According to a few other and myself, with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver has written one of the best short story collection of the twentieth century. Given the number of writers he has influenced and how frequently the title is parodied, I gather I am not the only one who thinks so (even if I am the only one who says so). The collection focuses on the downtrodden and depressed, those without education or prospects, but who fail to give up even when it would be in their best interest.
There are authors who are verbose and others who are spare. Not only does Raymond Carver fall squarely in the latter category, he is also the master of the understatement. Carver’s work is considered part of the dirty realism movement (along with Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford and others). Dirty realism focuses on the sadness and loss in the everyday lives of ordinary people – usually lower-middle class or marginalized people. This is very true of Carver’s work…
In The Things We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver takes the simplest of scenes and imbues it with understated and unstated emotion – and on occasion, a raw elegance. Generally, the stories focus on various relationships (marital, familial, etc.) and their deterioration. The thread, aside from abject misery, that ties these stories together is the world the characters inhabit. They are average, blue-collar workers with a penchant for alcohol and despair. In most cases, they’ve caused their own ruination, yet they can still evoke sympathy, sadness, curiosity and commiseration.
My personal favorite in the collection is Gazebo. Gazebo focuses on the collapse of a marriage following the husband’s infidelity. Favorite line:
“There was a funny thing of anything could happen now that we realized everything had.”
The Bath was the only one that seemed underdeveloped. Ultimately, I think it was because Carver eventually rewrote and extended it into A Small, Good Thing (one of his best short stories and available to read online). The story from which the collection takes its title, The Things We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is also very good, if a little more depressing than the rest. It tries to define the meaning and essence of love, past and future. I personally don’t think love is definable. Love can change, begin, and end over time – and it can often be unequal. Best line:
“There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me.”
If you’re a fan of minimalist writing, this is for you. He’s been referred to as Hemingway without water, but I enjoy Carver considerably more than Hemingway. This was actually a reread for me, as I’m thinking of including it in my ideal bookshelf. It is an almost mysterious ability that Carver has to make blunt, utilitarian prose so affecting. I certainly can’t explain it. Whatever it is, it’s brilliant. I can’t even explain, coherently, why I love this collection. I just do. 5/5.
After reading this, you’ll (probably) want something healthy. So I’m recommending Spring Vegetable Pasta (best for those who really enjoy vegetables, they’re definitely the dominant flavor).