What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a collection of seventeen short stories that deal with middle-class people facing their own truths, coping with their respective losses, and watching love come in and go out of their lives. These people are the people that one is most likely to run into across the road, at the barber shop, bakery, hospital, any ordinary place. They may be doing the most mundane things that one could ever think of, but in this book, they are masterfully celebrated as the forces that propel this life.
I first heard of Raymond Carver from a local writer who used to host literary contests at her blog. She commented on the Carver-esque entries of one dutiful participant, saying that he should try working on endings that sound more like his instead of Carver’s. A sort of envy settled in me; to be compared to a great writer is most flattering and deeply humbling.
I made a mental note to explore him to find out what makes up a Carver story. After finishing this collection, I realized it: Carver’s short stories end like a car crash. Driving is very smooth, traffic signs appear here and there, but at the slightest turn, they end.
That was in Crescent City, California, up near the Oregon border. I left soon after. But today I was thinking of that place, of Crescent City, and of how I was trying out a new life there with my wife, and how, in the barber’s chair that morning, I had made up my mind to go. I was thinking today about the calm I felt when I closed my eyes and let the barber’s fingers move through my hair, the sweetness of those fingers, the hair already starting to grow.
The writing is straightforward: clear, precise, unsentimental. And yet, Carver proves that simplicity and brevity are powerful virtues in literature. In the first three stories, we see three different men enduring their relative lonesomeness. The first puts up a yard sale and sells furniture meant for two (Why Don’t You Dance?), the second unconsciously fills all the space in his house until a man takes a picture of it (Viewfinder), and the third tries to reconnect with his wife who would only let him hug her if he washes his hands (Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit).
[The father gazed at his son, the small chest inflating and deflating under the covers. He felt more fear now. He began shaking his head. He talked to himself like this. The child is fine. Instead of sleeping at home, he’s doing it here. Sleep is the same wherever you do it.]
These three show us neighborly sketches of more or less unsuccessful marriages and I daresay that this theme is further magnified in the fourth (Gazebo) as we take a peek into the mismanaged jobs and affairs of a couple. And then we further read stories about love manifesting within families and between friends: parents waiting for their son to wake up from a possible coma (The Bath), parents distressed by an unusual crime in their town (So Much Water So Close to Home), families unearthing histories (Sacks), families meeting only during holidays (A Serious Talk), friends who fell apart (I Could See the Smallest Things), friends who are starting to fall apart (Tell the Women We’re Going). These stories speak volumes with such spare text, but nothing is explicitly said. The pages talk of the situations; the reader’s heart must listen until it tightens a bit.
[They had laughed. They had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come, while everything else–the cold, and where he’d go in it–was outside, for a while anyway.]
The characters try to convey the feelings that they experience right at the moment. These may be sheer emptiness or grand discoveries. The fragments that they capture are just there, lying still, and most of the time the reader does not immediately know what to do with them. As one gets further acquainted with Carver’s territory, the fragments become landmarks of a place filled with dissolved ambitions, inner tumult, subdued violence, and dreaded yearning.
[And the terrible thing, the terrible thing is, but the good thing too, the saving grace, you might say, is that if something happened to one of us–excuse me for saying this–but if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for a while, you know, but the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough. All this, all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory. Am I wrong? Am I way off base? Because I want you to set me straight if you think I’m wrong. I want to know. I mean, I don’t know anything, and I’m the first one to admit it.]
All these stories are tied up in the penultimate title story. Two couples are having drinks during a weekend afternoon. Nothing much happens except for drinks being passed around and the conversation about love unraveling along with the setting of the sun. The four people try to pin down what love is, but the more they talk, the more they struggle, and the more they realize that words are making them helpless in the afternoon’s chat.
The sun goes out, drinks are spilled on the table, and no one talks. Love evades definition. All the digression, intuition, and demonstration that the four employed did nothing. They think they know what they are talking about and yet, they resort to silence.
This book came out in the early 1980s and started a literary movement known as dirty realism. The school is characterized by minimal language and focuses only on what is on the surface. Anything ordinary is a likely subject, and it is strange to think how something that is stripped of embellishments could powerfully flesh out lessons in life and love.
But really, this feat in minimalism is hardly achievable by anyone. The task is better left to writers who know how to handle what they are talking about. Dirty realism may be as dead as Carver, but his stories will live on.
Dates Read: February 2 to 4, 2013
No. of Pages: 159
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars