Raymond Carver | Critical Essay by Adam Meyer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 24 pages of analysis & critique of Raymond Carver.
This section contains 7,007 words
(approx. 24 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Adam Meyer

SOURCE: "Now You See Him, Now You Don't, Now You Do Again: The Evolution of Raymond Carver's Minimalism," in Critique, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 239-51.

In the following essay, Meyer, a professor at Vanderbilt University, traces Carver's use of minimalist style throughout his career, arguing that Carver returns to his previous, more expansive style in Cathedral.

At this point in his career, there can be little doubt that Raymond Carver is "as successful as a short story writer in America can be,"1 that "he is becoming an Influence."2 Still, despite (or perhaps because of) this position, Carver remains a controversial figure. Much of the debate about Carver's merits centers around a similar debate about minimalism, a style that a few years ago was very hot and very hotly criticized, and that, now that it is cooling off, is under even more fervent attack. Much of the controversy is sparked by a confusion of terminology. As hard as it is accurately to define minimalism, for the same reasons we cannot entirely pin down such terms as realism, modernism, or post-modernism. It is even harder to say who is or is not a minimalist, as demonstrated by Donald Barthelme's being called a minimalist as often as he is called one of the post-modernists against whom the minimalists are rebelling.3 Nevertheless, Carver is generally acknowledged to be "the chief practitioner of what's been called 'American minimalism.'"4 Now that this has become a pejorative appellation, however, his admirers are quickly trying "to abduct [him] from the camp of the minimalists."5 If he is to be successfully "abducted," however, it will not be because the label is no longer popular, but because it no longer fits.

The fact of Carver's membership in the minimalist fraternity has never been fully established. Many critics, as well as Carver himself, noted that his latest volume of new stories; Cathedral, seemed to be moving away from minimalist writing, that it showed a widening of perception and style.6 This is certainly true, but it is not the whole story. If we look back over Carver's entire output, an overview encouraged by the recent publication of his "selected" stories, Where I'm Calling From, we see that his career, rather than following an inverted pyramid pattern, has actually taken on the shape of an hourglass, beginning wide, then narrowing, and then widening out again. In other words, to answer the question "Is Raymond Carver a minimalist?" we must also consider the question "Which Raymond Carver are we talking about?" for he did not start out as a minimalist, and he is one no longer, although he was one for a period of time in between.

This hourglass pattern emerges when we read all of Carver's stories chronologically, or, to a lesser extent, when we read Where I'm Calling From from cover to cover. Carver's evolution can perhaps be best understood when we examine several stories that have been published at different times in different versions. Carver, an inveterate rewriter, has stated that he would "rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than have to write the story in the first place."7 Sometimes this tinkering results in only minor changes, as Carver makes clear when he cites admiration for Evan Connell's statement, "he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places" (F 15). At other times, however, the result is an almost entirely different work. While the rewriting process is not unusual in itself, Carver's unwillingness to stop even after a piece has been published is not typical. One significantly revised publication that has elicited much critical commentary is "A Small, Good Thing," which appears in Cathedral. It is a retelling of "The Bath," a story from Carver's most minimalistic volume, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, that transforms the piece into something far removed from that style. In fact, this change was responsible for alerting many readers and critics to the "new" Carver presented in Cathedral as a whole.8

The basic situation in both stories is the same. A woman goes to a baker to order a special cake for her son Scotty's birthday party. The morning of his birthday, however, he is struck by a hit-and-run driver and becomes comatose. The baker, knowing only that the cake has not been picked up, calls the house and leaves threatening messages. The presentation of these events is very different in the two works, so by comparing them we can come to understand some of the salient features of minimalism. Most obviously, "The Bath," ten pages long, is approximately one-third the length of "A Small, Good Thing," an indication of the further development of the rewritten version. The characters in both stories are usually referred to by nouns or pronouns (the boy, the mother, he, she), but in "The Bath" we do not learn the mother's full name, Ann Weiss, until the last page, whereas she announces it to the baker in the second paragraph of "A Small, Good Thing." This might seem like a small thing, but it is indicative of a larger change. If we juxtapose the two versions of this early encounter between Mrs. Weiss and the baker, we clearly see a fundamental change in Carver's narrative strategy. In "The Bath," Carver writes:

