Ray Carver Delivers Beauty

A watercolor sunset, soft light on a windowpane, a chilling melody – all of these things have the capacity to move the soul by giving us a sense that the world around us is grand beyond our little lives. Keats said that truth is beauty. Perhaps what is true is beautiful because it pierces through the everyday monotony of our day-to-day routines. This kind of piercing requires deliberation and intention; creativity is by no means accidental.

Ray Carver delivers beauty in his stories with a technique that matches its form. They tell us something true about the human condition as he shows the command of an artist by having the readers exactly where he wants them – in the co-pilot’s chair. By using a minimalist’s style of ambiguity, he affects the reader with an experience of discovery through co-creation and participation. By filling in the gaps, making up for all the missing details and ambiguity, the reader discovers that the story, the window that they’ve been looking through into someone else’s world, is really just a mirror of their own.

Carver’s style affects the reader in this way in “Fat,” in which a waitress tells her friend about an experience of serving an enormously fat person. At the surface, it is a simple narrative containing the dialogue between the waitress and the fat man. But there is something haunting about the idea of a girl who, after meeting the fat man, begins to see herself as “terrifically fat” while she is with her lover, who becomes “a tiny thing and hardly there at all.” She, like the reader, senses that there is something more to this experience. “I’ve already told her too much,” she says of her friend, who “doesn’t know what to make of it.” Carver uses the subtleties, emblems, and ambiguities in the discourse between the fat man and the waitress to force the reader to figure out “what to make of it.” One has to think about what the fat man means when he says, “If we had our choice, no. But there is no choice.” It could be that he is simply referring to his body type, metabolism and capacity to gain weight easily. One might look at it differently, however, in light of the way his presence affects the waitress. She offers no direct analysis of the situation, only recalls that “a feeling comes over [her].” She doesn’t explain why she is the only character in the story who doesn’t make a moral judgment of the fat man or require that he offer some kind of justification for why he is the way he is. She simply serves him, even going the extra mile to “drop lots of sour cream onto his potato” and continually refill his bread and butter. She tells those mocking, “He can’t help it…so shut up,” and “He is fat…but that is not the whole story.” Yet she cannot offer the same sort of generosity towards herself. She sees herself at the end of the story as a fat person because she cannot escape the moral judgments and the expectations she receives from the world around her. She says in the last line, “My life is going to change. I can feel it.” Carver only gives us snippets of the waitress’ thoughts, which forces the reader to infer what she means in the last line by personally reflecting on their own experiences with judgment, self-image and the desire to be approved.  The fat man’s acceptance of himself and the waitress’ lack of acceptance are the contrasting pictures that the reader not only observes at a distance, but must identify within himself. The truth of the story’s message, whether happy or sad, is what is beautiful, and its aesthetic quality is greatly enhanced by the effectiveness of Carver’s technique.

            In “Feathers” Carver also embeds the story with emblems that diagnose the human condition. Like the crooked teeth sitting on the TV set, Fran believes she can change her life and find satisfaction by having a baby. The peacock, which had “every color in the rainbow shining from that tail,” represent the possibility of a better life for Fran and her husband, much like the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The ashtray made to look like a swan is another subtle picture of the desire to change, intensified in the more pronounced ugly duckling concept seen in Bud and Olla’s baby. These are images leading up to a seemingly ugly and depressing theme, but just as Bud and Olla’s baby has swan-potential, the beauty of the story’s truth comes to full maturity as the reader does the work of decoding these symbols in order to discover Carver’s message: that humans are like that “damn bird [who] doesn’t know it’s a bird, that’s its major trouble.”

Carver’s method creates an aesthetic experience with “The Bath,” which is “this small exchange, the barest information, nothing that was not necessary.” The plot moves along in an almost rhythmic pattern, with metronome-like sentences that move from simple event to simple event. The shortness of each sentence gives the reader a feeling like that of the shortness of breaths in a crisis. The minimal details given by the doctor and nurses also create the effect of the parents’ state of anxiety. One gets the feeling that things are not going to turn out so well for Scotty, but by not revealing who is on the phone with Mrs. Weiss at the end, the readers are left in that anxious state of wondering indefinitely. Not knowing Scotty’s fate heightens the reality of his parents’ situation and leaves us sympathizing with them, contemplating the brevity of life by asking our own questions and experiencing the emotion of these events.

Even Carver’s use of certain pronouns get the reader involved as a participant in the discovery of truth in his stories. “It” is a pronoun that will often get a writer in trouble, since a writer’s job is to be specific and precise. Carver uses the ambiguous “it” in a purposeful way. “Why Don’t You Dance” ends with the girl telling someone the story of what happened at the yard sale, as the narrator describes, “There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out.” The Bath also ends with the voice on the line saying, “It is about Scotty…It has to do with Scotty, yes.” In the first sentence of “Fat,” the waitress says “I am telling her about it,” subtly implying that she is not just telling her “it,” referring to the story of her experience. In all of these situations, “it” refers to something that is never explicitly explained. The reader has to define it, uncover it and thereby discover the greater reality Carver is trying to communicate.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is another story that captures the beauty found in the frailty of humanity with a powerful effect of guiding the reader to his own self-discovery. One particularly effective move Carver makes is his play on words between “vessel” and “vassal.” He never tells us in the story what he thinks love is in any direct way, but Mel’s misuse of the word “vassal” is doubtlessly Carver’s way of saying what he thinks love is. A vessel, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is “a person into whom some quality (as grace) is infused.” Mel says in the story, “…everyone is always a vessel to someone.” He meant to say “vassal” – someone who is subservient to another. But the truth Carver is trying to communicate is that we are all both vassals and vessels to each other in our relationships – sometimes we are the recipients of intense emotion and the heights of joy, and sometimes we must subordinate ourselves to the other. Love is a constant play between both of these states or roles. One sees this in the dialogue between Mel and Terri throughout the story. They constantly give and take both affection and verbal battery from each other. The concept of change and seeking something new also shines through the story like the light at the window the four characters sit around as they discuss love. It first comes up when Mel suggests they finish up their “cut-rate, lousy gin” to go to a new place. Then Laura comments on Mel’s sentiments concerning vassals fighting each other in armor, “Nothing’s changed.” Carver again uses this story to affect the reader with the possibility that life reaches a point where things get “better” – who we are now is who we are, and we ought to accept ourselves. The end of the story may leave the reader feeling somewhat dark and cold with the vivid image of the characters silently listening to their own and each other’s heartbeats. That is Carver’s very intent – to haunt the reader with an insight into what is really behind this “human noise” they were making.

