Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

Raymond Carver's collection of short stories Will you please be quiet, please? is celebrating its 40th publication anniversary this coming Monday (the 22nd of February). This is a not-so-known short fiction book, but it is rather significant in literary history, since Carver influenced many short story writers to come, offering a new, minimalistic short form, with a different structure and an unconventional approach to writing. Carver left his mark on 20th century literature (and beyond) with his narratives about common people, but he did so by showing us their intimate profiles, twisting the characters inside-out, making us feel a bit uncomfortable, but also fascinated.

The first story in the collection is titled Fat. It has a kind of a double-story structure, since the protagonist (a waitress) tells the readers a story that she has been telling to her friend, Rita, about a fat man who was a guest at the restaurant where she works. The story is a great example of what makes Carver’s fiction so engaging: it is left incomplete, unsaid, unfinished. It has a point at the end, but it is all left to the imagination of the reader, which most certainly creates many different reflections about possible meanings. The waitress feels both fascinated and disgusted by the appearance of this fat man. Gradually, she starts feeling affection for him, which may be explained by his behaviour: he is extremely polite, and a true personification of hedonism. He eats enormous amounts of food, truly enjoying himself, but he is also helpless. He is somewhat peculiar, since he speaks in the first person plural, as if there is just too much of him to be using the singular. All of this is mesmerizing to the waitress, as she starts to feel too small and too ordinary, like just any other average person. It all sheds a different light on her personal life, especially when it comes to the relationship with her boyfriend, Rudy. After thinking about the enormous man’s happiness, the waitress concludes:

It is August. My life is going to change. I can feel it.

The theme of dissatisfaction and wanting something out of reach is also present in a story titled Neighbours. It is a story about two couples who live next door to one another. When Hariet and Jim Stone leave their home for a vacation, their friendly neighbours Bill and Arlene Miller are left responsible for taking care of the Stones’ house and especially their kitty. Feeling discontented with their lives, the Millers have often felt envious of the Stones, because they were once a happy couple, too. Holding the key to the Stones’ home makes the Millers feel like they hold the key to a different life that has always been unattainable. Both Bill and Arlene engage in bizarre conduct in their neighbours’ home – trying out their clothes, drinking their whiskey, or nosing through the cabinets and cupboards. It is interesting that they both do it while hiding it from each other:

After a time the lock released and Arlene stepped outside and shut the door. “Was I gone so long?“ she said. “Well, you were,“ he said. “Was I?“ she said. “I guess I must have been playing with the kitty“.

Living for a while in the home next door felt exciting, so by implicitly pretending to be Hariet and Jim Stone – they added a bit of a spark to their own lives. Characteristic of Carver’s writing, this story can also be interpreted in many ways. Discovering intimate and dark sides of both Bill and Arlene, the author pushes you (as a reader) to a place where you are somewhat forced to feel empathetic. It is all because of the great sadness within the characters and their relationship.

Another geat piece from the collection is a story titled The Student’s Wife. It is also a story about a couple, Mark and Nan. We can sense that they have been together forever, they do love each other. They have kids, but their relationship somehow fell into a gutter as soon as Mark finished college. You could interpret the title that way: Nan is a woman who is desperately trying to communicate with her husband, she is still in that particular time in the past when they were happy and crazy about each other. Mark, on the other hand, feels worn out, tired of everything. He finds her questions tiring, conversations with her feel pointless, and he is actually afraid to remember the past (and her beautifully combed hair), since it is something that is gone and cannot be re-gained. Nan, on the other hand, has faith in this relationship, but is very nostalgic as she struggles hard with insomnia and loneliness:

She tried to regulate her breathing so she could breathe in and out, the same rythm he did, it was no use. The little sound in his nose made everything no use.

Another story, Will you please be quiet, please? is also the title of the collection. Once again, it is about the complex relationship between a man and a woman. Here, the husband (named Ralph) is someone who has always suspected that his wife, Marion, has cheated on him. Ralph is a man who doesn’t quite belong to himself and has always felt like he was a stranger in his own life:

Ralph also took some classes in philosophy and literature and felt himself on the brink of some kind of huge discovery about himself. But it never came.

He starts reminiscing about a party that happened seven years ago, and it turns out that his wife has betrayed him. Once he finds out the truth, everything starts falling apart. Marion also has an urge to get it out in the open. That betrayal has been something that’s been hovering over the couple and weighing them down. Their marriage starts collapsing, and one night Ralph gets drunk and gets unfortunately beaten up after a round of poker. He comes home and asks his wife to be quiet (hence, the very powerful title). He returns to her, after everything, and that is where the complexity of their intimate relationship emerges. Ironically, he asks her to stay quiet, even though he has provoked her to verbalize the truth about her infidelity.

Readers can often be divided into certain categories, based on their preferences. Usually there are the ones who like to read poetry or novels or short stories. If you are stuck in one specific genre (for example, you typically read only novels), but you wish to widen your reading experience, there is no better way to take a step towards becoming an omnivorous reader than by reading this collection of stories. They may be written in a minimalistic manner, but don’t get fooled by their structure or length. They are very revealing, since they expose characters to the reader’s eye. If you read them all at once, they can be a little bit overwhelming, since they always have some sort of silent human desperation as their theme. It may take a bit more time for you to read them through, if you want them to soak in. But they are definitely worth your time, you won’t want to miss any of them!

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