The mother decided on the spaceship cake, and then she gave the baker her name and her telephone number. The cake would be ready Monday morning, in plenty of time for the party Monday afternoon. This was all the baker was willing to say. No pleasantries, just this small exchange, the barest information, nothing that was not necessary.9

In "A Small, Good Thing," Carver rewrites:

She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child's party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn't like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he'd ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker's age—a man old enough to be her father—must have children who'd gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her—not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him. She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an enormous oven. A radio was playing country-Western music.10

The first version is sparse and elliptical, giving the reader only "the barest information, nothing that [is] not necessary," while the second offers a more expansive view, providing physical details of the characters and the bakery, as well as exploring the mother's thoughts. The revision also hints more fully at the conflict that will be developed later in the story. Kim Herzinger's definition of minimalism, "equanimity of surface, 'ordinary' subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don't think out loud,"11 clearly fits the first paragraph, but it does not entirely account for the second, particularly in its exploration of the character's inner thoughts.

The most significant change from "The Bath" to "A Small, Good Thing," however, is in their endings. Minimalist stories have been heavily criticized for their tendency to end "with a sententious ambiguity that leaves the reader holding the bag,"12 and "The Bath" certainly follows this pattern. It ends literally in the middle of one of the baker's telephone calls: "'Scotty,' the voice said. 'It is about Scotty,' the voice said. 'It has to do with Scotty, yes.'" (What 56). At this point in the story, Scotty's medical condition is still uncertain, and, although the reader has figured it out, the parents still do not know who is making the horrible calls. This ending, then, is very much up in the air, and the reader leaves the story with a feeling of uneasiness and fear. "A Small, Good Thing," however, goes beyond this point in time. Scotty dies. The parents come to realize that the baker has been making the harassing calls, and they confront him. Once they explain the situation, the baker, feeling deep remorse for having bothered them, offers them some fresh rolls, telling them that "[e]ating is a small, good thing in a time like this" C 88). The story now ends on a note of communion, of shared understanding and grief: "They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving" C 89). The result is a story that has moved far beyond its minimalistic origins. Carver said in an interview that

[t]he story hadn't been told originally, it had been messed around with, condensed and compressed in "The Bath" to highlight the qualities of menace that I wanted to emphasize…. But I still felt there was unfinished business, so in the midst of writing these other stories for Cathedral I went back to "The Bath" and tried to see what aspects of it needed to be enhanced, re-drawn, re-imagined. When I was done, I was amazed because it seemed so much better.13

Most critics agree with this evaluation of "A Small, Good Thing," which won the O. Henry award as the best short story of 1983.14 "The revision completes the original by turning the sum of its fragmentary parts into a coherent whole that has a powerful dramatic structure, a beginning, middle, and end," writes William Stull,15 and Marc Chenetier feels that it signals "a movement away from threatening ambiguity, a working towards hope rather than horror, and the abandonment of features Carver may have come to consider akin to the narrative 'gimmicks' he has always denounced."16 Indeed, as indicated earlier, nearly all of the stories in Cathedral show this movement away from the "gimmicks" of minimalism.

By looking at a story that has been published in three different versions, we get a fuller picture of the whole of Carver's evolution, his movement at first toward and then away from minimalism. "So Much Water So Close to Home" first appeared (in book form) in Carver's second volume, the small press book Furious Seasons (1977). It was reprinted in his second "major" volume, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and appeared a third time in another small press book, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (1983). Most recently, it appeared as one of the selected stories in Where I'm Calling From (1988). The basic plot is the same in each publication. Stuart Kane and his buddies go fishing. As soon as they arrive at their campsite, they find a dead girl floating in the river. They decide to tie her to a tree so that she will not be lost downstream and then proceed to fish and drink for the remainder of the weekend. The story is told from the point of view of Stuart's wife, Claire, and is largely concerned with the strain that this event puts on their marriage, as she, empathizing with the dead girl, feels that her husband should have abandoned his trip and reported the body immediately.