Beauty is a somewhat elusive thing. It can be not so exactly easy to define. We know it when we see it. That is why an artist has an opportunity that no other figure – philosopher, teacher, or other – has to communicate what it is through reaching the soul’s aesthetic sensors. Ray Carver does this very thing with his remarkable use of language that creates and atmosphere within the reader, whispers hints in their ears, and invites them to ask, “What is happening here?” They find themselves not only asking what is happening in the story, but what aspect of reality Carver is trying to communicate. By doing this bit of work to discover the truth despite our great tendency to gravitate toward self-deception, we experience as readers something beyond ourselves that draws us toward it.

You can feel it if you try.




Will the Real Thomas More Please…

The Real Thomas More


Will anyone be able to pinpoint which voice in Utopia is the historical Thomas More – More the fictional character, or Raphael Hythloday? He seems to split himself between the two. On the one hand, he is Hythloday because everything that Hythloday says is More the author’s invention. He must consider some of the values of the Utopians to be truly noble and worthy of imitating, or else he would not be using them as elements of a society where overall communal happiness is achieved.

            At the same time, however, the author More shows his doubts about the possibility of achieving such a society. He vocalizes these doubts through the character More in the way he confesses his disagreement with Hythloday in the end. The author does not go to great lengths to explain why More “cannot agree with everything he said,” or to make an argument against Hythloday, and even acknowledges that Hythloday is a man of great learning. In this way he seems dismissive and passive in his disagreement, and one could argue that the historical More sided with Hythloday. Yet, if More truly believed in the Utopia he imagined, why would he have given it a name that can be translated “no place,” or given Hythloday’s character a name which means “speaker of nonsense?” With this fact are the apparent contradictions within the Utopian world, such as their placing no value on gold in local exchange affairs, yet finding value in it to finance foreign wars. It also seems unlikely that the Utopian people would embrace Christianity, as they abhorred sacrifices and the shedding of the blood of animals.

            More was a clever author who understood the 16th century English audience he was writing for. It would have been outlandish for him to write a Platonic dialogue detailing each ritual act, custom or state-sanctioned activity necessary to create what he conceived as the ideal society. He wanted to get his readers thinking and reflecting on their own society – its customs, values, and the ideals from which they were derived – by using the alluring images of the mysterious New World to engage their imaginations.

America: Delicious and Nutritious

Response to Christopher Columbus’ Four Voyages

By Amanda MacLean

            The other night I had dinner with some friends of mine in a church small group. One fellow had brought an Indian dessert that turned out to be a big hit – a mixture of crushed almonds with butter and sugar that was, as one person commented, “Delicious and nutritious.” We all wanted to know what this dessert was called, but our friend couldn’t remember its foreign name. So Jeremiah, who is sort of the leader of our group and happened to be appropriately sitting at the head of the table, declared, “In honor of the history of exploring new territories and naming places that already have names, I hereby call this dessert…America.”

His wisecrack made everyone laugh. However, I think it struck me in a different way than it did the others, as I had spent a good portion of that day reading Columbus’ Four Voyages. This very issue prevailed in my thoughts as I read the text. Columbus was on a mission – one that was both personal and national in scale. On the personal side, he aimed at exploring new territories and proving his own cosmographical theories. He was also there to lay claim to new territories for Spain and wield its imperialistic powers against other, competing empires.

In today’s American cultural consciousness, it seems that imperialism is generally perceived as an archaic and perhaps barbaric practice. As part of a democratic republic that emphasizes individual freedoms and separation of church and state, it doesn’t appear that the current generation is interested in making the United States an empire in any overt way. Yet many wonder if we have not abandoned this explicit sort of imperialism for another, more sneaky type. With the U.S. military having occupied Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly the last decade, large portions of the population have seriously questioned and accused the motivations of our national government. Do we simply see ourselves as the democratic big brother of every other nation in the world? Is there really a threat of terror that we are trying to defend ourselves against, or are we just trying to spread our own model of democracy in a militaristic way? Are we occupying the Middle East to exploit it for its resources?

Most people have some opinion or idea of how they feel about these questions, but I’ve never been certain about what I think. It does seem certain to me, however, that throughout history, powerful people have always found some way of conquering those more weak and vulnerable around them. Other classes of animals attack and devour other species for their own survival; ours seems to be the only one that attacks and devours within its own. Could it be that conquest, whether it’s in the name of science, religion or political power is something that simply runs through the veins of the human race? However we choose to label or justify acts of domination, both our nation and countless other great empires have a rich history of it. I sometimes wonder if we all, as humans, simply cannot help ourselves.