How does Carver create precision of reality
with his characters, focusing on Fires?
When looking at the works of Raymond Carver, one can feel a sense of autobiography, that the characters in his stories are struggling against the same circumstances that Carver himself once struggled through. How true this is, is marginal to say the least, for Carver tells us in Fires that anything from a phone call to living in a seedy apartment in Jerusalem for four months is cause to influence his writing.
But taking this as subject of influence for his stories, one must then look at his characters, who at times more than closely resemble a certain element of Carver himself in a certain situation that Carver has since been in. The essence of the characters make Carvers stories all the more realistic, as you can sense the trials and tribulations that these people have gone through, and are being faced with as we read each page further. In looking at Carvers Fires, a collaborations of essays, poems, and stories, we can see the realism of each character, and in doing so, reflect them upon Carver for some likeness. But is this truly where the characters come from? Are they just a reflection of Carver and his life?
In private desperation, Raymond Carvers characters struggle through their lives, knowing, with occasional clarity, that the “good life” they had once hoped would be achieved through hard work, will not come about. In many ways, Carvers life was the model for all of his characters. Married to Maryann Burke at nineteen, and having two children in the space of seventeen months, the Carvers life was decided for years to come. Early on Carver felt, along with his wife, that hard work would take care of nearly everything.
We had great dreams, my wife and I. We thought we could bow our necks, work very hard, and do all that we set our hearts to do. But we were mistaken. (Fires, p. 31)
Somewhere in the middle of this life of dead end jobs and child raising, he realised, very much like one of his characters, that things would not change. He recounts one of the strongest of these moments in his essay on writing influences, Fires. He was at the laundromat washing clothes and, at this point in the essay, waiting for a dryer:
When and if one of the dryers ever stopped, I planned to rush over to it with my shopping basket of damp clothes. Understand, I’d been hanging around in the laundromat for thirty minutes or so with this basketful of clothes, waiting for my chance. I’d already missed out on a couple of dryers- somebody‘d gotten there first. I was getting frantic….. even if I could get my clothes into the dryer it would still be another hour or more before the clothes would dry….. Finally a dryer came to a stop and I was right there when it did….. This woman put her hand into the machine and took hold of some items of clothing. But they weren’t dry enough, she decided. She closed the door and put two more dimes into the machine….. I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feeling of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing….. could possibly be as important to me….. as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction. (Fires, pp. 32, 33)
This sort of epiphany is what Carver deals with in almost all his stories- the daily responsibilities of life weighing down on one’s shoulders when nothing is certain, not one’s marriage, one’s sobriety, not even a dryer to finish drying the clothes. “ Almost all the characters in my stories come to the point where they realise that compromise, giving in, plays a major role in their lives,” Carver said. “ Then one single moment of revelation disrupts the pattern of their daily lives. It’s a fleeting moment during which they don’t want to compromise any more. And afterwards they realise that nothing ever really changes”. (Gentry, p.80)
And Carver has been to that point. Looked it in the face and thrown an empty Vodka bottle at it then sat down and wrote about each piece of shattered glass, and the effort to put it back together. It’s because Carver has been there, that he is able to write about such things as he does. His first hand perception, which he gives to his characters, brings them to life, and leaves a flavour of autobiography lingering in his stories. Parallels can be drawn between Carver and his characters, despite his resurgence in denying basing them on himself. This can be seen in the story Where is Everyone? The narrator of the story is a self-proclaimed alcoholic and through the course of the story confronts the many vices of alcoholism. This struggle also plagued Carvers life, and one that he also succumbed to.
More than once Carver has been criticised for condescending to his characters, or dealing with them ironically. He flatly denies this stance at every opportunity. “ I’m not talking down to my characters, of holding them up for ridicule, or slyly doing an end run around them. I’m much more interested in my characters, in the people in my story, than I am in any potential reader. I’m comfortable with irony if it is at the expense of someone else, if it hurts the characters” (Gentry, p.185) If he had condescended to his characters then he would had to have condemned the first forty years of his own life for his ordinariness. “ I do know something about the life of the underclass and what it feels like, by virtue of having lived it myself for so long,” he said. “Half my family is still living like this. They still don’t know how they are going to make it through the next month or two”. (Gentry, p.138)
The precision found in Carver’s writing comes from Carver himself, his experiences, his rises, and his downfalls. Carver’s stories changed with his life, and his characters reflect this. We can say a certain percentage of his stories dealt with the working poor, or alcoholics out of work, or adulterers. Or we can say that overall he dealt with people who had no hope, or little hope. He once said, “It’s strange. You never start out life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.” (Gentry, p.38) At one time Carver was all of these. And so were his characters.
Carver, R (1997)
Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories
The Harvill Press: London
Gentry, M.B., Stull, W.L., eds.(1990)
Conversations with Raymond Carver
University Press of Mississippi: Jackson
Nesset, K (1995)
The Stories of Raymond Carver-A Critical Study
Ohio University Press: Athens