- Minimalism and the American Dream:"Shiloh" by Bobbie Ann Mason and "Preservation" by Raymond Carver
I was sick of reading about the alienated hero. I think where I wind up now is writing about people who are trying to get into the mainstream, or they're in the mainstream, just trying to live their lives the best they can. . . . When they go to the shopping mall, and many of them go just to window shop, they're looking at deliverance from a hard way of life. . . . Many of my characters are caught up in the myth of progress; from their point of view it means liberation, the promise of a better life.—Bobbie Ann Mason Interview by Mervyn Rothstein (50, 108)
We had great dreams, my wife and I. We thought we could bow our necks, work very hard, and do all that we had set our hearts to do. But we were mistaken.—Raymond Carver, Fires (22)
"Shiloh" by Bobbie Ann Mason and "Preservation" by Raymond Carver are stories about white working class Americans who are confused and disillusioned with the American dream they watch on the television screen every night, the American dream of which they expected to have [End Page 689] a slice, but never got in more than a spoonful. Like many other characters in contemporary minimalist short fiction, the characters in these two stories have managed to survive without protesting in a world with reduced economic and emotional possibilities. Their anxieties and disappointments are instead displaced through drug and alcohol use and through an even more deadening activity: a steady focus on the random details of everyday life.
Carver, Mason, and others have been labeled as minimalist writers by many critics and writers who are suspicious of their stories because of the lack of metaphoric depth and because of the flat and robotic lives the characters lead.1 In order better to appreciate the potential implications of Carver's and Mason's flat prose, the reader must be willing to suspend the interpretive moment, following the particular narrator's lead. By concentrating on the literal detail, the narrators rely upon the metonymic pole of language for narrative movement and hesitation. The reader is required to read first syntactically, literally, witnessing and sharing the consciousness and experiences of the narrator and character until the scene or story is finished; then the prose offers the reader a way to resolve the robotic dilemma presented: a metaphoric frame for comparison and reflection, an afterthought for grappling with meaning, a hope for resolution.2
Mason's story "Shiloh" is about two people and a community who are affected by their beliefs in the American dream and the myth of progress: you can succeed and build a happy life for yourself and your family in this country if you keep up with the times and if you work hard. Leroy Moffitt and Norma Jean, a couple who have been married for fifteen years, find their lives disrupted not only by the trucking accident that has rendered Leroy disabled and unemployed but also by the changes that are occurring in their home town in Kentucky. While the community [End Page 690] around them is being built up ("Subdivisions are spreading across western Kentucky like an oil slick" ), Norma Jean is building muscles and constructing compositions. Leroy, who passes time smoking marijuana, refuses to look for work; instead, he spends his time practicing at building by putting together craft kits. Finally, despite Norma Jean's refusal to live in a log cabin, he orders a full-size cabin in a kit as a built-in old-fashioned solution for saving his marriage. The act of building offers the reader a framework for understanding this story.
Mason foregrounds details to emphasize the static, spatial nature of the characters' lives. By referring nonchalantly to commercial items—using trade names instead of types: Coke, Lincoln Logs, and The Donahue Show instead of soda, toy logs, and TV talk shows—Mason, as well as Carver, disrupt the reader's conventional expectations for more universal details, causing us to hesitate and to focus on the day-to-day detail. The characters, setting, and...