A comparison of the way this material is treated in the first and second versions shows the several ways in which, according to John Barth, a story can be minimalistic. First, Barth says, "there are minimalisms of unit, form and scale: short … paragraphs, super-short stories";17 Carver's story is reduced by half in the revision, and long paragraphs, such as the one in which Claire explains the circumstances of the body's discovery, are broken up into many smaller ones (in this case, five). Second, "there are minimalisms of style: a stripped-down vocabulary; a stripped-down syntax that avoids periodic sentences";18 this can be seen in Carver's alteration of "They fish together every spring and summer, the first two or three months of the season, before family vacations, little league baseball and visiting relatives can intrude"19 to "They fish together every spring and early summer before visiting relatives can get in the way" (What 80). Third, and most important, "there are minimalisms of material; minimal characters, minimal exposition …, minimal mises en scene, minimal action, minimal plot";20 this third of Barth's observations is the one on which I wish to concentrate and illustrate here, for it is the key to seeing the change in Carver's aesthetic.

In the first version (FS, 1977), we are given long descriptions of the fishing trip, of Claire's reactions to her husband's behavior, of her thoughts about their past relationship, of the physical separation she imposes upon him, of the identification and subsequent funeral of the dead girl, and of many other actions and thoughts on several characters' parts. In the second version (What, 1981), however, these passages are either considerably reduced or eliminated altogether. As a result, this second version, since it stays on the surface of events and does not really allow us to get inside of the characters, seems to confirm the criticism that Carver's work is cold or unfeeling, that he lacks sympathy for his characters. For example, the last line of the opening paragraph in the first version—Claire's "Something has come between us though he would like to believe otherwise" (FS 41)—sets up, even sums up, much of the emotional conflict that is to be examined in the story. Its elimination in the second version leaves us unsure of the real motivations of the characters, thus diminishing our understanding of what is actually going on and, consequently, our concern for the people involved.

There are many more examples of such revisions, excisions that require more inference on the reader's part rather than providing him with more information. Consider, for instance, a long passage from the first version in which Claire thinks back on her previous life:

The past is unclear. It is as if there is a film over those early years. I cannot be sure that the things I remember happening really happened to me. There was a girl who had a mother and father—the father ran a small café where the mother acted as waitress and cashier—who moved as if in a dream through grade school and high school and then, in a year or two, into secretarial school. Later, much later—what happened to the time in between?—she is in another town working as a receptionist for an electronic parts firm and becomes acquainted with one of the engineers who asks her for a date. Eventually, seeing that's his aim, she lets him seduce her…. After a short while they decide to get married, but already the past, her past, is slipping away. The future is something she can't imagine. (FS 49-50)

This passage, continuing in much the same vein for the rest of the page, provides us with valuable information about the character, her background, and her feelings about herself and her marriage. Therefore, when this is replaced by "I sit for a long time holding the newspaper and thinking" (What 84), we are obviously missing out on a key to understanding the actions within the story. We also miss out on fully comprehending the developing relationship between Stuart and Claire when several scenes showing her physical revulsion toward her husband, the way "his fingers burn" (FS 51) when he touches her, are reduced or eliminated. A long argument about her refusing to sleep in the same bed with him (FS 53), for example, becomes "That night I make my bed on the sofa" (What 85), again making it harder for the reader to grasp what is going on in the story. Unlike the first version, these elliptical revisions result in a minimalistic story whose "prose [is] so attenuated that it can't support the weight of a past or a future, but only a bare notation of what happens, now; a slice of life in which the characters are seen without the benefit of antecedents or social context."21

