- Raymond Carver's Monologic Imagination
Where, the reader wonders, is the folk energy?—Anatole Broyard 27
With a powerful blend of fatalism and desire, Raymond Carver's stories make their way toward single voices: the "I" in retreat from domestic babel, the "he" or "she" recoiling from a noisy world. Much has already been said about the nature of such voices, the characters that inhabit them, and the silences just beyond them. Still largely unexamined, however, are the processes by which the chaos of life is evaded, the failed conversation curtailed, the din of alien discourse suppressed. Nor has the relation of Carver's singular discourse to other kinds of contemporary literary discourse been explored.
To put it another way: Carver's stories are not, like the novelistic discourse M. M. Bakhtin describes, many-voiced or multi-languaged. Carver reduces polyphony, backgrounds the many voices and the carnival spirit, which are the essence of "modern literature" and novelistic discourse as Bakhtin understands them. He suppresses the folk energies that are the founding forces of heteroglossia and that rule in many contemporary writers (Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme are two who come to mind here), including some who appear with him under the unsatisfactory label of "minimalism." Furthermore, his stories are often stories about askesis —curtailment to the point of solipsism, to borrow Harold Bloom's definition (115-123)—and about varying degrees of xenophobia.
The authorial suppression of polyphony, although it is necessarily incomplete, is far reaching and has several important manifestations in Carver's fiction. One is the almost-total absence in the stories of irony, parody, word play, and other ludic elements—again, those folk energies—which are the early and enduring expressions of heteroglossia. Carver's fiction is rarely playful; nor is it often marked by allusions, double meanings, reflexive or metafictional gambits.
Moreover, in most of his stories Carver aligns rather than inter-animates authorial and narrative voices. In their introduction to a 1987 interview with Carver, Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory observe that "there is little authorial presence" in the stories (66). This is an oversimplification—Carver is capable of subtle intervention—but it does suggest one important way in which the number of voices and the forces of dialogism in the stories are reduced. [End Page 240]
Carver also reduces, I think in a calculating way, the varieties of discourse within the stories. Few features if any distinguish, and therefore dialogize, the inner and outer discourse of characters. There is, significantly, no discernible difference between men's speech and women's in most stories ("The Student's Wife" is the one notable exception); in his good article on Carver, Alain Arias-Misson observes that "The first-person narrator who tells about half the stories wears a male or female voice with about equal grace" (626). The same can be said of most speakers in most stories.
One reason for this is that Carver's interest in class and type—"inarticulate people" (McCaffery and Gregory 78-79) is the category he returns to often in interviews—overrides concern with gender. But within the stories differences in class and type are not much in evidence either. Carver's characters are almost all working class; their talk is working class talk, rarely if ever impinged on by middle- or upper-class speech. Rarely is it mingled with foreign languages, where it is, the other language almost always causes trouble, as it does in "Signals," where the French spoken in a fancy restaurant exaggerates the marital problems of a couple dining there, and as it does in "The Compartment," a story I will turn to in more detail shortly. The talk of Carver's characters is not often mixed, either, with varieties of official speech or professional jargon.
There are two noteworthy doctors in the stories. The first is Mel of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" who rather self-consciously minimizes the differences in class and discourse between himself and the more typical Carver characters in the story. "So I'm not educated," Mel tells his friends as they sit around the kitchen table drinking gin, "I'm a heart...