Fat by Raymond Carver

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Fat by Raymond Carver

By | June 2013
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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...