Not only does the first version provide a fuller understanding of the main characters, it also presents important and detailed pictures of some of the minor characters who are all but eliminated in the revision. We have already seen how the baker's transformation from a mere voice on the other end of the telephone in "The Bath" to a fully realized person with his own history and concerns in "A Small, Good Thing" adds a whole new dimension, a fuller sense of humanity to that story, and the same is true here. For example, Carver's revision of "So Much Water So Close to Home" eliminates an important scene in which the couple's son, Dean, questions his father, only to be told to be quiet by his mother (FS 51). More significantly, Carver dramatically redraws his portrait of the victim. Although it seems like a minor detail, there is a world of difference in the reader's perception when a character is called "Susan Miller" rather than "the body." The Furious Seasons version of "So Much Water So Close to Home" contains the following scene, a description of a television news report in which the dead girl's parents go into the funeral home to identify the body:

Bewildered, sad, they shuffle slowly up the sidewalk to the front steps to where a man in a dark suit stands waiting and holding the door. Then, it seems as if only a second has passed, as if they have merely gone inside the door and turned around and come out again, the same couple is shown leaving the mortuary, the woman in tears, covering her face with a handkerchief, the man stopping long enough to say to a reporter, "It's her, it's Susan." (FS 52)

There is also a description of what she looked like, her high school graduation picture flashed on the screen, and what she did for a living. In this way, she and her family become alive for the reader, who is now able to identify with them just as Claire does. When all we are told is that "the body has been identified, claimed" (What 84), however, we fail to reach this sort of understanding. We also therefore fail to understand fully Claire's motivation in attending her funeral.

Once again, the ending has been radically changed in the rewrite. In the first version, Claire returns from the funeral. Stuart attempts to initiate physical contact with her, but she rebuffs him, even stomping on his foot. He throws her down, makes an obscene remark, and goes away for the night. He sends her flowers the next morning, attempting to make up, but she "move[s her] things into the extra bedroom" (FS 60). At the end of the story, still not understanding his actions, she says to him, "'For God's sake, Stuart, she was only a child'" (FS 61). Her sense of continued sympathy for Susan and incomprehension of Stuart's behavior, her further separation from him, is perfectly in keeping with the previous actions and motivations of the characters. She had said earlier that her real fear was that "one day something [would] happen that should change something, but then you see nothing is going to change after all" (FS 49), yet it is clear at the end of the story that a fundamental alteration of her marital relationship has occurred. In the second version of the story, however, when Stuart attempts to initiate sexual activity with her, she allows herself to be symbolically raped; the sentence "I can't hear a thing with so much water going" (What 88) clearly recalls the rape and murder of the other girl. She even goes so far as to participate actively in the violation. "'That's right,' I say, finishing the buttons myself. 'Before Dean comes. Hurry'" (What 88). Her motivation here is unclear, made even more so by its having been so understated in the earlier parts of the story. We do not understand what has caused her to change her mind about Stuart, nor why she is seemingly willing to return to the status quo. The ending is not ambiguous, like the ending of "The Bath," but it is rather illogical and unconvincingly forced.

As we have seen, then, the revision of this story makes it more minimal than it had been, reduces it rather than enlarges it. When Carver assembled the stories for Fires, however, he decided to republish the first version (with some minor changes) rather than the second. As the explains in the afterword to the volume, "I decided to stay fairly close to the versions as they first appeared …, which is more in accord with the way I am writing stories these days [i.e., the stories in Cathedral]" (F 189).22 Elsewhere Carver has stated that What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a very "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."23 The end result, however, was not entirely satisfactory. "I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go," he said, "cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone,"24 so he began to move in the other direction, first in Fires and then in Cathedral. Carver's movement away from minimalism is also apparent in his selection of the stories to be included in Where I'm Calling Form. Only seven of the seventeen stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are included, compared with eight of the twelve in Cathedral. Even more tellingly, Carver chooses four stories that appear "minimalized" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love but reprints them in their other, fuller forms—for example, "A Small, Good Thing" rather than "The Bath" and the third "So Much Water So Close to Home" rather than the second.

