- Reviewed by
When he died in 1988, Raymond Carver left behind a literary canon of five collections of fiction, three of poetry, and two other volumes of poems and stories—certainly not a prolific legacy but one that is among the most important in contemporary short fiction. Along with writers such a Donald Barthelme and Ann Beattie, Carver has been seen as a dominant figure of the minimalist movement. While so much of that literature is little more than warmed-over Hemingway and one writer's style indistinguishable from another, Carver distinguished himself as possessing a highly individual, original voice.
Runyon is determined to free Carver from the label of minimalism, a label Carver denied for himself and which Runyon views as devaluative. However much Runyon may aver, Carver's prose was minimalist, but as this study carefully reveals, it was not exclusively minimalist. As he insists, "Carver is in fact a self-reflexive metafictional writer—not the practitioner of 'extrospective' fiction [John] Barth takes him to be but an extremely introspective one."
To make his case, Runyon coins the term "intratextuality" to explain Carver's method of linking stories within a collection, creating a dependence upon and resonance among one another. "In Carver there is a prevailing absence, a silence, an empty space between the lines that his texts invite us to fill. But the collaboration his stories ask of the reader extends—and this is the thesis of my book—to the interstices between the stories as well." Although many of the stories in Carver's collections were published previously in journals and magazines, Runyon argues that the specific order in which they appear in book form reveals a deliberate, consciously contrived pattern.
Runyon focuses his discussion on four collections—Will You Please Be Quiet. Please? (1978), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1982), Cathedral (1984), and Where I'm Coming From: New and Collected Stories (1988)—explicating each story ad seriatim. He consistently reveals subtle, hidden connections that suggest refreshing new ways to approach the stories. Repeatedly he shows the importance of viewing one story through the perspective of another, as for instance in the cases of "Why, Honey" and "Will You Please be Quiet, Please?." In other cases stories operate as mirrors of each other, as with "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit" and "Gazebo."
Through consistently close readings, Runyon exposes how meticulously Carver revised stories from magazine to collection publication, suggesting a desire to shape pieces for a broader context. Within individual collections complementary images, phrases, characters, and situations are recycled for new and increasingly more revelatory implications. Runyon argues that [End Page 158] "Cathedral" provides a fitting metaphor for Carver's method as being similar to a structure that is unfinished, forever in a state of becoming, and in the stories "each last word [is] always open to the possibility of being succeeded by another." In the seven last stories collected in Where I'm Coming From: New and Collected Stories, Runyon finds evidence that Carver was moving "in the direction of an even greater metafictionality." In the largest sense Carver's stories tell the reader over and over again how to read each other.
Runyon demonstrates that he is an able, sensitive critic. He has researched the secondary material and all the published works of Carver and Tess Gallagher, the author's close companion for the last ten years of his life. Runyon's book is an important and welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship on Carver's works.