Why You Should Never Read A Collection of Raymond Carver’s Short Stories In One Sitting
Raymond Carver’s literature focuses on everyday life in American communities, with particular attention on those who are marginalized and isolated. There is a great human quality to his characters and their weaknesses and failures are as visible as their strengths and kindnesses. We readers care about them and often after reading we continue to be haunted by their fates. However my first experience of reading Raymond Carver’s short story collection Will You Please Be Quiet Please? was essentially a negative one. I read this particular collection in one sitting and afterwards I felt exhausted, drained and slightly nauseous.
Upon reflection I now believe that the reason for my reaction to Will You Please Be Quiet Please? was because Carver’s short stories are essentially, short stories. Short stories are a shorter narrative of the novel and are designed to be read in one sitting. Derived from the oral tradition of storytelling, short stories are the telling and absorption of a tale told in the moment. We inhabit a particular space and time wherein we are taken on a journey and enveloped into a world. And if it is written well, then it is a world where we care about the characters that occupy it. We may not like them, hate them even, but regardless, they matter to us.
Yet irrespective of how well a short story is written there is a fundamental difference in our ability to withstand a short story and a collection of short stories in one sitting. For there exists an illusion which is this – that the short story is short. Of course it is short in terms of its physical weight but its emotional weight is significantly more. In a short story, as in a novel, we meet characters who have a story to tell which we are persuaded to listen to and develop a response about. We often assume that because a short story is short, that its emotional context is lesser. What an assumption to make. A story is a story, regardless of its length and every story deserves a pause afterwards. To reflect, understand, and eventually, move on. A collection of short stories introduces us to a selection of characters and ergo stimulates a myriad of emotional responses. It is thus simply too much to absorb an entire collection in one sitting. Not only can we not cope with it, but to try and do so is to commit a great injustice towards the individual short story, which the author has most likely carefully and painstakingly written to exist in its own moment. Regarded as part of a wider narrative the short story in question loses its individual mark and in this grouping effect, it becomes blurred, even ruined.
And so when I read a collection of Carver’s short stories in one sitting I was inevitably and completely overwhelmed. In Will You Please Be Quiet Please? I read about how a waitress’s encounter with an extremely fat customer prompts her to re-evaluate her own perceptions, a couple that develop a sordid fascination with their neighbours, a double act of voyeurism when a couple spy on their neighbour who in turn stands outside his wife’s window and watches her get undressed, a meeting between two lonely strangers with distorted motives, a family discussion about who their newborn baby looks like and a young boy’s temporary escape from his dysfunctional family home. These were the first seven stories in a collection of twenty-two.
Whilst other short story collections have the same outcome, (there are perhaps a selective few that are exempt from this) it can be argued that Carver’s short stories have a more pronounced effect. This is because Carver’s literature is fashionably minimalist, though it is debatable if this was his intention. The release of Beginners in 2009- a collection of Carver’s unedited stories – reveal the changes that Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor, made to Carver’s original writings, some of which are drastically different. There are some, amongst them reviewer Giles Harvey who felt that Lish did Carver a great service whilst others feel that Carver’s unedited works contain a greater depth of emotion and subsequently criticise Lish’s interference. Regardless, Carver’s short stories are typically minimalist; significantly pared down with a focus on surface description. This kind of literature is often accused of limited or even absent emotion but minimalist literature, with its honest and raw focus, effectively captures and communicates human encounter and emotion. In stripping humanity to its bones, Carver can fully expose its complexities.
This can be observed in some examples from his collection Will You Please Be Quiet Please?. In A Student’s Wife Carver introduces us to a couple, Nan and Mike, and focuses on Nan’s futile attempts to communicate with Mike. She makes a sandwich late at night to prolong the evening, she describes the insignificant details of her dreams and she asks him random questions as he is falling asleep. Her desperation is evident throughout as is their inevitable break up. In They’re Not Your Husband a controlling husband forcibly encourages his wife to lose so much weight that she eventually becomes seriously frail and weak. Her passive obedience combined with his aggressive behaviour illustrates a damaging dominant-submissive relationship and also reveals their intricate insecurities. However it is in the title story of this collection that I feel Carver’s portrayal of raw human emotion is most explicit. In Will You Please Be Quiet Please? Ralph, who has always suspected that his wife Marion betrayed him in the past, finds out that she did “play around” with Mitchell Anderson. The disclosure of her indiscretion is quite random and sends Ralph in turmoil. He gets drunk, goes gambling and gets beaten up. When he finally returns home the next morning he begs his wife to be quiet, the irony being that after years of wanting to know the truth, he now wants her to be completely silent. There is hope in the dénouement that the two may reconcile but this story, like the others in this collection, demonstrates the complex and painful burden of humanity.
The burden of humanity is the central feature of Carver’s writings which is why reading a selection of his short stories in one sitting is not only exhausting but also uncomfortably intimate. As humans we are naturally drawn to the humanistic focus in Carver’s stories and despite ourselves we empathise with his characters’ intricacies. His representation of people and their emotions is simultaneously delicate and brutally honest. This skill of not only writing but also of understanding and embracing the human psyche is why you should read Carver. He is a marvellous story teller whose characters will most certainly haunt you for many days afterwards. But do not, do not read a collection of his short stories in one sitting. You and Raymond Carver deserve so much more than that.
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