Raymond Carver and Postmodernism

Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, proves to be a paradigm of postmodernism, by way of the subtext of the composition. Postmodernism is a movement that can be divided into several identifiable aspects. In postmodernist works, there is typically a questioning of official stories or received narratives by which we understand our history, including the idea that history is progressive or that we are becoming more rational and civilized. One manner of accomplishing this is via the replacement of the real by the image. Additionally in the postmodern, there is a calling of attention to the margins of literature and previously ignored voices, allowing the audience to witness the complexity of human identity. Lastly, in postmodernist works, there is often the development of hybrid forms and styles. Caver is a writer of unique sensitivity who proves to be a postmodernist through his subtle interrogation of historical narratives, the treatment of the image as reality, and the examination of the condition of humanity.

Firstly to be noted is a questioning of the official stories or a received narrative by which one constitutes the understanding of history is implemented. Under special interrogation in the postmodern is the idea mankind is advancing through history and that the culture is becoming more sensible. This questioning usually presents itself in an ironic or cynical manor. Caver, in his collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, certainly meets this form of interrogation, despite his evolution past the ‘high language’ usually associated with the postmodern genre. “Minimalism âÂ?¦capitulates to mass culture in its historical attitude, trading a knowledge of place and time for a knowledge of brand names, substituting a consumer’s consciousness for a more ‘genuine’ historical one” (Simmons, 106). In this sense, the reference in Sacks to the “Stanley Products woman” (39) gives the audience the glimpse of history that they need to begin the interrogation of the times. Door-to-door Stanley Products salespeople belonged to a certain time and era. The disinterest in the story shown by the narrating son to his penitent father, displays how apathy towards the past by a current culture, is derogatory to human nature.

The development of hybrid forms and styles, that call attention to the margins of literature or previously ignored voices is a factor in postmodernism. Caver is a prime example of this motif.

“Jay McInerney, one of a generation of younger writers influenced by Carver, writes that, although he at first found Carver’s language ‘unmistakably like Hemingway’s,’ he also found that ‘Carver completely dispensed with the romantic egoism that made the Hemingway idiom such an awkward model for other writers in the late 20th century. Raymond Carver himself cited Hemingway as a major influence, yet his appropriation of Hemingway is mediated by the existentialist, surrealist, and absurdist writers whom he read in college” (Simmons, 128-9).

In this sense, Carver is incorporating several past styles of writing, and forging his own distinct voice. However, in addition to uncelebrated literary voices, Caver explores the unacknowledged lower-middle-class souls, often seen as no less then human furniture in other forms of literature. Caver stated, “Until I started reading these reviews of my work, praising me, I never felt the people I was writing about were so bad offâÂ?¦the waitress, the bus driver, the mechanic, the hotel keeper. God, the country is filled with these people. They’re good people” (Simmons, 137). Carver has sympathy for his characters, and is therefore concerned by the way they starve for nourishment and are easily manipulated.

Carver, coherent with the postmodernist style, displays how mankind is a product of their history through attention to the replacement of the real by the image. Though Carver began writing in the early 1960s, and came to prominence over the next two decades, his stories, at first glance, take no notice of the social and political tumult of the era. We never know who the president is, or whether men have walked on the moon; the characters never read newspapers; and nobody expresses any political interests or opinions. “The fiction of such writers as âÂ?¦CarverâÂ?¦registers almost exclusively the experience of those who were white, middle-class noncombatants, for whom the apocalypse that the 1960’s promised never quite arrived” (Simmons, 136). Many of Carvers characters, “seem rarely to have jobs and spend a lot of time on the sofa watching TV” (Simmons, 38). This however, is a reflection of the culture that they live in.

“Though earlier generations have experienced the sense of being removed from history, and have registered that sense in an ironic distance within their prose, what distinguishes the generation that came of age during the 1960’s and 1970’s is the unprecedented influence of mass culture. Vietnam was the first television war, and it was television that paradoxically heightened the sense of history-at-a-distance by exposing noncombatants to the images of war while simultaneously marking the viewers’ remove from the actual experience” (Simmons, 136).

In Sacks, the characters mirror the American relationship with the television imagery. While the images are accepted as reality, and are there to be interrogated and exposed, the public becomes overburdened when media sensationalized them, and does not wish to be educated anymore. In establishing the setting, the narrator in Sacks looks out of his window (creating a kind of viewfinder and framing, indicating a picturesque state) and gives a description of his dreary surroundings-then states, “I wish I didn’t have to look,”(37). His father repeats this action of complacency towards imagery when reiterating the story of his affair. “She kept his picture in the bedroom by the bed. First it bothered me, seeing this picture there and all. But after a while I got used to it. You see how a man gets used to things?” (44). Furthermore, the audience is only given a pittance of conversation between the character of the father and his lover. It pertains to a bank robbery they are aware of via the media and TV. In Carver’s writings, “dialogues are brief, hedged, and in the shadow of what they need to be about,” (Saltzman, 7). Carver does not waste one word in his stories, each is carefully chosen, and therefore, there is no room for empty banter unless serving an exclusive purpose. “What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth surface of things” (Saltzman, 14). Therefore, when discussing the robbery, the language used could also be in reference to the affair they are about to commit.

Carver continues to utilize the postmodernist method in relating the condition of humanity. The conversations in Sacks link the story together much like the parallel characters. The narrator’s inattention to his father’s tale keeps breaking up the story into fragments. “The way the world is structured, the mind and the senses try to infer meaning from elliptical signals that require some effort to interpretâÂ?¦they eye blinks, omitting some of the visible. The camera shutter blinks, omitting much of what occurs. Yet we piece together the fragmented world and movies together in apparently seamless motion” (Campbell, 35). The woman at the bar who seems to be dancing in hysteria and the father’s behavior in his affair with Sally Wein bears resonance of the event so that the reader can sense her frenzy as an implied metaphor of the father’s adultery. Sacks is mostly a story about the relationship (or lack thereof) between father and son. Les’ inattention to his father displays the complacency for a younger generation to their elders. Furthermore, Les is as incapable of having a loving relationship as his father. This parallel is clearly linked by the image of the sacks. “Sally Wein’s arrival at the door with a sackâÂ?¦initiated the domestic transgression and leads to the breakup of the narrator’s parents marriage. The narrator forgets to take his father’s sack of gifts with him,” (Campbell, 34). When he remembers it later, he states, “Just as well. Mary didn’t need candy. Almond Roca or anything else. That was last year. She needs it now even less,” (45). This oblique remark about his wife closes the story and reveals the emotional abyss of his marriage. This barrenness is shared in all the relationships among the characters in Sacks. No one in Carver’s world seems to be emotionally nourished or fulfilled.

To conclude, Carver’s work is an example of postmodernism. While other writers of the genre often appear excessively verbose, Carver offers a breath of fresh air through careful simplicity. To get the fish, Carver won’t flood his audience with words-he’ll drain the lake. Through the restrained interrogation of historical narratives, and the treatment of the image as actuality, Carver reveals the condition of humanity. He is empathetic to mankind, but does not believe that the world is becoming more rational or civilized. Carver is not concerned, however, with the progression of the human race, he does not judge the people he is witness too. He does not leave his audience with morals to ponder over, but makes plain statements about reality, for better or worse. If he is making anything certain, however, it is that he is a voyeur to a great abyss, and he is not allowing himself to look away.

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