Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: StoriesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A character in this iconic collection’s final story thinks of her daughter’s truancy as “another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies.” This 1981 book, which perhaps more than any other made its author’s name as a figurehead of minimalist fiction, might be subtitled “low-rent tragedies.” In content, it tells stories of working-class and lower-middle-class white American life, usually in the west or northwest. It is about men and women struggling with work and poverty, adultery and domestic violence, divorce and alcoholism. Anyone who ever experienced or witnessed any of what’s described in these stories—and alcoholic desperation in the 1980s was the background, though happily not the foreground, to some of my own earliest memories—will be able smell the stale cigarette smoke molecularly bonded to the pages.

A writer can use several authorial strategies to save such subject matter from exploitation or artless severity. Carver himself tended to prefer what we might call the Chekhovian tactic of sympathetic amplitude: giving us his characters from the inside, allowing them, even in the third person, their own voice and language and sensibility with which to tell their own stories. Carver’s later fiction, his work of the mid-to-late ’80s before his death in 1988, exhibits such a classic style of story-writing.

The fiction in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, though, reflects a different aesthetic: that of its highly interventionist editor, Gordon Lish. For Lish, as I understand it, fiction was less about the mimesis of consciousness than it was about intensive semiosis. If Carver descended from Chekhov’s humanism, Lish comes down from that other and much different instituter of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, with his almost mathematical philosophies of composition and his proto-camp approach to sentimental subjects. Lish was a reader of Shklovsky, Barthes, and Kristeva; he was a friend and companion of DeLillo. He believed literature was the arrangement of sentences for maximal effect rather than the expression in language of some pre-linguistic, self-sufficient essence popularly called the self.

Lish’s approach to Carver, then, was to delete anything that might seem extraneous, often paring down Carver’s stories by 30% or even 50%. He excised over-explanation and lopped off discursive conclusions, favoring rather the stark dialogue, the incised image, and the abrupt ending.

A classic example is the story “The Bath” (appearing in What We Talk About) in contrast to its earlier/later iteration, “A Small, Good Thing” (appearing in Cathedral). Lish’s version is a brief and benumbed account of a couple’s grief and terror after their son is struck by a car on his birthday. Carver’s text, by contrast, lets the emotions find utterance rather than evoking them by their verbal absence. Lish, faithful to writers like Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Connor, tries to induce readers to feel by withholding all feeling from the story’s own tone:

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.

But there is a problem of means and ends here: Joyce wanted to show his fellow citizens the ugly reality of their political and cultural paralysis, Hemingway was trying to craft and communicate a stoic ethic that could replace modernity’s vanished traditions, and O’Connor was trying to make us recognize the necessity of the divine by presenting us with its absence. Their story-writing styles of what Joyce called “scrupulous meanness” had serious political, ethical, and religious purposes. They contrasted their cold forms with their warm contents for a reason, and their intended effect on the reader was more than a sensational one.

What purpose did Lish bring to Carver when he killed his darlings? Carver wanted to tell the stories of the world he knew in a language that was not over-stylized but rather naturalistic and discursive. Lish, by contrast, wanted those stories to be objects he could find aesthetically interesting according to his own theories. This disjunction leads, in my experience, to the curdling of modernist irony into postmodern sarcasm. Lish turns Carver’s stories into near-cartoons of curtailed emotion, as if to mock the idea of feeling at all. In his hands, Carver’s fictions end with anti-epiphanies, shock tactics, as in “Tell the Women We’re Going,” with its calmly-stated last-paragraph double-murder ( which had developed into a full-fledged suspenseful scene in Carver’s earlier draft):

He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.

I derive much of my information about Carver’s drafts and Lish’s interventions from Brian Evenson’s recent book-length appreciation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Evenson, though better known nowadays as a fiction writer, was one of the first scholars to study the Carver/Lish issue, precisely because as a college student he had so fallen in love with Lish-phase Carver, and particularly with this collection.

