'Do You See What I'm Saying?': The Inadequacy of Explanation and the Uses of Story in the Short Fiction of Raymond Carver

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Abstract

Raymond Carver's distrust of explanation and his respect for the mysterious nature of story is firmly grounded in the tradition of short fiction from the cryptic oral folk tale to the perverse formal patterning of Poe and the stylized realism of Chekhov and Hemingway. An understanding of Carver's dependence on pure narrative, from his elliptical early stories in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? through his more 'generous' stories in Cathedral, provides a context for responding to the common criticism that his characters are inarticulate and insufficiently realized and for mediating the debate about the differences between the stories in his first two collections and those in his last two.

The most significant index of Raymond Carver's mastery of the short story genre is his suspicion of exposition and his respect for the mysterious nature of story. Driven by an obsession to tell tales of irrational behaviour populated by characters who reject explanation by insisting, 'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please', or by discovering that only story will suffice for 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love', Carver situated himself firmly within a tradition of short fiction that originated in the oral tradition and was modernized by Poe's aesthetic patterning in the mid-nineteenth century. His distrust of exposition and veneration of story lies at the heart of the most common criticism of his work -- that his characters are inarticulate and insufficiently realized because they seem unable to explain why they do what they do. It also underlies the frequent critical debate about the difference between the so-called 'minimalist' stories in his first two collections and the 'more generous' stories that began with 'Cathedral'.[1]

In what follows, I will try to justify and explain Carver's distrust of explanation, as well as illustrate his uses of story in several of his short fictions, in order to provide some context for the critical reservations about the psychological and linguistic poverty of his first two collections and the supposed superiority of the stories in his last two. Although I run the risk of being labelled a retrograde formalist, I hope to perform this modest critical task by appealing to the formal historical and generic tradition of the short story. In spite of the still current clamour to reduce literature to cultural, social, and political abstractions, I align myself with the 'old-fashioned' view of William H. Gass -- that the writer's fundamental loyalty is to form: 'Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day.'[2]

The short story is, as Boris Ejxenbaum once reminded us, a 'fundamental, elementary' form that originated in folklore, anecdote, and the oral tale and is thus 'inherently at odds' with the novel.[3] In fact, as Walter Benjamin has noted in his essay on the storyteller, the rise of the novel is one of the primary symptoms of the decline of storytelling, for the novel neither comes from the oral tradition, nor goes into it. Moreover, Benjamin says that another form of communication -- 'information' -- has come to predominate in the modern world that threatens storytelling even more seriously than the novel.[4] Whereas the 'truth' of information derives from an abstracting effort to arrive at a distilled discursive meaning, the truth of story is communicated by a patterned recounting of a concrete experience in such a way that the truth is embodied rather than explained. The story has a compactness that defies psychological analysis, argues Benjamin. In fact, the less psychological shading the story has the more the listener will remember it and tell it to someone else later on.

One of the most familiar images of Raymond Carver recalled by his friends and acquaintances is his participation in storytelling exchanges and his wonder at the mystery of story. …

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