Introduction to Carver
Raymond Carver is an imposing figure in contemporary American fiction. Carver is renowned for his short stories and respected for his poetry. His style and themes expositively characterize post-modern society, and some critics consider Carver as the pioneer of minimalism. Carver’s works focus on mundane, quotidian life. Exploring this aspect of life, Carver makes something from nothing, culling strong emotion from whence it was absent. Carver’s decision to work with short stories arose when he decided he no longer had the attention to pay to novels, ostensibly because life’s effects were more pressing and immediate. Attention to his biography helps make apparent his choice of subject matter, his style, and his place in the American Canon.
Raymond Carver Jr. was born in Clatskanie, Oregon in May of 1938. His father, Clevie Raymond Carver, was a transient worker. His biological mother is relatively undocumented in literature on Carver. After moving around while Carver Sr. looked for work, the family finally settled in Yakima Washington, where Carver grew up. As a child, Carver was enthralled by nature, and shyly held a desire to become a writer, and he frequented the library. Carver Sr. also inspired his son’s literary interests with his storytelling ability. Carver graduated Yakima High School in 1956, the first of his family to do so. Days after graduation, Carver married is young girlfriend, Maryann Burk. Maryann introduced Carver to two writers who would become his favorite: Chekov and Tolstoy. Two children were soon born, and Carver spent these years taking courses at Yakima Community College.
By age twenty-four, Carver had four children and began the cyclical struggle of trying to earn money for his family, and trying to write for himself. He spent his life working various, mostly menial, odd jobs such as a pharmaceutical tech, a janitor, and a director of ad sales. The various jobs had the family move often, and Carver’s personality as a writer began to create conflict with his reality as a menial employee. When Carver moved to Paradise, California, he became a part-time student at Chico State College and began to actually pursue a writing carrer. At Chico, Carver studied under John Gardner, who encouraged Carver to write and who came to be Carver’s first mentor. Gardner encouraged Carver’s interest in the everyday, benignly usual occurrences of life, and its accompanying language and strife. Carver was first published in 1962, with the story “Pastoral” in Western Humanities Review. Carver graduated college in 1963, and though the family kept moving along with Carver’s employment, he kept writing. Carver described his literary maturation during this time: “in the mid-1960s, I found I was having trouble concentrating my attention. . . trying to read [novels]. . . as well as trying to write [them].”1 Thus, Carver developed his interest in short fiction and poetry.
Finances continued to stand as a factor in the Carvers’ lives. Amidst moves between Iowa City, for his education, and Sacramento for his work, Carver started to lose his reconciliatory battle between menial laborer and thoughtful writer; with this, he started drinking, as had his father. Notably, Carver became drinking buddies with fellow author John Cheever. Cheever enjoyed writing about similar subjects, his choice being the tension under the surface of suburban life. (Cheever’s “The Country Husband” became foundation for Sam Mendes’ 1999 film, “American Beauty.”) Carver’s friendship with Cheever is a good chronological marker for the evolution of their particular genre. “The Country Husband,” first published in 1954, is a prescient predecessor to Carver’s emergence in the field. In 1971, a pleasant contrast to Carver’s heavy drinking, his story “Neighbors” was published by Gordon Lish in Esquire magazine. This was Carver’s first presence in a major publication, and it would not be his last. While this decade was hard on himself and his family, Carver’s writing successes began to take the form of a career. In these years Carver occupied various teaching positions, but was eventually fired from UC Santa Barbara, as his alcohol use hindered his professorial abilities. Carver then declared bankruptcy for a second time. Carver’s first set of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976, and it was well received. He continued to smoke, drink, write, was published by major companies, nominated for awards, and was a winner of an O. Henry Award in 1983 for his story collection, Cathedral. In 1977, Carver stopped drinking, and by 1980, Carver’s work had placed him in the realm of remarkable American authors. Then, Carver, divorced from Burk, married his second wife, Tess Gallagher. Carver’s third story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was published in 1981, and his poetry collections published in ’85 and ’86. In 1987 Carver was diagnosed with lung cancer, eventually having portions of his left lung removed. Though he foresaw a recovery, his cancer returned and he died at his Washington home in June of 1988.
