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You were starved, she said, still laughing. Plenty of obvious reasons, of course, explain why the request gladdened me so much.
It is always gratifying to find scholars and students elsewhere in the world taking an interest in my writing on food, race, and literature.
Literary figurations of food and eating, after all, are rarely just incidental. Perhaps it goes without saying that, in the pages that follow, I aim to demonstrate the truth of this observation.
But the invitation also pleased me because it caught me right on the brink of beginning my next book. Embarking on a long work is, for me, a time to be expansive—to get the words onto the page without worrying unduly about the editing that lies ahead.
It will, I hope, allow me to write in the more open and impressionistic way that I find works best at the start of new research. It will, above all, allow me to consider more subjective matters and spend some time here reflecting on the relationship between my own cultural situation and the research issue that now occupies me.
And I am keen to get this done. For my next book will be about US figurations of overconsumption, and particularly of overeating, and the days when Europeans could dismiss obesity as a peculiarly American epidemic are, of course, long behind us. With this observation, however, a troubling question presents itself: Does the international spread of the obesity epidemic owe anything to that other global phenomenon that we long ago learnt to call Americanisation?
Is the former, somehow, travelling on the coattails of the latter? The particular ways in which that culture reinvents pleasure, assimilating it into a Puritanical paradigm of temptation and guilt, might affect me very differently from someone living in the United States itself; but they affect me nonetheless.
Or maybe I have just been reading too much Raymond Carver. Anyone wishing to make that kind of argument, indeed, could easily build up a comparison between Starbucks and other global corporations, from IKEA to Sony, to deliver a vision of a postnational consumerist culture with only the loosest American ties.
It would have to deal with the fact that both establishments accommodate still more possibilities, the diner cooking eggs and the coffee shop brewing coffee in endless, passionately individuated, variation. And it would have to deal, above all, with what I think is the most striking characteristic that these establishments hold in common: the fact that both require customers to resist, to exercise restraint, and to all but overlook vast sections of the menu—unless, of course, they want to get, or stay, fat.
Somehow or other, whenever diners appear in this collection, Carver finds a way of suggesting that their menus are traps: culinary sirens, promising satiety, that tempt customers towards the rocky shores of calorific excess.
His eyes are trained on the moral power of the frugal order, of the basic sandwich requested in the face of the fattening smorgasbord. As in Starbucks, where they make something of a secret of their regular coffee, Carver suggests that simple orders manage to defy the menu even as they can command moral approval. This dynamic—what we might think of as the Puritan theatrics of the diner—frequently grows apparent in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
For they suggest that, if anything, the opposite is true. And working independently, still languishing in obscurity, Carver in this story grasps the diner counter as a threshold for scopophilia of a more immediate, interpersonal kind.
Figure 1 can help us to visualise this. Here, without commenting on the strangers in the photograph they are just sitting there, after all! This, then, is the context for the peculiar embarrassment that Earl feels when his wife fails to provide his two fellow male diners with the scopophilic experience that all three expect from this performative setting: Earl drank his coffee and waited for the sandwich.
Two men in business suits, their ties undone, their collars open, sat down next to him and asked for coffee. Around the sandwich there were French fries, coleslaw, dill pickle. He shook his head when she kept standing there. She came back with the pot and poured coffee for him and for the two men. Then she picked up a dish and turned to get some ice cream. She reached down into the container and with the dipper began to scoop up the ice cream.
The white skirt yanked against her hips and crawled up her legs. What showed was girdle, and it was pink, thighs that were rumpled and gray and a little hairy, and veins that spread in a berserk display.
One of them raised his eyebrows. The other man grinned and kept looking at Doreen over his cup as she spooned chocolate syrup over the ice cream. When she began shaking the can of whipped cream, Earl got up, leaving his food, and headed for the door.
He heard her call his name, but he kept going. Here, on the contrary, Carver is at his most withering, empathising with someone who, to some of his contemporary male writers, all too often appeared invisible.
He achieves this, allying the narrative with Doreen, not by harnessing her voice or otherwise imagining himself into her female viewpoint but by watching those who watch her. Significant observational details seem to delegate moral judgement to us as readers; at the same time, though, they surely steer us towards one judgement in particular.
And it is, if anything, harder still not to notice the sheer injustice in the power he and his friend wield, their casual assumption of the right to talk dirty. One of the striking things about this image is the way in which it rejects its own temporal subversion. By this I mean that the image, at least as it is viewed by the three men, subverts time insofar as it seems to compress into a single present both the anticipation of indulgence and its future impact on the body.