Evenson admits that Lish’s dealings with Carver verge upon, or even cross into the territory of, the unethical. Added to that is the political question of the high-powered editor’s not allowing stories from the provinces into circulation until he’d shorn them of all that the jaded metropolitan would regard as overly sincere or sentimental. Yet Evenson wants to defend What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a cohesive collection that communicates an authentic nihilism. On this reading, we might say that Carver was trying for Chekhov but reaching only Dreiser, so Lish was right to use a few deft excisions to turn him into Kafka instead.

Kafka is Evenson’s own comparison: “So when I got to Carver, I had Beckett and Kafka as models for what literature could do. Which probably made me see Carver in a very eccentric light.” Despite the self-mockery in the word “eccentric,” Evenson is, I believe, trying to rescue Carver from his own reputation by making us re-evaluate his style. Later in the book, Evenson notes that his older classmates, hipper to the literary journal scene in the ’80s, were able to place Carver among the other minimalists and dirty realists of the time: “people like Richard Ford or Bobbie Ann Mason or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolff.”

To put it somewhat unkindly, though, readers who don’t have MFAs do not necessarily care for these “crafty” short story writers who tend to feel as mannered and formulaic as “genre fiction” is supposed to be. This increasingly common observation is in fact one source, beyond his obvious gifts, of Evenson’s own success as a writer who works in the mode of the weird. There has been in this century a turn in literary fiction away from artisanal realism to artisanal fabulism, which does indeed descend, among other writers, from Kafka.

Evenson’s slyly polemical originality is to offer us the Carver of What We Talk About as an inhabitant of this fantastical lineage rather than the realist one, of seeing him as the companion less of the dirty realists than the magical realists: the explorer of a slightly different type of bloody chamber, but a bloody chamber nonetheless. The Carver of Lish’s invention, no less than Lish himself, is a child of Poe more than of Chekhov.

All of the above is literary sociology, but what about literary criticism? Are these stories, taken at face value, worth reading? Read all at once, What We Talk About is too much of a good thing (which sounds like a be-Lished Carver title). As I read them, I could only admire their compression and concision and the often brutal punchlines these artistic priorities allow. But this is a limited aesthetic, and the effect of reading one story after another in this mode is slapstick. The less up-to-date, less polished instrument of Carver’s own style, though it can do less with a single page, can probably accomplish more in a story or a book. I hardly remember a character from these stories, because they come as vivid images but don’t stay long enough to impress, still less to ramify. What I remember is a tone, an unforgettable one.

The title story is justly famous for its non-communicative dialogue and darkening tone. “The Calm” is a surprising study in homoeroticism, “After the Denim” an almost sweet and definitely scary paean to marriage under the stresses of illness and age. “I Could See the Smallest Things” has a loopy, Lynchian slug-killing suburban surrealism. My favorite is “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a true affront, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d quote from it, but you need to read the whole thing; I doubt Andrea Dworkin herself ever wrote with such cosmic pessimism about men, women, and sex.

Such a story validates Evenson’s claim that Carver, under Lish’s influence, attains true originality: he gives us, or they give us, lower-class American life seen under the blacklight of a meaningless eternity. They are a chortling, bleak poetry preferable to the second-rate humanism of Chekhov’s mere imitators.

“Our moods do not believe each other,” said Emerson; in one mood, I want Lish’s Carver, and in another mood I want Carver unLished. Which Carver is better? I leave it to you, but if you want to see what Poe or Kafka might have written in the 1980s about my aunts and uncles and my parents’ friends, then you should read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.


