Notes on Raymond Carver

by Chris Linforth,

Posted in on Friday, Nov 5

Notes on Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

Raymond Carver's 1981 book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is a collection of short stories about the nature and diversity of love. The title story, perhaps one of Carver's most famous, contains many strong elements of narrative craft: pitch-perfect dialogue, a simple premise, and strong characterization. In my mind, the story also manifests some weaker narrative aspects: Nick's passivity, the heavy reliance on dialogue, and the awkwardly situated blocks of description. Carver manages, though, to have thematic unity - the permutations of love - which holds the story together. The range and types of love are seen in the characters through their past and current marriages. At the same time, the meaning of love is always in question because of its temporal nature.

Written in the first person, the story is told from Nick's point of view. Nick is a blank and aloof character, generally an observer of the actions and speeches of the others: the couple, Mel and Terri, and Nick's wife, Laura. The story takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at Mel's house and uses a simple setup with the four characters sat around a kitchen table and drinking gin. None of them are from the city, but "from somewhere else." Carver's use of subtle detail, like this one, adds a layer of transitory behavior that echoes throughout the story. Further, this behavior extends to the central discussion of love and how each of the characters view this both abstract and real (as in life-affecting) phenomena. Although physical details of the characters are represented post-dialogue and in chunks (therefore seeming awkward and clunky), the descriptive observations are, in themselves, beautifully written. For example: "Mel was forty-five years old. He was tall and rangy with curly soft hair."

Mel, in fact, dominates the story. He is vocal, strongly drawn, and controls much of the conversation. Accordingly, his job as a cardiologist is one that gives him a position of power. In addition, Carver's satirical streak is imbibed within Mel, as he deals with the heart literally in his occupation and likes to pontificate on love (a mental state long associated with the heart) to everyone else. In the story, Mel only sees "spiritual love" due to his time in the seminary. Whereas, Terri has seen the darker side of the emotion in her ex-husband, Ed. Ed figures very heavily (in terms of dialogue) in the story as both a symbol of obsessive love and the associated pariah status. Ed abuses Terri for years until she leaves him for Mel. Terri feels Ed did love her, but Mel argues, "That's not love, and you know it." For several pages the nature of Ed's love is told and dissected by the group: Ed stalks Mel and abuses him. As they sit around the table, Carver uses the increasing drunkenness to intensify the conversation, highlighting Ed's decline: "he drank rat poison," says Terri. "Shot himself in the mouth," Mel explains later. Ed's death is one that divides the table about the nature of love, and whether suicide is an act of love or madness. This, I think, is a clever doubling. Both versions of love are interrelated and are subject to interpretation and judgment by others, whether it is Terri or Mel.

As a mid-story segue Carver turns his attention to analyzing Nick and Laura, via Mel's overlong speech: "You're making me sick. You're still on the honeymoon." Mel, who is a blowhard and an increasingly vocal one the more he drinks, notes that all of them have had past relationships and accordingly loved other people. Indeed, he raises an interesting point about the temporal dimension of love and how it's fluid and changeable. To wit, he says that, "all of this love we're talking about, it would just be a memory."

The second half of the story draws in another element of Mel's experience with an old couple who were plowed into by a "drunk kid, teenager." The long and drawn out speech about the old couple and their slow recovery in hospital is interspersed with side topics around the kitchen table: "scarves," "knights," "vessels," and "vassals." Furthermore, there are discussions about going for dinner or more drinks. The story of the old couple adds an authentic (and drunken) feel to the conversation; it slows up the narrative momentum of Mel's point. As the story comes to an end, it becomes apparent that the love between the old couple is fixated upon, and the fact the old man "couldn't turn his goddamn head to see his goddamn wife." Depression mixed with heavy drinking and sad stories escalates into the story's final scene, and the description: "I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark." The quote amplifies the Sisyphean tone of the story, the doomed-to-repeat nature of life. This dark and brooding end (an end of the day as well as an end of the story) is a clever device in which Carver leaves the reader with a strong image of bleakness and despair.

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