Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (Raymond Carver)

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, Raymond Carver
Read: 3 September to 11 September 2012
4.5 / 5 stars

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 much-loved 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 post-modernism blew apart everything I thought I knew about my bookish taste.

What a delight it was to return to the terse, hyper-reality 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 eight-page 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 real-life 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 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 fine-tuning 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.

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