw, and sore. He is brutal. Several stories almost made me cry (and I'm not a casual literary crybaby). While reading this, I kept thinking how different directors (Not Altman) would direct these stories? Some seemed almost Lynchian (the macabre hiding under the banal and normal), while some seemed more like they gave a KMart meets Alfonso Cuarón vibe. I liked the idea of him as the poorman's Hemingway, but he is more human and brutal than just that. He captures humanity at the point where we break (and we all break).
3"The Idea" ★★★★
4"They're Not Your Husband"★★★★★
5 "Are You a Doctor?"★★★
7"Nodody Said Anything"★★★★
9"What's In Alaska?"★★★★★
12"What Do You Do in San Francisco"★★★★
13"The Student's Wife"★★★★★
14"Put Yourself In My Shoes"★★★★
15"Jerry and Molly and Sam"★★★★★
18"How About This?"★★★★
19"Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes"★★★★★
20"Are These Actual Miles?"★★★★★
22"Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"★★★★★
These stories are not always fun to read for the plots (though they are often very entertaining in a black humor vein), but they are wonderful stories for helping see what a story can do and be. And how fragile humans can be. Dialogue rich. I like What We Talk About When We Talk about Love better, but these are fine stories. Many of them were featured in some fashion in Robert Altman’s fine movie Short Cuts.
“Fat” A waitress serves a morbidly obese man, and while everyone else in the restaurant makes fun of him, she becomes moved by him, changed.
“NeighborsA couple housesitting for their neighbors get voyeuristic about them, taking over the house, gradually, almost absurdly.
“They’re Not your Husband”—A guy visits his wife, a waitress, at her restaurant, and hears some guys laugh at how fat she is. Without referring to the incident, he encourages her to diet, and she agrees, he helps her, and in a matter of weeks goes back to the restaurant and says complimentary things about her to a guy, not identifying himself as her husband.
“Jerry and Molly and Sam”A man on the edgeof anxiety? doom?decides to begin changing his life by getting rid of their unruly dog, just letting him out on the edge of town. When he comes home to his frantic family, he realizes his mistake and desperately tries to rectify the situation.
“Are These Actual Miles?”—A man out of work whose wife sells their car doesn’t get home until dawn, dropped off by the guy who bought it.
“Will You Please be Quiet Please?”Two teachers who claim they are happy, with two kids, suddenly talk about a time at a drunken party two years ago when she kissed—or more?—some friend who was there. Her husband gets suddenly, inexplicably crazy about it, goes out and gets drunk, and sees how his life must suddenly change now. This is my favorite one, in spite of how desperately crazy and unhappy it is. Like watching a slow motion car crash.
The point in most of these stories is that most of these people will now change, and not usually for the best. The stories are, however, unsentimentally compassionate about the screwups the people almost always are. Sad, but masterful stories in a minimalist way. This has been one of the most rewarding, most enjoyable years I've had in more than two decades of being an insatiable reader. I've discovered new authors to idolize, fallen even harder for longstanding heroes, experienced the rabid glee of revisiting muchloved works and immersed myself in genres that I suddenly cannot live without. Unfortunately, the awe of January's introduction to the raw beauty of Raymond Carver (who has forever changed my interest in and opinion of short stories for the better with his mastery of the medium) fell by the wayside as I became increasingly besotted with the way postmodernism blew apart everything I thought I knew about my bookish taste.
What a delight it was to return to the terse, hyperreality of Carver's deceptively short and tightly structured snapshots of life. My wariness of short stories stems from reading too many undeveloped or overwrought examples of it; Carver, however, is the king of cramming years of quiet suffering into an eightpage story, of building agonizing suspense in a matter of lines, of making the reader feel every aching pang of every one of his characters. That doesn't sound terribly delightful, does it? But it is. It so is. Because not one of these fictional feelings that evoke reallife responses comes even close to the conflicted bliss of losing oneself in page after minutely crafted page of brilliant, profoundly disquieting storytelling. Neither wishing a story would end so these characters could be put out of their misery while also not wanting to get closer to finishing one of Carver's precious few works nor the growing knot in my stomach while reading some of these stories kept me from rolling around in his words with nerdy abandon.
I wasn't as universally drawn to the characters in these stories as I was with "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love": There seemed to be more Domestic Strife With Children (which I can't relate to) in this collection and the instances of people being less than awesome to animals (which I can't deal with) automatically turned me off a little bit. But that's really where my petty complaints stop.