This movement at first toward but then away from minimalism can also be traced in "Distance," otherwise known as "Everything Stuck to Him" (in What), another story that is printed in all four volumes (FS, What, F, Where). While the changes here are much less dramatic than those in the three versions of "So Much Water So Close to Home," the pattern is similar. The location of the story, for instance, is given in the first version as "Milan … in his apartment in the Via Fabroni near the Cascina Gardens" (FS 27), in the second as simply "Milan" (What 127), and in the third as "Milan … in his apartment on the Via Fabroni near the Cascina Gardens" (F 113). The lack of specificity in the second version indicates that it has been "minimalized," but Carver ultimately rejects this in favor of the fuller, more detailed description.25 The story is selected for Where I'm Calling From in this third version.

An even better example of these changes in Carver's aesthetic, however, is the story "Where Is Everyone?," which was first published in the journal TriQuarterly in the spring of 1980. It reappeared, under the title "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). In the transition it was reduced by a third. Carver having cut from it the same sort of material that he excised in the second publication of "So Much Water So Close to Home." The story does not have much of a plot in either case. It is rather unusual among Carver's stories in that it is almost entirely composed of the narrator's reminiscences of past events, such as his wife's affair with an unemployed aerospace worker, his children and their actions, his father's death, and his widowed mother's sexual activities. The story is difficult to follow both chronologically and emotionally in both versions, but in the earlier, fuller version we are given many more clues. As Marc Chenetier points out:

In its much longer version as "Where Is Everyone?," it makes plain a number of details that remain quite puzzling in the shortened text…. The barest skeleton necessary for suggestion remains and a number of incidents that can be read as explanation in "Where Is Everyone?" are left as mere questions or unclear allusions in "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit."… All of the details that made for "understanding" or "answering" a story in the interrogative mode have been toned down and have lodged the interrogations dismissed from the title at the heart of the story itself.26

The two stories begin similarly, but they diverge sharply in a passage in which the narrator recalls his relationship with his children. "I hated my kids during this time," he says. "One afternoon I got into a scuffle with my son…. I said I would kill him."27 He goes on to explain the way the children, Katy and Mike, tried to take advantage of the situation, but he indicates that they were also deeply hurt by it, as seen by Mike's locking his mother out of the house one morning after she had spent the night at her lover's house and then beating her up when he does let her in. Not only is this passage missing from the revised version, but the son has been eliminated from the story altogether, and the daughter, whose name has been changed from Katy to Melody, just as the wife's has gone from Cynthia to Myrna, is little more than a stick figure who only appears in one brief paragraph. The result again is to provide the reader with less information about the state of the family; we get hints, but that is all. The narrator is also more reticent about himself. His comparing the situation to a scene in a novel by Italo Svevo (TQ 206), for instance, provides some insight into his personality and sets him apart from the standard, even stereotypical, Carver character. Not only does he read, a rarity in itself, but he reads novels by obscure Italian writers. This reference is eliminated in the revision, once more depriving us of a fact that might help us to make sense of the character's actions. The same is true of the sentence "'No one's evil,' I said once to Cynthia when we were discussing my own affair" (TQ 210). This fact, as well as the way it seems to slip out without the narrator's being fully aware of having divulged it, opens up a whole new level of interest and awareness, one that remains blocked off when the line is deleted, as it is in the second version.

