What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories

by Raymond Carver

When I opened the first pages of my copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, I was prepared to be inundated with fluff and fuzz and, well, love. Because when you see that word in the title of a book – love – you are justified in thinking that’s what you’ll get. 

Well, in a sense, I did get love from the 17 stories that made up this collection. But only what remained of it. Yes, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is about the remnants of love.

With its sparse and simplistic prose, the stories ought to have been easy to digest. They weren’t; not exactly. While they were stripped of florid words, the heaviness of the stories will nonetheless weigh you down. What the stories lacked in word count, they made up for in gravity and in depth. And the endings, well. There are endings that end, and there are these endings. 

The stories were engaging for me, though, because they were about people living in small towns – simple people, really, who drift and proceed through their lives one day at a time. They would coast where the waves buoy them; they moved accordingly. And they held on, tried hard at it. So with the least number of words through which their stories could be told, they sat and drank, and they talked about love. Rather, what remained of it.

* * *

I have read somewhere that Carver's writing is called dirty realism, a style that zeroes in on sadness and loss and depression in the everyday lives of ordinary people - the small-town people, in this particular collection. I think I like it. Minimalist writing magnifying raw emotions sounds good to me.

* * *

There were three stories that resonated with me from this collection: Gazebo, After The Denim, and Everything Stuck To Him. Gazebo - if I have to pick just one favorite, this would be it - is about a couple whose marriage is on the verge of collapse because of the husband's infidelity. After The Denim is about a bingo-playing couple whose lives are just about to change - no thanks to that denim-clad younger couple from the bingo hall who have seemingly stolen their luck that one fateful night. On the contrary, Everything Stuck To Him is the story of a young family - parents barely out of their teens and a baby - confronted with choices.

In these three stories, my heart ached at the deterioration of relationships, persisting even as I was reading the next story. How could a measly collection of words be so affecting?

"What do any of us really know about love?"

Book Details: Trade paperback, Vintage Carver from Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★


Anonymous said…
Everything Stuck to Him is given a different title in Where I'm Calling From. I have to read both versions to check for any revisions.

If you remember The Bath (about a kid who has hit by a car and went unconscious for days), this was also given a different title, with an extended part about the baker who called the parents about the kid's cake.
Monique said…
BUDDY: As I was writing these notes, I had to research a bit on "dirty realism" and came across the controversy regarding the editor of these stories. I gather these were published posthumously? And that the editor claims he must be equally credited for the literary style adopted by Carver.
Anonymous said…
Subject-wise, I am reminded of Updike, and Calvino in Difficult Loves (as opposed to the Calvino of Mr. Palomar and Cosmicomics). His pristine, minimalist (and heavily edited) style sort of brings his subject nearer to the reader. His prose is accessible yet it sort of maneuvers you toward a more contemplative and sympathetic state. I like him. I like Chef's House in this collection.
Re the issue with his editor, I think his stories benefited from it, although I haven't really considered comparing/contrasting Carver's voice in his stories during and post-Gordon Lish. That would make for a good discussion.

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