Most of these stories felt like those moments of stark clarity right before the shit hits the fan, when a carpet stain or isolated section of tablecloth pattern is your entire field of vision because it's the only thing keeping your world together with its desperate normalcy. It captures those moments that become significant not for what they are but rather for what they're a prelude to. And I love that so many of these taciturn tales start like an establishing shot before slowly zeroing in on the heart of the matter with an intimidating combination of misdirection, back story and realism to underscore the rising action that's typically outside the scope of these stories. Carver shows (not tells!) that there's so much more than the traditional climax of a story, that sometimes the rising action is more indicative of the resolution than anything else. There are so many directions for the narrative to go as Carver keeps finetuning its path, usually arriving at an ending drenched with hopelessness and only one logical, deftly implied conclusion. It's a morbid celebration of how all these tiny moments comprise the bigger picture and determine the trajectory of a life.
The juxtaposition of the stories' unusual focal points (chopping wood, aimless wandering, awkward small talk) against very relatable troubles (children's skirmishes that call for adults' intervention, unhappy marriages, occupational dissatisfaction, feeling like the American Dream is always juuuuust out of reach) is the best kind of understatement. Even with my favorite literary device being expertly executed over and over again, what I found especially interesting was that all these little details concerning everything BUT the very unhappy elephant in the room offered such a vivid contrast between the way people lived in the '60s and '70s compared to the way we live now: So much has changed in the world and absolutely nothing has changed about the human condition. I'd be willing to bet that Carver's legacy will include the way his writing both serves as a time capsule of human sadness and offers irrefutable evidence that quiet misery is modern society's major linking factor because we've all been keenly acquainted with any five emotions tearing through these pages at some point in our pasts. These stories are uniformly bleak, piercing vignettes into the disappointments and insecurities of working class people. The relentlessness of the raw pain on display here was very stark and at times very, very difficult to continue reading. That being said, these are some of the most beautifully written stories you are likely to come across, even if you need to take some time to recuperate in between finishing one and starting another. It's a little difficult to be quiet when short story writing is this good.
I feel I should be shouting from the rooftops
"Read Raymond Carver!"
No doubt someone will look up in bewilderment and shout back "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please!"
This is Carver's first published collection of short stories, but the one I read last, after 'Cathedral',
'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' (my personal favourite), and 'Elephant and Other Stories'. Carver didn't just breathe new life into the short story, he made a new one all on his own.
His approach is minimal, non glossy and pareddown in style, writing of the everyday ordinary Americans that simply live out their mundane lives. There is nothing fancy here, just the everyday problems and hiccups that face most people. His characters are so believable, and the dialogue he uses between them, is just great and so true. It's like standing in someone's living room or bedroom unnoticed and listening in on all sorts of conversations and interactions.
Carver is a writer that, simply put, knows people so perfectly. Through love, lust, sorrow, loss, bitterness, sadness, exuberance, darkened thoughts, suspicions, he brings to vivid life the world behind closed doors and gets to the core of our being. Some say he is phenomenal, others, a genius.
I would tend to agree. His prose is taut and lean, sometimes raw and melancholic but always so magnificent in it's simplicity. He engages with the reader on such a deep level, and directly gets to the uncomfortable subtext of the everyday. He is the ultimate kitchen sink writer, who never gets sentimental or melodramatic, but just sticks to the bare truths whether they are comfortable or uncomfortable. We feel his characters like our own. Great stuff! You can use this book as an antidote to Donald Barthelme. And then if you get too minimal you can add a bit of Barthelme back into the mix. Like a cocktail. I can't imagine those two would get on in shortstorywriterheaven. I bet the Minimalists and the Pomos have vicious football matches every Sunday. Brute strength and singleness of purpose vs. fancy footwork and sneering.
Note on Short Cuts by Robert Altman, a movie made out of Carver stories : surprisingly, nay, amazingly, it's great. In true Altmanesque style all the stories and characters weave in and out of each other and with one single exception (the story of the cellist, which isn't by Carver, the only one) it all works a treat. Might even be Altman's finest moment. Certainly one of Tom Waits'.
Here's a summarymight be useful...
“Fat”A waitress serves a fat man and is moved by the experience.
“Neighbors”*A couple housesitting for neighbors are gradually taking over their neighbors’ lives. They begin to enjoy the feeling of
voyeurism and begin to hope: One says, “Maybe they won’t come back.”
“The Idea”A couple spies on a man who spies on his own wife from his garden.
“They’re Not your Husband”*An out of work salesman makes his waitress wife diet when he realises that other men think she’s fat.
“Are you a Doctor?”A woman calls a doctor by accident, it’s a wrong number. She begs him to meet her and he does.
“The Father”A mother and grandfather and daughter discuss the new baby’s features. “But who does Daddy look like?”