To this extent, however, the image, of course, proves misleading. What the men see as the legacy of greed appears to us, thanks to the wider picture that the story brings into focus, the consequence of a stressful situation that has left Doreen exhausted and in close proximity to bad, unhealthy food.
Several stylistic echoes exist between the two, helping them to deliver a mutual vision of the power of temptation and judgement in the American diner. They were tubbies, my God. He is just putting the last piece of bread into his mouth. And puffs. I like to see a man eat and enjoy himself, I say. He arranges the napkin. Then he picks up his spoon.
In both, Carver begins by drawing attention to the investment in guilt and temptation in the diner and presents it as a place of bodily judgement.
Having established this, he then shows why some of these judgements, and the assumptions behind them, are flawed. Carver seems to suggest that they find self-validation, self-reinforcement, through their luxuriant horror at his gargantuan, grotesque body. But their disgust, operating in this way, can not only reveal that the personal freedoms of the American diner have a limit and indicate that the choices on the menu are meant to perform a symbolic rather than a practical function.
Nobody Loves a Fat Man! The fat man, after all, disclaims enjoyment. Bill and Arlene, in fact, begin to assume the identities of the Stones; "each finds this strangely stimulating, and their sex life prospers, though neither can find anything much to say about it at all," reports Edwards. The end of the story finds the Millers clinging to the Stones' door as their neighbors return, knowing that their rich fantasy life will soon end.
The author's "first book of stories explored a common plight rather than a common subject," notes New York Times Book Review critic Michael Wood.
The 17 stories in [Carver's third collection, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love], make up a more concentrated volume, less a collection than a set of variations on the themes of marriage, infidelity and the disquieting tricks of human affection.
In his New York Times review of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Broyard criticizes what he calls "the most flagrant and common imposition in current fiction, to end a story with a sententious ambiguity that leaves the reader holding the bag.
So he must make his endings enigmatic and even mildly surrealist, and his titles for the most part oblique. Sometimes he over-compensates. Prescott feels that all seventeen stories in Carver's third collection "are excellent, and each gives the impression that it could not have been written more forcefully, or in fewer words.
Some of his stories take place at the moment things fall apart; others, after the damage has been done, while the shock waves still reverberate.
Alcohol and violence are rarely far removed from what happens, but sometimes, in another characteristic maneuver, Carver will nudge the drama that triggers a crisis aside to show that his story has really been about something else all along. His rhythms are often repetitive or brusque, as if to suggest the strain of people learning to express newly felt things, fresh emotions.
Time passes in agonizingly linear fashion, the chronology of a given scene marked by one fraught and simple gesture after another. Dialogue is usually clipped, and it is studded with commonplace observations of the concrete objects on the table or on the wall rather than the elusive, important issues in the air.
In each story, a "note of transcendent indifference, beyond resignation or fatigue, is sounded," adds Lehman, cautioning, "fun to read they're not. The original story, "The Bath," is about a mother who orders a special cake for her eight-year-old son's birthday—but the boy is hit by a car on that day and is rushed to the hospital, where he lingers in a coma. The baker, aware only that the parents haven't picked up their expensive cake, badgers them with endless calls demanding his money.
As the story ends, the boy's fate is still unknown, and the desperate parents hear the phone ring again. In Cathedral, the author retells this story now titled "A Small, Good Thing" up to the final phone ring. At this point, ambiguity vanishes; Carver reveals that the boy has died, and the call is from the irate baker.
But this time the parents confront the baker with the circumstances, and the apologetic man invites them over to his bakery. There he tells the parents his own sad story of loneliness and despair and feeds them fresh coffee and warm rolls, because "eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.
But in the second version that voice becomes a person, one whose own losses are, in different ways, as crippling and heartbreaking as the one suffered by the grieving parents. Carver's stories that comfort against adversity is found in incongruous places, that people find improbable solace. The improbable and the homely are [the author's] territory.
He works in the bargain basement of the soul.
Perhaps because he doesn't quite trust the sense of hope with which he leaves his characters, the writing at the end becomes self-consciously simple and the scenes of resolution contrived. Like a missionary, Mr. Carver seems to be gradually reclaiming or redeeming his characters. Formally, they summon remembrances of Hemingway and perhaps Stephen Crane , masters of tightly packed fiction.
In subject matter they draw upon the American voice of loneliness and stoicism, the native soul locked in this continent's space. His most memorable people live on the edge: of poverty, alcoholic self-destruction, loneliness.
Something in their lives denies them a sense of community. They feel this lack intensely, yet are too wary of intimacy to touch other people, even with language. He told Weber: "Until I started reading these reviews of my work, praising me, I never felt the people I was writing about were so bad. The waitress, the bus driver, the mechanic, the hotel keeper.