What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
By Mary Park
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is not only the
most well-known short story title of the latter part of the 20th century;
it has come to stand for an entire aesthetic, the bare-bones prose style
for which Raymond Carver became famous. Perhaps, it could be argued, too
famous, at least for his fiction's own good. Like those of Hemingway or
any other writer similarly loved, imitated, parodied, and reviled, these
stories can sometimes produce the sense of reading pastiche. "A man
without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house."
"That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off.
That afternoon she tries to jump out the window." "My friend Mel
McGinnis was talking. Mel is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him
the right." What other writer ever produced first sentences like
these? They are like doors into Carverworld, where everyone speaks in
simple declarative phrases, no one ever stops at one beer, and failure or
violence are the true outcomes of the American dream.
Yet these stories bear careful re-reading, like any truly important and
enduring work. For one thing, Carver is one of the few writers who can
make desperation--cutting your ex-wife's telephone cord in the middle of a
conversation, standing on your own roof chunking rocks while a man with no
hands takes your picture--deeply funny. Then there is the sheer
craft that went into their creation. Despite their seeming simplicity, his
tales are as artfully constructed as poems--and like poems, the best of
them can make your breath catch in your throat. In the title piece, for
instance, after the gin has been drunk, after the stories have been told,
after the tensions in the room have come to the surface and subsided
again, there comes a moment of strange lightness and peace: "I could
hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the
human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the
room went dark."
Much of what happens in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
(1981) happens offstage, and we're left with tragedy's props: booze,
instant coffee, furniture from a failed marriage, cigarettes smoked in the
middle of the night. This is not merely a matter of technique. Carver
leaves out a great deal, but that's only a measure of his characters'
vulnerability, the nerve endings his stories lay bare. To say anything
more, one feels, would simply hurt too much.