This obscuring of the central characters and their relationships continues throughout "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit." In "Where Is Everyone?," although the narrator says that "conversations touching on love or the past were rare" (TQ 208), they do exist and are presented to us. At one point, for example, Cynthia says to the narrator, "When I was pregnant with Mike you carried me into the bathroom when I was so sick and pregnant I couldn't get out of bed. You carried me. No one else will ever do that, no one else could ever love me in that way, that much. We have that, no matter what. We've loved each other like nobody else could or ever will love the other again" (TQ 207). This glimpse of the past, besides being touching, appearing as it does in the midst of anger and violence, explains the tie that binds the couple together despite their problems. Ironically, the other important interpersonal relationship in the story exists between the narrator and his wife's lover, Ross, even though they have never met. In "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," there are a few elliptical references to this feeling of connection on the narrator's part: "But we had things in common, Ross and me, which was more than just the same woman" (What 19); or "I used to make fun of him when I had the chance. But I don't make fun of him anymore. God bless you and keep you, Mr. Fixit" (What 19-20). The rationale behind these statements is obscure. Here is another example of a peculiar bind that Carver can get himself into; when he "omit[s] what other writers might regard as essential information, it is often hard to know what has precipitated a given situation."28 In "Where Is Everyone?," these passages are expanded, and the connection becomes easier to see. For example, the narrator had once suggested that Mike join the Army. Cynthia disagreed, but Ross spoke in favor of the idea. "I was pleased to hear this," the narrator says, "and to find out that Ross and I were in agreement on the matter. Ross went up a peg in my estimation…. He [had] told her this even after there'd been a pushing and shoving match out in his drive in the early morning hours when Mike had thrown him down on the pavement" (TQ 208). The narrator was more than willing to admit to his wife that Ross was "[o]ne of us" (TQ 210) at the time, and now he realizes that his anger toward Ross was really only jealousy because "he was something of a fallen hero to my kids and to Cynthia, too, I suppose, because he'd helped put men on the moon" (TQ 209). In the longer version, then, Ross, like the minor characters we have examined in the other stories, emerges as a person in his own right, more than just the lover of the narrator's wife. We can now see how the narrator comes to identify with him (they are, after all, two men in similar positions) and eventually to forgive him. When all we see is the forgiveness, though, we do not understand how it came to be.

Once again the endings are significantly different from one version to the other. In "Where Is Everyone?," the narrator returns to his mother's house to spend the night. She reluctantly informs him of his wife's affair. He tells her, "I know that…. His name is Ross and he's an alcoholic. He's like me" (TQ 212). She responds, "Honey, you're going to have to do something for yourself" (TQ 212) and wishes him good night. The story ends with the following description:

I lay there staring at the TV. There were images of uniformed men on the screen, a low murmur, then tanks and a man using a flame thrower. I couldn't hear it, but I didn't want to get up. I kept staring until I felt my eyes close. But I woke up with a start, the pajamas damp with sweat. A snowy light filled the room. There was a roaring coming at me. The room clamored. I lay there. I didn't move. (TQ 213)

This ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it does point to an apocalyptic change in the narrator's life, the sort that has resulted in his having reached the level of understanding he possesses at the time, about three years later, when he is narrating these events. "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," however, ends in this manner:

"Honey," I said to Myrna the night she came home. "Let's hug awhile and then you fix us a real nice supper."

Myrna said, "Wash your hands." (What 20)

This ending so lacks any kind of summation, let alone consummation, that it baffles the reader. We do not even know when "the night she came home" is—Is it at the time of the events or at the time of their narration? What will be the effect of the things of which we have been told on the lives of those involved? We simply have to guess, with little to go on. Once asked about his endings, Carver stated, "I want to make sure my readers aren't left feeling cheated in one way or another when they've finished my stories. It's important for writers to provide enough to satisfy readers, even if they don't provide 'the' answers, or clear resolution."29 The ending of "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," however, far from being satisfying, is the sort that, "rather than suggest[ing] depth … only signal[s] authorial cop out."30 This is undoubtedly one of the reasons that, as in the case of "So Much Water So Close to Home," when Carver compiled the material for Fires, he returned, nearly word for word, to the original fuller version. Still one of his less successful pieces, as he tacitly admits by not selecting it for Where I'm Calling From, "Where Is Everyone?" is certainly better in that less minimal form.

