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Raymond Carver’s Comic Error

From: New England Review
Volume 33, Number 3, 2012
pp. 63-79 | 10.1353/ner.2012.0077

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Back in the early 1990s, in an essay I’d written about American minimalist fiction, I described how Bill and Arlene Miller, the marginally assertive protagonists in the 1971 Raymond Carver short story “Neighbors,” ultimately get punished for snooping through the closets and drawers of the ostensibly more glamorous couple who live across the hall—the Stones, whose cat and plants the Millers are tending while the Stones are away. “The wife accidentally locks the neighbors’ keys in the apartment,” I explained, “casting herself and her husband out of this vicarious Eden of sunburst clocks and Hawaiian shirts.” Submitted to a journal, my manuscript was soon returned to me, and inserted beside this passage was a single marginal note: the journal editor, apropos of Arlene Miller’s having mislaid the keys, inquired, “Accidentally?”

The query puzzled me at the time. Unless one takes the strictest Freudian view and rules out accidents categorically, one cannot easily glean from Carver’s text an intent on the part of Arlene Miller to banish herself and her husband from the world of the Stones, who lived “a fuller and brighter life” than their own. In retrospect, though, I can understand why an editor familiar with the life and works of Raymond Carver would be on the alert for self-destructive impulses in one of Carver’s characters, no matter how deeply buried in the character’s psyche those impulses might be. Carver’s protagonists in all four of his major story collections are apparent masters of deliberate self-destruction—or at least had been until, like their author, they sobered up and thereafter seemed remarkably unashamed of past debacles. Moreover, the major biographical works on Carver suggest that for decades the author himself was drawn deeper and deeper into “an abyss of his own making” (the phrase is one Carver used to describe Bill Miller’s predicament in “Neighbors”). Carver wrecked his chances at immediate happiness and material advancement—I stress the word immediate—not merely by drinking to excess but also by lying, thieving, cheating, and, at the absolute nadir of his existence, physically and emotionally brutalizing his wife and children.

If the testimony of literature is to be believed, an ancillary outcome of self-destruction is simple destruction or the harming of others. This is a plot element common to tragedy. In Oedipus Rex, for instance, the title character—unaware of having murdered his father, the King of Thebes—brings a plague upon all Thebans. In Antigone, Creon works disaster not just upon himself but also upon his wife, his son, his son’s fiancée, and the citizenry in general. Even Arlene Miller’s tragic error in “Neighbors” denies both her and her husband the fuller, brighter life they had temporarily achieved by imitating the Stones. In other stories Carver’s characters likewise blaze paths of larger destruction originating in acts of self-destruction, as Carver himself did. What is missing in Carver’s biographical narrative and most of his stories, though, is an Aristotelian moment of recognition when the protagonist realizes the enormity of what he has done and, assuming responsibility for the devastation, like Oedipus, forfeits his chance at future happiness. “Tragedies have their fair share of inspiring trumpet calls,” observes Adrian Poole, “though what they inspire is often terror—the trumpet of doom or even the Last Trump.” Bill and Arlene Miller effectively hear that trumpet call as they brace themselves against their neighbors’ locked door, but theirs is an exceptional case in the autobiographical world of Carver’s writing. Carver may have committed many grave errors, but it does not seem that self-recognition and overwhelming misery ensued for him—at any rate, not ultimately. Instead, on the basis of his rendering of destructive experience, Carver became a celebrated author—deemed “tremendously influential” by Charles McGrath, “the most influential writer of his generation” by Ted Solotaroff, and “the greatest short story writer since Hemingway” by Robert Stone. In 2008, a year before the publication of both a major biography by Carol Sklenicka and the Library of America edition of Carver’s collected fiction, Kasia Boddy observed in the London Telegraph, “Twenty years after his early death...


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