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Review: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

My second reading of Raymond Carver's first collection of stories re-confirmed Carver's stature as one of the all-time great short story writers.

When I was first considering writing in earnest, I went through a brief phase where I read all of Raymond Carver's stories. It wasn't that large an undertaking considering Carver had only published three and a half collections (Where I'm Calling From was mostly repeats from his previous three collections). My vague memory of reading Carver was that I'd found the stories to be very moving and that I enjoyed the straightforward style of the writing. In the fifteen years since, there were a handful of Carver stories I'd revisited in various writing workshops (Carver is a workshop staple), but I'd never gone back and re-read him in any concentrated way. Recently, I decided to change that and re-read his first collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? to see if I might get something different from his work now that I have an extra decade and a half of reading and writing experience under my belt.

The act of re-reading Raymond Carver in 2019 is a bit like going back to re-watch The Matrix after two decades of action filmmakers have shamelessly ripped off the slow-motion, rotating-camera, action sequences that made the original so mind blowing. Which is all to say, it's nearly impossible to fully appreciate how fresh Carver must have felt when he was first published because generations of authors and MFA students (myself included) have subsequently tried to emulate his style. The style under discussion isn't entirely Carver's own, of course (no style, however revolutionary, is ever a writer's own). Instead it seems to be a kind of riff off the unadorned, no-frills prose initially made famous by Hemingway. However, whereas Hemingway's protagonists often consist of heroic and stoic ex-pats traveling abroad, Carver's characters are almost entirely made up of blue collar Americans living lives of quiet desperation.

Carver's stories are famous for their subtlety and how they give readers a gut punch through what they suggest is going on in their characters' lives. Many of stories in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? do just this. But lost in all this talk of subtlety is the fact that several of the stories in the collection are just hit-you-over-the-head powerful. One that particularly stood out--and which I can't believe I didn't remember from my first reading--was "Why, Honey?" in which a mother recounts her son's dark upbringing, and which the reader eventually realizes is a kind of horror story (I won't spoil it by saying more). Other favorites included "Fat," which opens the collection, "Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets," and the titular, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" That said, the collection is strong from top to bottom, so readers might as well read the whole thing.

I don't plan on revisiting Carver's other collections just yet, although I hope to do so later in the year. From my initial reading of Carver's oeuvre, I vaguely recall liking his other two collections (Cathedral and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) even more. Assuming that's still the case, then I suppose I'm in for a treat whenever I get to revisiting those two books.


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