In the story “Viewfinder” by Raymond Carver, a nameless homeowner invites a man who has just taken a picture of his house in for coffee. He directs the handless man to his restroom and looks at the photo while he waits, surprised to see his own face in the window. The man comes out of the restroom, comments on the homeowner’s loneliness, and asks, not for the first time, if he wants to buy the picture. The homeowner attempts to make conversation by asking about some neighborhood kids, and the conversation turns to the handless man’s state of loneliness, and back again to the homeowner’s. When the handless photographer says that he sympathizes with him, he asks him to prove it by taking more pictures of him. They take many more pictures around the house until he asks to go onto the roof for a final picture. He climbs a stool, discovers some rocks the kids tried to through in his chimney, and chucks one off the roof while the photographer takes a picture, asking for another picture soon after.
There are many elements of this story that made it stand out to me. For instance, there is insanely little exposition, like so little. Even the unveiling of the chronic tension is not done through exposition or breaking away from the story at all, it is purely exposed through dialogue, one-sided dialogue I’d like to mention, and reveals information not only about the hooked-handed man who is speaking but the homeowner as well.
Although there are definitely some subtler hints dropped earlier (which I’ll get to) the first, most direct mention of the chronic tension comes when the photographer walks into the living room from the bathroom and says “You’re alone, right?” which the homeowner only responds to with “Drink your coffee.” This we may even pass by until he delves insistently deeper when he says, “So, they just up and left you right?” which, again, the homeowner does not respond to. These references only mention the homeowner’s side of the chronic tension, which I feel is intertwined with the information we receive in this quote:
“Me, I keep a room downtown. It’s okay. I take a bus out, and after I’ve worked the neighborhoods, I go to another downtown. You see what I’m saying? Hey, I had kids once. Just like you.”
Now, we know that the shared experiences of losing their families bring the two together. This ultimately leads us to the moment where the acute tension of the interaction between the two of them and the chronic tension of their respective losses meet so sweetly:
“… I sympathize.”
“Show me. Show me how much. Take more pictures of me and my house.”
It seems here that the dynamic between the two of them has switched so the homeowner is the one demanding pictures just as the handless man demanded information. By now, the chronic tension is doing its best work to fuel the acute tension through the end.
The second feature of this little story I tracked was significant detail or symbolism, also the second thing that intrigued me about this story. You know a story is good when the major symbols are hooks, Jell-O, and rocks.
The detail of the man’s handless-ness is no hastily thrown in tidbit meant to keep readers interested (though it does, for sure); it is an objective correlative (or uses the objective correlative?) by representing the man’s loss physically and spurring the homeowner to invite him in because he “wanted to see how he would hold a cup.” It also seemed like this offer of coffee was an excuse to talk to another person, especially since it is some random man with hooks for hands who just took a picture of his house.
Another concrete detail comes from the line, “I’d just made some Jell-O, too. But I didn’t tell the man I did.” Like he was just desperate enough to offer the man coffee to talk to him, but not desperate enough to share his Jell-O. To me, Jell-O represents something so personal and juvenile, as it is something I can only imagine one would eat with their small children or at three o’clock in the morning all alone, that I immediately felt bad for this Jell-O making loner. Later, the Jell-O is mentioned again:
“I had a headache. I know coffee’s no good for it, but sometimes Jell-O helps.”
This says to me that the coffee, a metaphor for their (and in general human) interaction, was not what was going to help him, it was the Jell-O, turning inwards and releasing his frustration by doing something silly (like throwing rocks off of the roof) that would ultimately make him feel better.
Finally, the two go outside and the photographer takes many more pictures of the homeowner. The homeowner insists on going up to the roof where he finds rocks thrown by children. He then hurls them off of the roof, symbolizing his letting go of his loneliness and resentment towards his family for leaving him, which in the end helped him more than talking to someone who had a similar experience. He is also utilizing what he still has that the photographer does not, a part of himself, his physical hands.
I think these two elements were applied exceptionally well. I can only strive to be so careful with my details and releasing of chronic tension in my own pieces so they all work their hardest for even the shortest of stories. I would also like to mention this tiny phrase: “It was then I saw them.” in reference to the rocks. This little string of words is so useful for indicating to the reader without huge flashing arrows that this is the most important thing that everything amounts to please God pay attention. He uses it to wrap things up so seamlessly.
- What significance does the image of the house hold because the homeowner is in it?
- Do you think the homeowner really thinks taking the pictures will get the kids back or do they do it for some other reason?
- Do you think the photographer really lost his hands because of his children?! (or is it all a metaphor?)