This Is Not Light Reading: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

loveI had thought that Barthelme’s stories were short and concise. Well, readers, Raymond Carver is also a minimalist writer. His writing style is spare and shorn right to the bone. A colleague of mine, J., has told me about how these stories are not so much about what is in them (not much often), but what is excluded, all the unknowns that swirl around the bare skeleton of a narrative. The other thing you should know about Carver’s collection is that it is down-right depressing. There are no happy endings in this collection. This is not to say that all short stories should have happy endings, but the heavy dose of alcohol abuse, broken relationships, and working-class misery in this book can drag you down.

Carver is an amazing writer though. These stories seem so simple, so bare, yet they have so much going on in them. In “Why Don’t You Dance,” the opening story and the source material for the film Everything Must Go, a man sets up his house on his front lawn. A young couple comes by assuming it is a yard sale, it’s not, and buys several things from him. The man asks them to stay and they get drunk together before he asks them to dance for him. The story is more about the young couple and their cynical reaction to him, yet the man’s missing wife and his reasons for setting up his house on the lawn remain mysterious. By the story’s end, the older man retains his dignity while the couple comes across as cheap and petty.

Carver is a master of dialogue, using seemingly inane comments to create tension and emotional depth. In “Gazebo,” a story about an alcoholic couple whose marriage is on the brink because of the husband’s infidelity, the sharp dialogue evokes indecision, tension, longing, and both person’s deep addiction to alcohol to the surface. These are not likable characters, in fact there may not be a single one in the collection. Yet, these are real characters – flawed and incredibly broken. The fact that Carver can make these stories readable and compelling is a testament to his narrative skill. Of course, too much Carver can lead you into a pretty dark place.

Most people know Carver for his short story “Cathedral,” a masterpiece in story-telling, but I feel like this collection comes from a much rougher place. Carver himself struggled with alcoholism early on in his career and the rough edged characters here bear this out. In “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” a narrator looks back at his wife’s indiscretions after seeing his sixty-five year old mother necking on a couch with another man. This sight unsettles him into self-reflection, yet he does not so much blame the other partners to his wife’s adultery as bless them. He comes from a long line of alcoholics and his own failures fit this lineage. There is something admirable in his self-knowledge yet there is something pitiable in his weakness at the same time.

“So Much Water So Close to Home” is perhaps the most unsettling story in the whole collection. It is a narrative about group of older men who go out fishing but see a dead woman’s body. Instead of getting help, they decide to finish their trip by keeping the body in the water. The narrator, one of the men’s  wife, is very unnerved by this and visit the Naches river before going to the woman’s funeral. While stopped, she encounters a man who is clearly intent on some form of sexual violence but manages to escape by refusing to unlock her doors and driving away. This sudden encounter with violence tints the end of the story so that the husband begins to appear suspect and, without actually saying so, the fishermen’s alibi begins to unravel. Carver is able to make us believe the men and then, at the end, he questions us for believing them. It is an amazing story, but certainly not for the faint of heart.

I would highly recommend this collection for anyone interested in short stories. However, I would not recommend this collection for more sensitive readers as Carver deals primarily in violence, brokenness, and alcoholism in this collection.

Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Print.

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