I am deeply ambivalent about Raymond Carver. My beef with this particular dead guy has less to do with his fine stories than with his 1980s-era apotheosis into an academic demigod, his canonization as St. Ray of the MFA programs, the way his works and style became paradigms to be slavishly imitated by a generation (maybe two generations now) of American writing students, a process of sowing that came to barren fruition in the bland, flat, snowy fields of zero-degree Minimalist prose. All this has been enough to keep me away from Carver for about a decade--a fruitful separation that weaned me from the stylistic Jonestown Kool-Aid of "See Spot run. See Jane drink. See Dick screw" Minimalism.
Now I have returned to Carver's first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and in its first story, "Fat," I find an excellent example of what has always impressed me about his best work. It's not the over-imitated, stripped-beyond-Hemingway prose, and not the lack of naturalistic description and certainly not the poverty of metaphor. No, I'm not impressed by the things Carver didn't (or couldn't) do. What I find most valuable, what sometimes even floors me, is the way his best stories move, with what seems in retrospect the logic of a mathematical proof, toward a culminating image that is enigmatic, multiply meaningful, and poetically complex. Carver is a writer who thinks in images rather than metaphors, and this may be a key to understanding the true, deep power of his style. His images accomplish, with seeming effortlessness, Auden's program for poetry:
The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
The power and genius of Carver's style reside not in any of the stylistic 'innovations' for which he has received so much praise--his prose, his irony--but in his creation of images that burst the straitjacket of his style. Derived from, but often more concentrated and powerful than, the Joycean or Chekhovian epiphany, the Carveresque image allows the reader to glimpse the terrible waste of his characters' lives (something the characters themselves can sometimes feel but rarely see) and forces the reader to reconsider the entire story in the image's dark light.
"Fat," a story that can be usefully understood as a Bloomian 'revision' of Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," is narrated by a waitress who one day serves a large meal to a grotesquely obese customer. The memory of the man subsequently haunts her in a way she cannot enunciate, perhaps because it lies at the root of her entire enunciation. The fat man incites her narrative and inspires the tale's ultimate image: the thin narrator's sexual fantasy of herself as an enormously fat woman serviced by her tiny husband. It's an image that, more economically and effectively than anything else in the story, bares the narrator's psyche, showing us the despair that expresses itself as a mixture of passivity and aggression. The image also accomplishes something even more remarkable: a shift in readerly identification from the narrator to her clueless listener, Rita (slant rhymes with 'reader'). The story's end leaves reader and Rita scratching their respective heads, uncertain of the proper interpretation of this "funny story" about which there is nothing funny at all.