“Nobody Said Anything”A boy tries to impress his parents, who are always fighting, by catching a big fish.
“Sixty Acres”A Native American accosts two young kids shooting ducks on his land. He lets them go. He decides to lease some of his land.
“What’s in Alaska?”Two couples get stoned on marijuana and LSD one evening.
“Night School”A man is out of work and living with his parents. He meets two women in a bar and tells them. “I’d say you’re kind of old for that.”
“Collectors”*A vacuum salesman demonstrator shows up at the house of an unemployed man. He pointlessly goes through his sales patter.
“What do you do in San Francisco?”A postman observes the young couple who move in next door. They seem to break up quite quickly.
“The Student’s Wife”A night of insomnia.
“Put yourself in my Shoes”Coming back from an office party, a couple are interrogated and insulted in a strange meeting with their landlord and his wife.
“Jerry and Molly and Sam”*A man is driven crazy by the family dog and decides to get rid of it by dumping it on the edge of town. He soon changes his mind.
“Why Honey?”Letter from the mother of an apparently pathological liar who has become President of the United States. “I should be proud but I am afraid.”
“The Ducks”At work the foreman suddenly dies, so everyone is sent home. At home one man fails to use the opportunity to have sex with his wife.
“How About This?”A couple come to look at her father’s deserted place in the country. Maybe they will move there.
“Bicycles, muscles, Cigarettes”*A man quits smoking. He calls round to the house of a friend of his son where a dispute is in progress over a missing bike. He and the accused boy’s father have a fight.
“Are These Actual Miles?”An unemployed man’s wife goes out to sell their car and doesn’t return until dawn.
“Signals”A couple in a flashy restaurant seems to be trying to find out if they still have a future together. “I don’t mind admitting I’m just a lowbrow.”
“Will you please be quiet please?”*The story of Ralph and Marian, two students who marry and become teachers. Ralph becomes obsessed with the idea that Marian was unfaithful to him once in the past. Ralph gets drunk and feels his whole life changing once he finds out the truth
*used in Altman's movie Short Cuts 3 and a half stars, rounded up because it demands a reread in the future.
In my experience, American realism is about minimalism, simplicity and directness. And while Carver’s prose is clean, minimalist, simple and direct, his stories truly are anything but. My husband strongly recommended his work to me, and I picked up his first published collection (instead of the more famous “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) because the title made me smile. That smile did not last long; it was quickly replaced by a slightly puzzled frown. What the Hell did I get myself into with these short stories?
Each of these short stories seem to contain more than one tale: there’s the story on the surface, the one that meets the eye, and then there’s something else going on in the murky waters below. I’d get to the end of one short story and get the urge to start again from the beginning, because I felt like I had missed a crucial detail. I was also stunned that none of them really give the reader any kind of resolution, so they linger in the mind like a weird taste at the back of your tongue, while you try to figure out what might have happened to these characters after the final word of their story.
Those stories capture something of the American workingpoor life, the everlooming squalor, the lack of refinement in the characters’ lives. The glimpses into the lives of those people Carver gives us are deliberately unhappy: he wants to make the reader uncomfortable, ill at ease, if only so they get a taste of what these people’s entire existence was like. There is disappointment, sadness, jealousy, loneliness, despair, bitterness and secrets on almost every page. People who wish they had their neighbours’ lives, a husband who reacts in all the wrong ways when someone makes a nasty comment about his wife, a kid desperately trying to escape his parents’ fighting, a man finally facing his wife's infidelity.
So why read this if it’s so goddamned sad? It’s a valid question. Because the Spartan prose is beautiful, because the sad settings and sad characters are somehow distilled into something almost universal, like a snapshot of an authentic American experience. Carver’s voice is unsettling, but strong and moving. There is also a surprisingly and dark humour that runs through those stories, the kind that will make you cringe more than laugh.
It also occurred to me that stories like that could not be set anywhere else than in the Rust Belt or North West: it doesn’t matter that they were written over forty years ago, the locality is palpable in the writing. There is a sort of resiliency, a hardness that only comes from seeing the world around oneself turn into a trap; the way a certain part of the Mid and North West of the UnitedStates that turned from land of industrial prosperity into a wasteland of broken promises.
I will definitely be reading more Raymond Carver. Carver's stories made me feel from uncomfortable to deeply sad. They all feel like a sunset in a small town with the smell of damp soil in the air and the yellow grass shining like gold against the sun. Don't ask me to explain it, but even the ones that take place on cold, winter nights felt like that to me. I never thought that such short stories could be so whole, so full of meaning and human emotions.
The titular story is a masterpiece in itself.