The seventeen stories that comprise the collection of Robert Carver in the anthology titled Beginners all reveal the extent to which his writing is profoundly influenced by Ernest Hemingway. From the opener “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the closer “One More Thing” not only are each of these tales the very literal definition of a “short” story, they also exemplify how Carver took to the heart Hemingway’s preference for a style he quite appropriately termed the “iceberg” approach to story construction. The reader is offered just a bare minimum of information directly through the narrative and is charged with diving through the surface of the story to discover the wealth of meaning lying beneath.
When not done well or with a lack of artistic focus—as with much of the work of Hemingway, ironically—the result of offering readers only a small portion of what is seen compared to what is unseen can be a dangerous game. Carver, by contrast, remains in such precise control of the information that would be considered the visible part of the iceberg that the process of reading in order to get at the part of the iceberg that is hidden from view become something of a celebration of the joys of literature. Even so, the presumption that readers will be intellectually endowed enough to penetrate through to what isn’t made explicit is always the most dangerous game for an author.
Beginners is a definitive example of the concept that “less is more.” While Carver’s minimalist techniques are informed by the Modernist literary movement of which Hemingway was at the vanguard, he cannot himself authentically be characterized as a product of Modernism. Carver’s stripped-down formula for short-story construction is a direct response to his position within that group of writers who came of age in the wake of World War II and which led directly to experimentations eventually given the name Postmodern. Like the bulk of Carver’s work, the story contained in this collection are populated by characters struggling to make sense of themselves within a society coming to terms with being the most powerful force in the history of the world.
The reaction to that acknowledgment of being a part of something special and endowed with an undefinable purpose is expressed in Carver’s prose in the form of characters besieged by feelings of guilt, alienation, difficult finding a path toward belonging and a desire to connect that is all too often obstructed by revulsion toward direct discourse. The people in these stories are almost universally struggling in their relationships direct as a result of an inability to communicate. As a result, much of the subtext of these fragmented relationships winds up being portrayed through a technique that reflects the dissociative nature of their psyches. At some point in each story, at least one character is forced to confront the psychological distance existing between them and those they love by examining how they have failed.
One of the great paradoxes of the “iceberg” approach to writing is that the mechanics of language are usually far more simple than more densely written fiction like that of Faulkner or even Stephen King, yet is more frustrating for some to read precisely because part of the job of understanding has been handed over to the reader. The words are simple, the sentences declarative and the paragraphs short throughout Beginners, but because what Carver hasn’t written is every bit as important as what he has, understanding can easily be subverted. Or, in other words, form follows function as it is what his characters do not say in these stories that creates such a barrier to communication and connection between them.