In Cathedral was the story “A Small Good Thing,” known before its verbose, edited rebirth as “The Bath.” Carver has said he considers them to be “really two entirely different stories.” “A Small Good Thing,” was published in Cathedral after Carver stopped drinking. Carver’s reissuing “The Bath” as “A Small Good Thing,” was the result of his dramatic change in lifestyle: from drunk to sober. “A Small Good Thing,” gives more depth to its characters, and offers readers more resolution than “The Bath.” Sober, Carver felt this was how the story should read. As with much of Carver’s ‘sober’ work, many critics consider the story an effort at resolving a charred past. However, while alcohol was his vexer, Carver agreed with his editor’s choice to focus on “the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled ) surface of things.”2 A partial explanation for this is given by his second wife, Tess: “’A Small Good Thing’ was actually written first but was severely cut and published as “The Bath” under the direction of Gordon Lish. . . Ray’s alcoholism had made him malleable and too accepting of Lish’s editing.”3 Accordingly, “The Bath” sublimates “a sense that something is imminent,” reflecting the menacing timbre of Carver’s alcoholic years. Though heavily edited to sparsity, “The Bath” garnered grand critical praise from major publications like The New York Times. To this story’s effect, critic Bryan Aubrey writes, “under the smooth surface of life, some unseen menace, some dark destiny, lurks.”4 The simultaneous nature of reality from the 50s-80s, both banal and tumultuous, is sharply inflected into the tone of Carver’s work.
With “The Bath” as point of reference, it can be suggested that Carver’s importance to the American Canon is predicated on the stagnant yet perpetually changing time in which he wrote. The bizarre nature of these years can be expressed best by the following description of the time by Tamas Dobozy:
“ Containment was not just a military strategy. . . it was also the aesthetic informing [an American] cultural narrative. . . McCarthyism; the Bay of Pigs; the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X; Vietnam; and the death of protestors at Kent State all suggest that [America’s narrative] was diffracting into competing versions. . . Just as containment was failing militarily in southeast Asia, so it was failing, as a cultural narrative, back home.”5
Not restricted to Carver, the difficulty of these decades affected most all Americans. In addition to writing for these people, whom Stephen King refers to as “perplexed lower-middle-class juicers,” Carver wrote for himself, all the while searching for something. The strict cultural narrative of Americans, which gave most people this ‘something’, was beginning to fray; and, like the Modernists before him, Carver was disillusioned in his present, and apprehensive toward his future. “A Small Good Thing” is emblematic of this. The story considers the fear of life in a modern, and/or post-modern, society. It delves into the isolated self and also, with a sweeping glance, confers its relation with broad society. “The Bath” exemplifies this even more with its menacing, minimalist approach, Carver’s signature. Carver’s cathartic, exploratory writing mixes the journalistic penchant of regionalism with the affectivity associated with postmodern society, exploring the psychological fallout of his age. With this, Carver’s importance to the canon can be expressed in two ways. One, Carver personified the strangely affective front of minimalism. Secondly, Carver’s work, searching through the contemporaneous psychological fallout for the ‘something’ that no one may have possessed in the first place, profoundly captures the beauty, fatigue, and mysticism imparted unto all people by their lives.
Analysis of “The Bath”
“The Bath” is one of the more interesting products of Raymond Carver. Originally written as “A Small Good Thing,” “The Bath” was the product of the editorial taste of Gordon Lish, the editor for Esquire magazine. When it was published, it garnered grand critical praise, and the respect of major publications like The New York Times. To this story’s effect, critic Bryan Aubrey writes, “under the smooth surface of life, some unseen menace, some dark destiny, lurks.”1 The simultaneous nature of reality from the 50s-80s, and still to the present, both banal and tumultuous, is deftly inflected into the tone of Carver’s work. Also, the effect of those decades, postmodern America’s formative psychological impact, is reified in “The Bath.” The story considers the fear of life in a modern, and/or post-modern, society. It delves into the isolated self and also, with a sweeping glance, confers its relation with broad society. “The Bath” exemplifies this with its minimalist approach. Carver describes this signature to the effect of “a sense that something is imminent. . . the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled ) surface of things.”2 The function of this philosophy is shown in the way he sets out with “The Bath.” The story begins with a mother ordering a birthday cake for her son. She discusses her cake with the baker. It will have spaceship on it, with ‘Scotty’ embossed in icing. The baker is only described vaguely. The mother finalizes her order and gives the necessary contact information, to which the baker issues a perfunctory response. It is “all the baker [is] willing to say. No pleasantries, just [a] small exchange, the barest information, nothing that [is] not necessary.”3 This exchange sets the tone for the story. The mother and the baker are made out to be two people, each with their own lives and thoughts, but estranged, from something. This something, simultaneously eluding character and reader, is, I believe, life’s overall affect on Carver, and, subsequently, what Carver attempts to subject his readers to.For “The Bath” specifically, this something is the redemptive, conciliatory affection transfered by human empathy. The source of this lack afflicting America is best understood through a psychological perspective of Marxism: “the crucial social relations. . .are no longer immediately transparent in the form of the interpersonal relations. . .they disguise themselves – to use Marx’s accurate formula – ‘under the shape of social relations between things, between the products of labor”4. Redress of this empathetical deficit is stressed through the entire story. The mother has ordered the cake for the party on Monday. On Monday, Scotty is hit by a car walking to school with his friend: “the other boy stood holding [his] potato chips. He was wondering if he should finish the rest or continue on to school.” Mass society and culture desensitizes humans to contact with each other, and this effect his highlighted by the boy’s bewildered response to the tragedy he witnesses.
