Raymond Carver's Grunge Iceberg

Raymond Carver. Photo by Anthony Easton [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this collection of short stories had me thinking of two other authors: Hemingway, for his iceberg principle; and Bukowski, for his grunginess. Not like Kerouac, for there is a definite late 1960s/early 1970s feel to the characters and situations, and not quite as grungy as Bukowski, but certainly Hemingway-esque in the way the story doesn't leave you for some time after reading. I think, too, that Carver's work does to the imagination what Hemingway's iceberg principle does, but on steroids.

Hemingway left enough for the imagination, and at times I would read commentary on his work and discover something I had missed. But with Carver, I have read commentaries that envision his stories as they are written. In many, I found my imagination unresolved, wondering what happened next, what was meant, but delightfully bewildered all the same.

I knew little about Carver and chose the book because I like the Vintage Classics series. After reading, I went to The Paris Review and the Poetry Foundation to see what else I could learn about Carver. From his late interviews, he appears rather Stoic (as opposed to stoic) in his philosophy, and humble in that he worked for most of his life and only achieved fame much later.

I was also impressed by his gratitude towards his partner, fellow poet Tess Gallagher, who would read and provide feedback on Carver's work after the fourth draft. Gallagher is now in her mid-70s and has a book of poetry to be released in 2019.

I recall Scott Fitzgerald commenting that nobody wanted to read about poor people, but Carver writes about lower-middle class people who end up realising that they won't ever really get ahead. I could feel the grunge from my 1970s childhood in his stories, even though geographically I was on the other side of the world and so young.

What I like about Carver's work is that it takes me back to a time that is somewhat familiar, and much harder to glorify. Conversely, Hemingway's era was so long ago that it is all new. Carver's era has a touch of sentimentality (for me), but his subjects are such that there is less nostalgia, more "things are different now yet somehow the same".

Carver's subjects are not rags to riches or riches to rags stories; they are people striving to be more than they are and then becoming bankrupt or divorced or alcoholic or just downright strange as they do what they do. There is no real political statement in his work, rather a social commentary, stemming from his own upbringing.

These are wonderful stories and I enjoyed the way Carver makes my imagination work, even to the point of frustration. I also like that there is no way to find out what he really meant - he meant for the reader to reach their own conclusion.

This work would have made my day in high school English. Whenever we were asked what the author meant in a particular work, I would become frustrated with the teacher telling us and say something like "How are we supposed to know that. Did you ask them?" I've heard this same rot from my students! 

But there appears to be an absence of hidden meaning and morality in Carver's work. In his own words, literature is "superior amusement", and maybe with a hint of spirituality. I found the grunginess of the stories frighteningly familiar, as if all of my embarrassing failures in life had been recorded and put into a collection of short stories.

That, I believe is what Carver does best. He captures the lives of ordinary battlers and uses his experiences and the stories he has heard from others as the baseline for a work of fiction, fiction that is true enough to be real but fictional enough not to be true.

If ever there was a genre that combined Hemingway's and Bukowski's styles, then this is it. Apparently, Carver didn't like his style being referred to as "minimalist". I wonder how he would feel about "grunge iceberg"?