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.