John Biguenet finds "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit" to be such a good example of everything he dislikes about minimalism that he uses it as the principal illustration in his satirical article "Notes of a Disaffected Reader: The Origins of Minimalism." After providing a summary of the story that is almost as long as the story itself, he writes:

It sounds like parody, doesn't it? Fifteen years ago it would have been parody. But it's not parody; it's paraphrase. If paraphrase is literature purged of style, then paraphrase is a kind of minimalism, and since the absence of style is a style itself, a disaffected reader might argue that paraphrase is an apt description of minimalist style. The reader, like a child with crayons hunched over a coloring book, authors the story.31

In "Where Is Everyone?," however, Carver has already colored in the story for us, and we must keep in mind that it is this fuller, more expansive, more "authorly" version that he ultimately chooses to stand by. As we have seen by comparing the three versions of this story, as well as the various versions of other stories we have examined. Carver has undergone an aesthetic evolution, at first moving toward minimalism but then turning sharply away from it. The stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, including "The Bath," the second "So Much Water So Close to Home," and "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," do indeed follow Barth's definition of the "minimalist esthetic, of which a cardinal principle is that artistic effect may be enhanced by a radical economy of artistic means, even where such parsimony compromises other values: completeness, for example, or richness or precision of statement."32 In the final analysis, however, Carver rejects this minimalist aesthetic. In Fires and Cathedral, and in the selected (and, incidentally, the new) stories in Where I'm Calling From, he is clearly opting for "completeness, richness, and precision." Therefore, if "most readers [take] their measure of him from his second collection of stories [i.e., What],"33 they get a distorted picture of the actual scope and direction of his writings, which "both before and since" that volume are quite different.34 Carver has said that he does not consider himself a minimalist, that "there's something about minimalist that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don't like,"35 but this statement alone is not enough to remove the label. What should be enough, however, is the content of the work itself; rather than simply expressing his dissatisfaction with those stories he felt "were becoming too attenuated,"36 he rewrote them or returned to an earlier version of them, so that they were more in keeping with his real style. It is no coincidence that, as he has moved away from his arch-minimalist phase to a more natural form, he has no longer felt this need to rewrite. "I feel that the stories in Cathedral are finished in a way I rarely felt about my stories previously," he told an interviewer shortly after the publication of that volume,37 and in a profile written at the time of the publication of Where I'm Calling From, he expresses regret at having "mutilated" some of his earlier stories when he says, "I used to revise even after a story was printed. I guess now I have a little more confidence."38 As this most recent collection makes abundantly clear, Raymond Carver may have been a minimalist, but he used to be and has once again become much more.


1. Mark A. R. Facknitz, "'The Calm,' 'A Small, Good Thing,' and 'Cathedral': Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth," Studies in Short Fiction 23 (1986): 287.

2. Robert Houston, "A Stunning Inarticulateness," The Nation 233 (4 July 1981): 23.

3. The best discussion of these issues is found in the special "Minimalism" edition of Mississippi Review (#40-41, 1985). The essays are edited by Kim A. Herzinger, who also contributes a fine introduction setting forth the problems of definition and inclusion. Several of the other essays are quite useful (and often humorous), and an important interview with Carver is included. Nor should one miss John Barth's excellent "A Few Words About Minimalism," Weber Studies 4 (Fall 1987): 5-14, the most succinct and enlightening view of the controversy yet to appear.

4. Michael Gorra, "Laughter and Bloodshed," Hudson Review 37 (Spring 1984): 155.

5. Marilynne Robinson, "Marriage and Other Astonishing Bonds," New York Times Book Review, 15 May 1988: 1. It is interesting to note that Robinson herself is often grouped with the minimalists.

6. Carver's comments can be found in his interviews with: Mona Simpson and Lewis Buzbee, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Seventh Series, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Viking, 1986) 317-18; Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, Mississippi Review 40-41 (1985): 65; and Kay Bonetti, Saturday Review 9 (Sept./Oct. 1983); 22. Critics who have made remarks along these lines include: Anatole Broyard, "Diffuse Regrets," New York Times, 5 Sept. 1983: 27: Irving Howe, "Stories of Our Loneliness," New York Times Book Review, 11 Sept. 1983: 1, 43; Laurie Stone, "Feeling No Pain," Voice Literary Supplement 20 (Oct. 1983): 55; Bruce Allen, "MacArthur Award Winners Produce Two of Season's Best," The Christian Science Monitor, 4 Nov. 1983: B4; Dorothy Wickendon, "Old Darkness, New Light," The New Republic, 21 Nov. 1983: 38; Josh Rubins, "Small Expectations," New York Review of Books, 24 Nov. 1983: 42; and Michael J. Bugeja, "Tarnish and Silver: An Analysis of Carver's Cathedral," South Dakota Review 24 (Autumn 1986): 73, 82-83, 87.