Affectively, as time does, the story skips forward to the parents beside Scotty resting in his hospital bed. There is no dialogue here, only the father’s nerves expressed by omnipresent narration. After hours, the father drives home mulling his previously pleasant life, noting his “fear made him want a bath.” The bathtub is a sanctuary for many people. It is a retreat, a return to a primal nature inside the womb. The father’s bath is interrupted by the first in a series of calls from the baker. As dramatic irony, the baker is unknown to the father, who promptly rejects the reproach of an orphaned cake. This manner of interjection by the baker grows to become a motif of dramatic irony, notably structured by its quick repetition in the story. The father ignores one call, goes back to his bath and receives another within a few minutes. This particular irony in the story is to be found in everyday life, and effectively argues for it’s own acknowledgment. Quotidian interactions are always experienced through each party’s respective emotional frame. The frames, though of paramount importance to nearly everything, are most often unknown due to most interactions happening at some emotional distance, especially with strangers.
The story skips forward again, back to the hospital, where the parents share exchange dialogue on the hope of their son’s recovery. Scotty’s doctor comes in to check on the boy: ““He wore a three-piece suit, a vivid tie, and on his shirt were cufflinks.” Carver uses this image to posit a serious meditation on social estrangement: “The mother was talking to herself like this. He has just come from somewhere with an audience. They gave him a special medal.” In dire need of assurance, the mother needs to spill her heart to the doctor, and to be consoled by him. However, the doctor simply assuages the parent’s worries of coma, pats the woman’s hands and shakes with the husband. The estrangement between the doctor and the woman, emphasized by the doctor’s clothes, affects to woman greatly. This is the same affectivity characteristic of Carver’s oeuvre. The something that eludes both his characters and his self is unexplainable, yet most know just what it is: ‘it’ is the hole in the whole. The doctor leaves, and the mother sits beside her husband: “He wanted to say something else. But there was no saying what it should be. He took her hand and put it in his lap. This made him feel better. It made him feel he was saying something.” The something the husband wants to say stands in place of, represents, the something, the ‘it’, that contemporary society lacks: empathetic human interaction.
The mother moves from her husband and stands at the window: “Cars with their lights on were driving in and out. . . She made believe she was driving away from here to someplace else.” The burning focus on things other than humanity fueled by the massing of culture over the decades has relegated people to personal, unapproachable internal dialogue at the detriment of society. Carver explores this, and “The Bath” is one of his most accurate explorations. People are stuck within themselves as a result of contemporary American society’s growth and transformation. The end of “The Bath” defines this affliction. The woman, after much time at the hospital, decides to go home and relax. When she gets home, the baker is phones their residence again. Distraught, the woman answers the phone call and the baker addresses her. Fraught, she responds: “Is it about Scotty?” “’Scotty,’ the voice said. ‘It is about Scotty,’ the voice said. ‘It has to do with Scotty, yes.” The reader knows this is not the information the woman has been waiting for. The reader also knows that the baker is angry, and indifferent, notably through ignorance, to the woman’s situation. This indifference through ignorance is an accurate description of the lack of empathy in society that Carver’s stories work so well at bringing to the front of a reader’s conscience.
Gordon Lish’s editorial judgement to emboss Carver’s minimalist qualities into “The Bath” supports this view, as the eluding ‘it’ is given prominent absence. The conspicuous absence is best noted when contrasted with “A Small Good Thing,” where ‘it’ is pointed at more directly by the inclusion of more dialogue in the story, specifically between the parents and the baker in the story’s finale. In “A Small Good Thing” the parents go meet the baker and, after a mild confrontation, both parties are made aware of each other’s life circumstances. In “The Bath,” the final dialogue is menacing and unclear. I think the opaque menace of this ending is more precise in its relation to the nature of the eluding ‘it’. “The Bath” is strong piece of literature, regardless of Lish’s influence. Though on the whole Carver seemed to disagree with Lish’s editorial tastes, he acknowledges Lish’s decisions for “The Bath” “highlight[ed] the qualities of menace that [he] wanted to emphasize.”5 For this capitulation, I think the art itself, “The Bath,” won in the end. As is, I believe “The Bath” is an encapsulation of Carver’s style, and his gift to the American Canon: a profound picture of the beauty, fatigue, and mysticism imparted unto all people by their lives.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976)
Furious Seasons (1977)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
Where Im Calling From (1988)
Near Klamath (1968)
Winter Insomnia (1970)
At Night The Salmon Move (1976)
Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985)
A New Path To The Waterfall (1989)