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Barry Hannah, Ray

RayRay by Barry Hannah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know Hannah is a beloved figure (there are lavish blurbs on this edition from Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Alfred Kazin, James Dickey), but this doesn’t do anything for me. Ray is a miscellany of edgy zaniness that we’re apparently supposed to accept quite soberly as a literary correlate of “the American confusion.” Narrated Beckett-style from a hospital bed by Dr. Ray of Tuscaloosa after he has some kind of alcoholic crack-up, it meanders through tales of the town’s eccentrics and through Ray’s memories of Vietnam and the Civil War (“I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.”). There are some nice lyrical passages, mainly about the beautiful women Ray has loved, and some of the theater-of-the-absurd stuff is funny when it isn’t trying too hard to shock with racial slurs and punny sex farce (“Afterward I ate her slowly. I hadn’t eaten much all day.”).

Anyway, the elephant in the room here is Gordon Lish, who apparently edited the hell out of the book, to Hannah’s satisfaction according to this researcher. The text is full of Lishey sentences and paragraphs that allow themselves to be led down cul-de-sacs by their own sounds and rhythms:

She ate me, just like another delicious thing on her menu. I felt rotten, cool, and unfaithful, yet I came with an enormous lashing of sperm, which made her writhe and lick.

(I noticed this passage because “writhe and lick” recalls a passage in friend-of-Lish DeLillo in which a woman’s breasts “jump and hum,” a phrase James Wood made righteous fun of back in the day.)

None of this would bother me if Lish/Hannah didn’t expect me to take it all as a serious statement on America and how violent and crazy it is. Not that America isn’t, necessarily, but a novel has to earn its themes not just gesture toward them in a way that flatters the right-thinking audience. Zany, vulgar comedy can be its own reward, and I would have accepted this as a distant ancestor of Family Guy; considered as a sociopolitical novel, though, it just doesn’t exist. Why, you ask, would I even want to consider it as a sociopolitical novel? Probably because of the obviously Lish-authored and just-this-side-of-meaningless jacket copy on the first-edition hardcover I have out of the library:

The case for Ray is the case for the dogged citizen, the last warrior in the American epoch. He is the fool in flight from the safety of falling out of time and away from complication. He is, instead, the intrepid witness, willfully and disastrously present for the felonious spectacle of family, community, and nation.

Notice the unworkable combination of a sentence constructed out of its own echoing parts—all the consonance and assonance, words chosen primarily for sound and shape—with a grandiose thesis statement. This kind of writing is all over the book, and it just doesn’t work. It represents the neo-classicalizing of modernism. Yes, Faulkner, Woolf, and Lawrence wrote sentences that had the inevitability and solidity of poetry, but they did so not for the sheer hell of it but rather under the pressure of their themes, to which they abandoned themselves totally, whereas this novel reads like a collection of carefully-constructed sentences in search of a theme, sliding from nihilistic farce to outright sentimentality without modulation. And the sentimentality is the most convincing part! Hannah seems, like Carver, to have been a kind of instinctive if disappointed humanist, somebody who might have gone in a more Dreiserian direction if Captain Fiction hadn’t intervened (this is in contrast to somebody like DeLillo, whose stylizations feel holistic, the emanation of a genuine worldview, not something imposed from above).

To end on a more positive note, I liked this passage; it has a quietness in it that more of the novel could have been built on, instead of pursuing Civil War fantasies and tall tales from Southern living, so I’ll end here:

I’m dreaming of the day when the Big C will be blown away. I’m dreaming of a world where men and women have stopped the war and where we will stroll as naked as excellent couples under the eye of the sweet Lord again. I’m dreaming of the children whom I have hurt from being hurt and the hurt they learn, the cynicism, the precocious wit, the poo-poo, the slanted mouth, the supercilious eyebrow.

Then I wake up and I’m smiling. Westy asks me what’s wrong.

“Christ, darling, I just had a good dream, is all.”

“I’ll bet it was some patient you screwed. You rotten bastard.”

She hits me over the head with a pillow.


Some days, even a cup of coffee is violence.

When I can find my peace, I take a ladder to the hot attic and get out the whole plays of Shakespeare.

Okay, old boy. Let’s hear it again. Sweat’s popping out of my eyes, forehead.

Let’s hear it again. Between the lines I’m looking for the cure for cancer.

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