7. Raymond Carver, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1983) 188; further references will be parenthetical (F).

8. The most useful account of these two stories is in the best single article on Carver, William L. Stull's "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver," Philological Quarterly 64 (Winter 1985): 1-15; I have kept my comments about them brief here largely because of his excellent explication. Other critics who touch on "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" include: Howe 43; Allen B4; Rubins 41-42; Jonathan Yardley, "Ordinary People from an Extraordinary Writer," Washington Post Book World, 4 Sept. 1983: 3; and Marc Chenetier, "Living On/Off the 'Reserve': Performance, Interrogation, and Negativity in the Works of Raymond Carver," Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, ed. Marc Chenetier (Carbondale and Evansville: Southern Illinois U P, 1986) 170. Carver himself remarks on these two stories in his interview with McCaffery and Gregory, 66.

9. Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981) 48; further references will be parenthetical (What).

10. Raymond Carver, Cathedral (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) 80; further references will be parenthetical (C).

11. Kim A. Herzinger, "Introduction: On the New Fiction," Mississippi Review 40-41 (1985): 7.

12. Anatole Broyard, "Books of the Times," New York Times, 15 Apr. 1981: C29. For other criticisms of Carver's minimalist endings see: Gorra 156; Stull 2, 5; and Adam Mars-Jones, "Words for the Walking Wounded," Times Literary Supplement, 22 Jan. 1982: 76.

13. McCaffery and Gregory 66.

14. William Abrahams, ed., Prize Stories 1983: The O. Henry Awards (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983). Abrahams has a brief paragraph in his introduction explaining why he so much prefers "A Small, Good Thing" to "The Bath." A dissenting view, however, can be seen in Rubins, 41-42, who finds the new ending too sentimental.

15. Stull 7.

16. Chenetier 170.

17. Barth 8.

18. Barth 8-9.

19. Raymond Carver, Furious Seasons (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1977) 43; further references will be parenthetical (FS).

20. Barth 9.

21. Gorra 155.

22. Carver also comments on the different versions of this story in his interview with Kay Bonetti, which is available on cassette through the American Audio Prose Library (CV III 1083). The excerpt from the interview that appears in Saturday Review does not include this portion.

23. Simpson and Buzbee 316.

24. Simpson and Buzbee 317.

25. Chenetier briefly discusses the story's three versions, but he misses this all-important point when he states that "Distance" is "retitled 'Everything Stuck To Him' in its passage from Fires and Furious Seasons to What We Talk About" (176). The correct chronology is from Furious Seasons to What We Talk About and then back to Fires, thus conforming to the hourglass pattern I have been stressing.

26. Chenetier 179.

27. Raymond Carver, "Where Is Everyone?," TriQuarterly 48 (Spring 1980): 203; further references will be parenthetical (TQ).

28. Robert Towers, "Low Rent Tragedies," New York Review of Books, 14 May 1981: 37.

29. McCaffery and Gregory 77.

30. Peter LaSalle, untitled review, America, 30 Jan. 1982: 80.

31. John Biguenet, "Notes of a Disaffected Reader: The Origins of Minimalism," Mississippi Review 40-41 (1985): 44.

32. Barth 5.

33. Stull 1.

34. Stull 2; see also 6, 14n. Stull is the only critic to have remarked on this "before and since" pattern that I have been exploring, but he does so only in passing.

35. Simpson and Buzbee 317.

36. McCaffery and Gregory 65.

37. McCaffery and Gregory 67.

38. David Gates, "Carver: To Make a Long Story Short," Newsweek, 6 June 1988: 70.

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