Carver had stopped drinking by the time Furious Seasons was published, but he had not yet returned to writing. When he did, his stories were markedly different from what they had been. The obsessions were the same, but the stories were much darker, reflecting the hell of marital discord and alcoholism that Carver himself had experienced. Their style, moreover, was an exaggerated form of minimalism. Whereas he had once worried that a story like “Neighbors” might be “too thin, too elliptical and subtle,” Carver was now writing stories that would make “Neighbors” appear positively lush. As one critic has pointed out, in these new texts ”language is used so sparingly and the plots are so minimal that the stories at first seem to be mere patterns with no flesh and life in them. . . . Characters frequently have no names or only first names and are so briefly described that they appear to have no physical presence at all; certainly they have no distinct identity.” Carver, looking back on the volume several years after its initial publication, told an interviewer that the texts in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love were “so pared down. Everything I thought I could live without I just got rid of, I cut out.” Urged on by his editor Gordon Lish, he began implementing Hemingway’s “theory of omission. If you can take anything out, take it out, as doing so will make the work stronger. Pare, pare, and pare some more.” That phrase could in fact serve as a motto for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, although critics have more often pointed to the following lines from “On Writing” : “Get in, get out. Don’t linger.” The stories here are indeed shorter, on average, than those in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Furious Seasons. They also have a more desolate outlook, which is amplified by their astringency of tone. Nowhere is Carver’s minimalist aesthetic more clearly visible than in the five stories from Furious Seasons that reappear here in reduced versions, having been “subjected to rigorous cutting.” Although Carver eventually reacted against this extremely pared-down style, the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love continue to embody minimalism at its most distinctive. The collection has been nicknamed the “minimalist bible,” and when readers and critics consider Carver a minimalist they generally have this volume in mind. Because it is the volume that established Carver as a major literary figure, it has remained the collection most often associated with him, even if it is, as we shall later see, his least representative… .
The title story is the collection’s longest and undoubtedly its greatest achievement, as well as being a fitting climax to the volume. Although its plot is rather thin, several of the obsessions that have run through the collection—the difficulty of sustaining relationships, the effect of alcoholism as a contributing factor to that difficulty, the problem of communication—are given their most extensive treatment. As the four characters (the narrator, Nick; his wife, Laura; their friend Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist; and his wife, Terri) sit around the table drinking gin, Carver is able to turn the question of love in several different directions. For this reason, more than one critic has likened the story’s situation to Plato’s Symposium, which does indeed seem to be the model for the dialogue. Nevertheless, “the relative articulateness of these characters by no means enables them to reach a satisfactory conclusion.” The only resolution reached in this version of the symposium is that we really have no idea What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
As the story opens, Terri, Mel’s second wife, states that Ed, “the man she lived with before she lived with Mel[,] loved her so much he tried to kill her.” Mel argues, however, that she cannot really call Ed’s emotions love. Having been a divinity student before he became a doctor, Mel feels that true love must contain a spiritual dimension. He argues that ‘”the kind of love I’m talking about is [an absolute]. The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people.”‘ Terri’s continuing insistence that what Ed felt was love only serves to anger Mel, and we begin to see signs of strain in their own relationship. To show what real love is, Mel tells the story of an old couple he had treated in the hospital. While recovering from a terrible car accident, the husband became depressed because, due to his bandages, ‘”he couldn’t turn his g-dd-n head and see his g-dd-ed wife.'” This old couple symbolizes for Mel what the old couple in the gazebo meant for Holly, a sign of stable and long-lasting love. During his narration, however, he and Terri begin to argue more openly. When Terri kids Mel about sounding drunk, he quietly responds, ‘”Just shut up for once in your life…. Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute?.”‘ Mel begins to explain about the old couple’s injuries, how they had only lived because they were wearing their seat belts, and Terri interrupts to say that Mel’s story is a public service message. Mel doesn’t find her jest the least bit funny. He is concerned with the true meaning of love, and he presses the point about the length of this older couple’s commitment because, as he points out, all four of this symposium’s participants have been married more than once. As the story points out, “the greatest obstacle to any ideal love turns out to be the transitoriness of love.” Mel notes that “‘sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too”’ and he reminds the other couple that they ‘”both loved other people before [they] met each other.'” He even goes on to say that, should any of them die, he feels it wouldn’t be long before the widowed person would remarry. This doesn’t sit well with Terri, naturally, and the tension mounts.
