Minimising the Irony
Raymond Carver, was born in Oregon in 1938 and died fifty years later. He was a heavy drinker and much of his writing life had been a precarious one, working in various odd jobs and relying on grants before becoming established and very successful nearer the end of his shortish life, so much so that he became known as a father-figure to a new generation of writers. "I'm only the father of my own children. But I think my experience and success have encouraged lots of young writers to follow my path." He never wrote a novel and is known chiefly for a series of short story collections, Will You Please Be Quiet Please, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral and Elephant, as well as the poems and essays in Fires.
To understand Carver's work it might be useful to think of the importance of Hemingway, and the significance of a minimalism that ostensibly shares similarities with the American legendary novelist but that takes it in a different direction. First, Hemingway was a great lover of sub-text and who can forget his famous comment that, "I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows." (Paris Review) In 'Hills Like White Elephants' we comprehend what the story is about even if the very crisis at its heart isn't mentioned, and the same is true of 'A Simple Enquiry' and the marvellously short 'For Sale: Baby's Shoes, Never Worn' - a six-word story generally attributed to the writer. In the first, we have an abortion, in the second, homosexuality, and in the third the death of a child. Carver may quote another of Hemingway's famous lines, "prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over" ('Prose is Architecture: Two Interviews with Raymond Carver') but this describes the rigour of the prose rather than the meaning of its content. It seems Carver resists the categorical that Hemingway often buries in his text, and this leads to new aesthetic possibilities even if the surface looks similar.
It is perhaps that Hemingway can appear a pre-ironic writer and Carver a post-ironic one, that though Carver has little in common with what was called the Metafictionst writers of the sixties and seventies, novelists including Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth and Donald Barthelme, he has absorbed their sense of irony all the better to resist it. Speaking of Carver and other writers described as minimalists (Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, Joy Williams), Kim A. Herzinger says: "it seems to me that one of the crucial characteristics of minimalist writing is its profound uneasiness with irony as a mode of presentation. Irony is, after all, the very tissue of 20th-century writing realist, Modernist, or Postmodernist and its absence in the work of the minimalists seems to me a development of significant proportions. This neglect of, or at least hesitancy about, irony is, I think, quite conscious, and deeply rooted in the minimalist aesthetic, which is itself rooted in assumptions about audience." (Mississippi Review)
It is a point Herzinger returns to later in his essay, saying, "that brings me around again to the matter of irony. Irony is conspicuously not generous; the compact the ironist makes with the reader is one of mutual evaluation, a decision to judge the characters often with condescension as to their competence, their intelligence, the degree of their foolishness." As he says, "When the 'minimalist' gives us a wan young girl, a mother puzzled by the sexual desires of her daughter, or an older man impossibly in love with a younger woman; then locates them in Cleveland, or Fort Smith, or Walla Walla; and then has them sit in restaurants and drink Coca-Cola, or go to the mall or the supermarket, or get lost on the icy streets of a small midwestern town, we wait for the punchline, we expect the joke. But it doesn't come. Carver's neighbors are not being made fun of, nor his baker, nor Bud and Olla's peacock and their ugly baby; his small, good thing is just that." (Mississippi Review) Yet the irony seems repressed rather than absent; that the writing isn't a naive form of much earlier realism but the sophisticated absorption of a new set of problems; that life and literature have moved on and Carver more than most wondered where it had moved.
To go further, let us retreat a little and return to Hemingway. Hemingway didn't only want to leave us musing over what was hidden in his texts, he also wanted us to see that not all things are equal. It is why Carver's fellow minimalist Joy Williams notes, "he always carried guns on board to shoot sharks or, when bored or annoyed, seabirds and turtles...The stench of death. Hemingway stared death in the face again and again and was proud of it, but it was almost always an animal's death, an animal's face, a creature's face, the face of a nature he repeatedly diminished, the light and life of which he would extinguish over and over." (Bookforum) Though Williams admits that "there are a great many writers who learned a great deal from his workthe early work alwaysthe cleanness of the line, the freshness, the solemnity of the sentence, the discoveries that restraint and omission allow", what she sees above all is that stench of death; the sort of stench we might think makes Hemingway's work meaningful in the way that Carver and others would eschew.
How often is death in the Nick Adams' stories there to tell us something of great import? The aesthetic might be pared down but a brutal hierarchy sits behind it. If Herzinger sees in minimalism irony removed, then Carver and others offer, too, a world where all things are equal, that to use weakness to reflect strength predicates certain people over others, certain values as paramount, and humans as far more significant than animals. Yet minimalists like Williams and Beattie, for example, are well-known for the number of dogs that appear in the stories, and have a role to play in them as more than collateral damage to narrative event. One wouldn't wish to say that Hemingway is a dated writer but Carver and others manage to make the Hemingwayesque as a value look stale, even if, as Williams notes, there are still things writers can learn from the technique.
Let us turn briefly and, at last, to 'Fat'. A man comes into a diner and he is the "fattest person" the first-person narrator has ever seen. The narrator, a waitress, serves him as the man who refers to himself as 'we' orders enormous quantities of food. He orders a Caesar salad, portions of bread and butter, soup, lamb chops and baked potato with loads of sour cream, and has the Special for dessert along with vanilla ice-cream and with some chocolate syrup too. The fat man is a magnet for judgement: "God, he's fat"; "how is old tub-of-guts doing?", "Some fatty." The last remark comes from Rudy, the narrator's partner, who also talks about kids he knew at school: "They were tubbies my God." Containing the story is the narrator telling her friend Rita about the presence of the fat man in the diner, as though she must talk about it to understand it, to make sense of feelings that are confused, perhaps inexplicable. At one moment serving the fat man she says after he says thank you, a "feeling comes over me." We don't know what that feeling is just as we don't know what leads the man to eat in such enormous quantities. Speaking of how much he eats after the narrator says she would love to be able to put on weight, he says: "if we had our choice, no. But there is no choice."
The story is full of enigmas even if the tale originated in no more than one Carver's wife told him many years before he wrote the piece. "My wife, my first wife, worked as a waitress and she came home one night and told me she had had an enormous man for a customer who spoke of himself in the first person plural." ('Prose as Architecture: Two Interviews with Raymond Carver') But rather than think too hard about what it means, it is perhaps useful to see the story as the suspension of meaning, to remove judgement from the narrative, the sort of assumptions that Rudy and the other waitresses supply when commenting on the fat man, the sort of claims made in the name of irony where we wait for the punchline that reveals a characters' stupidity or their ignorance, the sort of assertiveness that makes clear that we can lord it over lesser species.
Carver's best stories (including 'Fat', 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love', 'A Small Good Thing', 'Are These Actual Miles?' and 'Why Don't You Dance?'), propose that minimalism, which Carver rejected as a term, contains possibilities that cannot be explained away, just as characters like the narrator in 'Fat' cannot quite make sense of the fat man, nor her feelings towards him. Carver may have said of minimalism that it suggests the "idea of a narrow vision of life, low ambitions, and limited cultural horizons." ('Prose as Architecture: Two Interviews with Raymond Carver') But another way of looking at it is to say that Carver's minimalist aesthetic removed various assumptions from fiction and replaced them with an emotional resonance that was undeniable, even if one cannot often say why we feel the way we do after reading one of his stories. We may find ourselves feeling a little like the narrator in 'Fat' who, after meeting the man who speaks in the first person plural and can eat for two, can't quite explain why the situation so affected her.
© Tony McKibbin