It pains me to be hasty in writing about a book I enjoyed so much, but my immune system’s inability to deal with certain allergens yesterday means that I feel like I’m about to collapse. So just a quick one today.
So, it took what seems to be a long time for me to read any Carver. I love tensile writing, and I love minimalist writing even more. So Carver was always going to be a shoo-in for me. I was already familiar with the Gordon Lish controversy, and the lauded minimalist qualities of the prose resulting from Carver’s relationship with Lish, his one-time editor. Literary drama is always fun, and there are lots of arguments to be made on both sides of that fence. But the results of the Lish/Carver collaboration(?) are powerful and timeless, despite whatever might be said about its ethics.
Some of the stories are very short. ‘The Father’, weighing in at two pages, describes something like a pastoral tableau in which a newborn baby is coddled by its family. When trying to work out who the baby looks like, little Carol decides that it is ‘Daddy’. Yet, when the other girls hear this, they express their confusion: ‘But who does Daddy look like?’ Carver allows the father only one appearance at the end of the story, but his lack of expression and paleness in response to these innocent questions speak volumes.
This is really the genius of Carver: to be able to imply desolation without so much as typing a ‘d’. He’s the biggest shower-not-teller I’ve ever read. Carver’s simple sentences seem to play tricks. Straightforward (‘I had a feeling tonight.’); vernacular (‘I’m getting jealous, Rudy says to Joanne.’); and barely touching a 4 on the affect scale, there’s nothing flashy to the discrete parts of language that make up the stories. Neither are there any ‘big bang’ moments; as far as we can tell, these are either in the past or future. Carver places his characters on a cliff which is crumbling from underneath. Woven together, the words, sentences and paragraphs create portraits that would seem mild but for the ellipses and cathexes Carver is able to evoke. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please depicts, over and over again, the inanition of small town American life.
Extra points: Geoffrey Wolff’s review in the New York Times from 1976.