The legendary American writer Raymond Carver is best known for minimalism in linguistic style and narration, and has produced several short story collections that validate this reputation. Which is why a story entitled “Fat” seems ironic, until one actually reads the piece. “Fat” is absolutely non-descriptive of the technical attributes of the story, with its length only under six pages of large text. But the subject, theme, and meanings employed in the writing are definitely more than ample, and create a “fat” basis for a number of concepts and insights.
Carver’s story discusses the often-ridiculed idea of fat or excess in imagery and symbolic devices that equate it with sensuality and satisfaction. The story is told in first-person to a woman named Rita, by a nameless narrator who is established to be a waitress at a restaurant. As she and her work colleagues carry out their tasks of serving customers, she notices a guest who appears to be on the extreme side of big. She serves him a full meal, composed of several courses, and is fascinated by the way he eats.
While the rest of the staff proclaims their amazement at the overwhelming size of the man, the narrator continues to present serving after serving of food that are quickly devoured. But as her attention is completely captured by the man, her apparent lover Rudy, who also works at the restaurant, notices the connection between his girl and the overweight customer. Later, the narrator shares her bed with Rudy, she acknowledges an unexplained change in her attitude. She merely tells Rita, who appears to have neither empathy nor understanding of what the narrator is saying, that she feels her life is about to change.
The narrator, in the beginning of the story, narrates her impression of the fat man, in retrospect. She sees him initially way all others do, who never go beyond the surprise of seeing such a size. But because she paid more attention to the man, she began to notice subtle things bout him, like being “neat-appearing and well-dressed” (Carver, 1988, p. 64). Then she begins to note more details about the man, particularly his fingers, which were “long, thick, creamy” (Carver, p. 64), and the strangeness about the way he spoke.
The fat man, as described by the narrator, seemed to have a way with words the same way he had a manner of eating—proper yet to the point, accompanied by the stereotype voracious appetite that came with an untypical style of savoring even the descriptions of the food he ordered. Compare this to Rudy, the narrator’s lover, who is described as one who takes orders “with a face” (Carver, p. 65). This shows his normal disposition, which, in contrast to the fat man, is clearly defined by discontentment and unhappiness in the job at hand.
A woman named Margo is mentioned, the “one who chases Rudy” (Carver, p. 65), is quick to judge the fat man by calling him a “fatty” (Carver, p. 65). Such a description associates her dislike of fat with her like of Rudy, which forms the conclusion that Rudy is most likely physically attractive in the conventional concept. Rita, the friend to whom the narrator is relating the story, is not shown to give any opinion about the situation at the start, but the setting of the conversation, “over coffee and cigarettes” (Carver, p. 64), gives an impression of a woman who has no major affinities for food or eating, since coffee and cigarettes are normally associated with a lifestyle that puts either thought or an unhealthy maintenance of physical appearance as a priority.
The narrator continues her exchange with the fat man as she serves the rest of the meal, with allusions of sensuality that may be contextualized as foreplay in sex. She sees him “watching my every move” (Carver, p. 65), which destroys the usually mindless routine of preparing and serving food.
The man continues to give her detailed praise of each course, which he finishes as soon as it is served. He also says “we don’t eat like this all the time” (Carver, p. 66), which adds to the appreciation that may be paralleled with the narrator’s own feelings about herself, with the food she offers symbolizing her own body. She tells him, “I like to see a man eat and enjoy himself” (Carver, p. 66), which already gives a clearer idea of how the narrator sees the experience as novel and unfamiliar, yet exciting and completely satisfactory.
She obviously finds enjoyment in observing the sensual manner that the man’s ritual of eating connotes, which is further confirmed by her actions, such as dropping “lots of sour cream onto his potato” (Carver, p. 66). Even the temperature in the restaurant seems to change, as she tells the man that “it is warm in here” (Carver, p. 66). She later tells him that “I eat and eat but I can’t gain” (Carver, p. 68), which is a thinly veiled admission of the unsatisfactory state of her sexual relations with Rudy.
At this point, Rita gives her view of things, when she sarcastically quips that the man “is not the kind of person you’d forget” (Carver, p. 66). This then confirms Rita’s disgust of obesity, by simply judging the story being told on the basis of the superficiality of one’s size. Rudy, on the other hand, strangely pokes fun at the narrator about the attention she has been giving the fat man—almost like he knew of her increasing attraction to the ideas represented by the customer. Later, when the narrator and Rudy are back home, the narrator contemplates on her own reality and her apparently transformed opinions about fatness.
She thinks about this in terms of having fat children—which could be interpreted as an exploration of the possibility of her having sex with the fat man, and produce offspring with the same qualities. Rudy’s recalling childhood acquaintances who were fat is an attempt at bridging the newly-formed gap between him and the narrator, and, compared to the skill of the fat man in manner and words that could be seen as caressing and romancing, Rudy fails miserably. This is to be the prelude to the sex act that the narrator and Rudy would normally engage in, which turns out this time to be unsatisfactory for the narrator.
She mentions how that particular sex with Rudy was against her will, and that she felt “terrifically fat, so that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly here at all” (Carver, p. 69). It may be concluded that her experience with the fat man, albeit strictly within the lines of customer interaction, changed her concept of satisfaction and pleasure. Seeing herself as fat puts her on a level where she can continue her mental consummation with the fat man, and in turn negates the presence of Rudy and the mediocre, simplistic life he represents.
Superficiality is Rudy’s main theme, one that is closely connected to a self-absorption that dismisses giving pleasure to others. Rita, at the end of the narrator’s story, finds the whole thing funny—an statement that at once lumps her with Rudy and the rest of the group, plagues with a generous amount of conceit and shallowness that fail to see beyond appearances. Like Rudy, Rita also falls short of being able to find pleasure in things not literally connected to sex or conventional beauty, as well as the inability to recognize sensuality.
The narrator finishes her story by acknowledging how Rita is unable to understand her thoughts of depression, which stem from her realization of Rudy as a substandard partner. She refers to the time of the year, being August, and that she knows her “life is going to change” (Carver, p. 69). Many connotations may be derived by the mention of the particular month, but by following the events that precede the statement one may assume that the narrator is talking about a plan that she is about to carry out through a very definite timetable.
This could even mean conceiving a child, since she had mentioned it earlier, and is the ultimate product of the sensual and sexual references throughout the story. While this may not necessarily imply her having sexual relations with the fat man, this could pertain to the narrator’s making new choices—according to her newfound sensuality, and excluding Rudy. Carver’s use of an utterly simple narrative—one woman talking to another—echoes typical female talk about intimacy and sex, without making it graphic and purposeful, the way stereotype male dialogue about sex is often portrayed.
Also, using food, including its preparation, serving, and consumption, as a device to symbolize sensuality is a style commonly appropriated by many writers. However, Carver went against the taboo of obesity by showcasing it as a positive quality, as a vehicle for the pleasure and satisfaction derived from food. Rudy and Rita are but references to the constant elements present in one’s life that seem to be necessary, yet do not bring any pleasure or contentment.
The arrival of the fat man in the picture shows the realm of possibilities that can be had, only if one manages to see beyond the stigma assigned to supposedly negative concepts. Pleasure, satisfaction, and contentment, in this case, are realized by a form of sensuality that takes place in the mind but has effects that reach the body—only if one has the ability to see beauty beyond its conventional definition.
Work Cited Carver, Raymond. “Fat”. Where I’m Calling From: Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
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