The English Section: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
I’m going to write a little bit about Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and then I’m going to throw all caution and fear to the wind and put some short fiction on here instead of a full essay. I’m doing this partly because the fiction is done and has been done for a while and I’m sick and don’t want to look at a computer any longer. I’m also doing it because it’s short fiction, and what better time to throw out some short fiction than when you’ve just read Carver?
A few thoughts on WYPBQP:
After reading the first story — “Fat” — I was blown away at the tension Carver created, the way he could make a story so static while still making the reader, like the narrator, feel on the verge of something really important.
Carver does that again in the next story. And again. The whole book is a collection of beginnings, of creeping up to the edge of some great change. And, in many ways because of this, the stories are wrought with social anxiety. Many could be categorized as psychological thriller (I couldn’t stop thinking about how badly I wanted to see “Queen of Earth” when reading the book).
At times, though, the stories felt almost too formulaic. Stories of men alone in rooms or walking down the street or sitting in a bar worrying started to blend together, ultimately stealing any good away each other.
But other pieces were like bullets to the stomach. The story “What’s In Alaska?” unfolds beautifully, as Carver captures all of the hilarity and paranoia of getting high with your friends, then slowly transforms it into real fear, as — through the fog of pot smoke — a man begins to realize his wife is likely sleeping with his best friend.
What I like most about Carver is that he never feels the need to wrap things up before the story ends. There is never a resolution with Carver — just a glimpse into something bigger. And that contributes to Carver’s realism as much as (if not more than) the dirty ashtrays and ugly bodies and murky rivers, doesn’t it?
Okay. And now, here’s a story of my own:
When Annie went to airports, they had to schedule in extra time. She saw the humor in this — that a pacemaker would slow her down in the security line. “Do you think if I could crank this thing up I could make everyone move faster?” she joked to her husband on their first flight after the surgery. She pointed to the rounded square of flesh protruding from her chest, a skin-bound box just below her left collarbone.
Her husband didn’t laugh. He was too worried about Annie flying. They’d never taken the pacemaker through security, up 30,000 feet or all the way to Denver. Annie was never one to worry, so he had to do it for her. He had to make sure she was ushered away from the magnetic machinery as they took off their shoes and got out their bag of toiletries. He had to make sure a wheelchair was waiting for her at the airport in Houston, in case the flight was late and layover too short. And he worried about Denver, what he and his wife would find when they got there. It had been two years since they’d last seen their son and three weeks since they’d spoken. A sudden and painful heat reemerged in his ears as he thought about that last call. He placed his cell phone in a grey plastic bin on the conveyor belt.
X-rays of purses and briefcases scrolled by on a nearby screen, anatomies of pilgrimages made visible for just a moment. Nearby, Annie felt a similar rush of heat to the face, hers from embarrassment rather than anger. A security guard was patting her down, the only alternative to body scans. She forced a smile and waved to her husband as he passed through the scanner. She knew he thought otherwise, but Annie did worry. She worried all the time, first about her son but now, more and more, about her heart. Annie never expected she’d spend so much time thinking about the box that had been implanted in her chest. She knew she’d never be able to go through metal detectors but didn’t anticipate how it would make her feel.
She didn’t know it would feel like a gift she didn’t ask for, a quiet reminder that the contents of her body are no longer only hers, but also a medical company’s in New Jersey. What bothered her the most wasn’t the idea of mortality — she’d come to terms with death years ago, when her heart problems began — but that a little piece of TYRX Inc. lies just beneath her skin. Her muscle had betrayed her, recruiting outside help she didn’t welcome, she didn’t want. The security guard ran his gloved hands down each of her calves and let her go.
Aside from Annie’s comment in line, the pair had been silent for most of the day. Avoiding talking about their reason for travel let them pretend, for just a few hours, they were headed on vacation. When they boarded the plane, the pilot’s announcement about heading to “sunny Denver” felt like a cruel joke. They finally spoke while a flight attendant mimed safety procedures, buckling and unbuckling fake seatbelts, as if no one on the plane had ever seen a seatbelt before.
It was a conversation they’d had so many times already: If He’s In Jail Do We Bail Him Out and What If He’s Gotten Into Something More Serious, choreographed with heaved sighs and palms pressed into eye sockets. An orange deflated safety vest waved like a surrender flag from the attendant’s arms near the cockpit. Next came What Did He Say Last Time You Talked, then Where Did We Go Wrong, asked almost rhetorically by now. A voice overhead emphasized putting on your oxygen mask before assisting others.
“I just don’t know what to do about him,” her husband finally said, head in hands. “He doesn’t feel like ours anymore.”
She didn’t know what to say, how to explain. The pilot chimed in to ask that all electronic devices be turned off. Placing a hand on his back, Annie closed her eyes and told her husband not to worry.