There are many writers that employ a style of simplicity. Raymond Carver, however, takes this craft style to another level. His story, “Where I’m Calling From,” reads more like a newspaper article than a creative short story. Carver gives us only the details that tell the most necessary and straight-to-the-point information. When he talks about a man coming out to smoke, he says, “It’s cold out, but not too cold. It’s a little overcast. At one point Frank Martin comes outside to finish his cigar. He has on a sweater buttoned up to his Adam’s apple. Frank Martin is short and heavyset. He has curly gray hair and a small head. His head is out of proportion with the rest of his body.” There is no flowery description that goes on and on. We don’t see breath coming out of the man to tell us it’s cold. There is no color or style description of the sweater. Is it out of date? Is it too small or too big? Does it make him look like an apple, all red and round with his overweight stomach? Carver leaves these more visual details aside and gives us plain facts.
This short story is discussed in full detail below, so you may want to read it here before continuing.
There is also no emotion described. The moment comes when the narrator will make a phone call to his wife: “I’ll try my wife first. If she answers, I’ll wish her a Happy New Year. But that’s it. I won’t bring up business. I won’t raise my voice. Not even if she starts something. She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I’ll have to tell her. I won’t say anything about New Year’s resolutions. There’s no way to make a joke out of this.” In these few sentences, we’re told nothing of the man’s feelings. Is he nervous to call her? Will she be mad? There seems to be more there under the surface when he hints at the possible volatile nature the call could take. He promises himself he will not “bring up business” or “make a joke out of this,” but the narrator doesn’t seem to think his wife will be worried about him or his whereabouts. He mentions that he will have to tell his wife, but when he mentions calling his girlfriend, he imagines a much more carefree attitude where he’ll say to her, “Hello, sugar . . . It’s me.” That is, as long as her “mouthy son” doesn’t answer the phone. It’s clear there is much happening behind the scenes with this character, but we are left to fill in the details on our own.
Then, in a paragraph that seems almost out of character, Carver includes a story from a man’s childhood in which he describes the scene of falling into a well with specific detail and emotion. He tells us, “He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him” and that “He’d suffered all kinds of terror in that well, hollering for help, waiting, and then hollering some more.” Shall the reader assume, since such effort was put into this scene that takes up so much of the very short story, that we are to take it as something like a metaphor? Perhaps Carver intends for us to see the drunken narrator as the boy in the well, having hit bottom and looking up at a beautiful place he cannot reach. Perhaps the narrator is the one calling out for help, filled with terror, waiting for someone to come along and hand him a rope by which to pull himself out of the hole. Perhaps Carver’s entire plan is to make us imagine and think about the characters’ motivations, to allow us to apply our own details to the experience in the story without getting in the way of how each reader will interpret it.
My rating: 3 out of 5 = liked it