“You see, this happened a few months ago, but it’s still going on right now, and it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.”
Raymond Carver is a short story writer from Oregon. He published numerous collections of short stories and poems, mostly during the 1980s, before dying in 1988 of lung cancer. Carver’s stories are typically dark, dealing with themes of alcoholism, death, infidelity vs loyalty, and shame. His characters are all lower class working types who face daily struggles and pains. There is love, but with love there is loss. There can be happiness, but there is a darkness to it.
Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) is no exception to this trend. The second official collection of fiction published, Carver was still at the beginning of his writing career, but his influence was already known. Some of his most famous short stories are held within the collection, though his most famous collection of short stories is certainly Cathedral (1984) which I also highly recommend. (If you want to read the story titled “Cathedral”, here it is.)
I’m going to go through my favorite stories of the collection, discussing the themes and basic plot of each. There won’t be any spoilers here, but if you want maybe go and read the collection first. It took me about two days to breeze through this, they were all so wonderfully written.
“Why Don’t You Dance?”
This is one of the first stories I ever read by Raymond Carver. I actually heard it first during one of my short story club sessions last year, where a friend read it out loud to us in the living room, drinking ciders and enjoying various authors’ works and trying to understand what it all meant. This story was one of those where we got stuck thinking about what it all meant. It’s the first story in the entire collection, and sets the mood for the rest of the stories as well. The first line:
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.
We can immediately feel an unrest and a sadness, peering out of the window at all the disrepair. Later on, a young couple arrives thinking it to be a yard sale. The kids later try to make sense of what happened, and we try to do that too.
This story became the base of a short film titled Everything Goes released in 2004, as well as a feature film titled Everything Must Go from 2010.
You can read the story here.
Holly and Duane, a young couple living and working at a motel in some podunk town, are trying to deal with their relationship. They have a desperate hold on one another, but it’s all falling apart. The first line:
That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.
There’s a plainness to the story, a matter-of-factness that toys with the reader’s sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Maybe we would behave the same way in his position? No, what he did was wrong, he shouldn’t have done that. But maybe she’s just being overdramatic. They love each other, right? In the end, everything’s falling apart and nothing seems repairable. But they try.
This is another story that I heard a while ago, when a friend read it to us, and then read it again at Thanksgiving. It sticks with you, and you feel it deeply. The story is about a family– a mother, a father, and a son– and the son’s birthday. That day, he is hit by a car and must go to the hospital. We sit with the mother and father in the hospital waiting room and watch with them as the boy sleeps and sleeps. The father and mother both leave at different points to take a bath and take a second to breathe, or at least to try. The ending is ambiguous and leaves the reader questioning its outcome. My favorite line:
He took her hand and put it in his lap. This made him feel better. It made him feel he was saying something. They sat like that for a while, watching the boy, not talking. From time to time he squeezed her hand until she took it away.
“I’ve been praying,” she said.
“Me too,” the father said. “I’ve been praying too.”
You can read “The Bath” here.
“After the Denim”
I loved this story because it’s very simple. There is no flourish to the storyline, and it has a bare honesty that is shown at the end. An elderly couple, Edith and James Packer, go to play bingo at the community center, something they often do. James continually says how he’s not feeling lucky, but they go anyway. James becomes upset because he sees a young man and his girlfriend cheating, and he can’t help but get angrier and angrier as he watches. It is soon revealed that Edith is suffering some kind of sickness, and we see from James’s point of view how they together suffer. Favorite line:
Why not someone else? Why not those people tonight? Why not all those people who sail through life free as birds? Why not them instead of Edith?
“Everything Stuck to Him”
A father and daughter sit alone in his house in Milan, staring out at the winter day and sipping on Strega. She asks him to tell her “what it was like when I was a kid”. The father obliges and begins the story of when his daughter was a baby, and he and his wife were learning to be parents. There’s no dramatic moment in this, nothing startling or shocking as in some of Carver’s stories, but there are simple hints of sadness throughout. We see the young boy and girl were in love, for example, but there’s no mention of the mother/wife in the present day, and we don’t know what happened to her. At the end, the father says to his daughter:
Things change, he says. I don’t know how they do. But they do without your realizing it or wanting them to.
Yes, that’s true, only– But she does not finish what she started.
We are left with the father still contemplating on that memory, staring out the window:
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.
Read the story here.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”
The titular story is the penultimate in this collection, and is the longest out of any of the stories. Four friends sit around a table, sharing gin and stories and thoughts on love. Mel McGinnis and his wife Terri are hosting their friends Laura and Nick, the narrator. They get into a conversation about love, what love is, and how people show love. There are differing opinions, but in the end Mel, a bit drunk at this point, brings the discussion to an elderly couple who got into an awful car crash, and how they are the example of what love is.
You see, this happened a few months ago, but its still going on right now, and it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.
All four characters had been in previous relationships, and this too is a central theme of the story: how people can love not just once, how love can turn into hate, and how these loves and the manner of loving can be distinct from one another. It finishes:
“Gin’s gone,” Mel said.
Terri said, “Now what?”
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.
Overall this is an incredible collection, I implore you to go out and read it. Raymond Carver has an incredible way of telling more than the story is saying superficially, and can really dig his way into your head. Here’s the first page, from the story “Why Don’t You Dance?”
And here are some of my favorite lines from the stories, in no order:
When I look back on it, all of our important decisions have been figured out when we were drinking.
From “One More Thing”:
Maxine said it was another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies.
From “The Calm”:
He ran his fingers through my hair. He did it tenderly, as a lover would.
Also from “The Calm”:
He trembles all over. The kid’s still shooting. Me, I felt like I was back in Korea.
And lastly, from “I Could See the Smallest Things”
It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there.