Counterpoised to the disintegrating relationship of Mel and Terri are Nick and Laura, still-glowing newly weds who, “in addition to being in love . . . like each other and enjoy one another’s company.” When Laura is asked whether she would call Ed’s feelings toward Terri love, for example, she says, ‘”who can judge anyone else’s situation?,'” and Nick tells us that “I touched the back of Laura’s hand. She gave me a quick smile. I picked up Laura’s hand. It was warm, the nails polished, perfectly manicured. I encircled the broad wrist with my ringers, and I held her.” Such physical intimacy continues throughout the story, although Terri tells them that they’re ‘”still on the honeymoon'” and must ‘”wait awhile'” to see what married life is really like. She seems to be making fun of them, yet her “remarks contain a hint of regret; she would like very much, it seems, to receive gestures of affection like those between Nick and Laura.” They are still in the first throes of love, whereas her marriage to Mel seems to have become stale.
At the end of the story, the gin is all gone and the four people, who had been planning to go eat at a new restaurant, seem exhausted and reluctant to move. Terri says that she will ‘”put out some cheese and crackers,”‘ but she makes no move to do so. Suddenly the story’s tension level increases dramatically. Nick states that “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.” As with other Carver stories of menace, such as “The Bath,” the final note here is one of suspension, of tension threatening to explode but not yet ignited. The conversation began in the light of afternoon, but the participants fall silent in the dark of night and the story ends “in anxious isolation, enervation, and stasis.” Although one critic has asserted that “these moments together, deeply imbued with shared sensibilities, make up for the antagonisms, the regrets, the flirtations, [and] the spilled gin,” such comments seem to miss the mark. Carver’s use of the word “noise” in the passage indicates that, rather than having achieved some kind of peace beyond words, the four talkers have reached a point where no communication is effective, where nothing can be heard. The seemingly imminent explosion may be the one between Mel and Terri, but Nick and Laura are necessarily dragged into it and implicated as well, since the newly married couple cannot avoid seeing themselves as Mel and Terri in a few years. As with all of Carver’s first-person narratives, furthermore, we must ask ourselves who Nick is telling the story to, and when. The implication here is that he is fondly remembering that evening as a time when he and Laura shared a closeness that perhaps no longer exists.
Ultimately, the answer to Mel’s question ”’What do any of us really know about love?'” appears to be “not very much.” A humorous digression in the middle of the story underscores this point. Mel whose definition of love is based on “the chivalric code,” asserts that he would like to have been a knight, because armor made it harder to get hurt. The narrator tells him, however, that sometimes the knights would die because they got too hot in their suits or because they fell off their horses and didn’t have the energy to stand up, whereupon they could be trampled by their own horses or killed by rivals. What follows is a subtle but telling bit of dialogue:
“”That’s right,” Mel said. “Some vassal would come along and spear the bastard in the name of love. Or whatever the f-k it was they fought over in those days.” “Same things we fight over today,” Terri said. Laura said, “Nothing’s changed.””
When it comes to talking about love—and understanding what we mean when we do so— Carver indicates treat we are still in the dark ages.
Perhaps the most quoted quip concerning What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and for good reason, comes from Donald Newlove’s review of the collection; he writes that the book includes “seventeen tales of Hopelessville, its marriages and alcoholic wreckage, told in a prose as sparingly clear as a fifth of iced Smirnoff.” Newlove here highlights the main features, both of matter and manner, that unify the collection and give it a great deal of cumulative impact. By the end of the volume, having seen so much despair and so few spots of promise, we are as fatigued and numbed as the characters themselves. In these stories, then, Carver brilliantly weds his minimalistic style to his dispiriting themes. About the end of “One More Thing,” for example, Hamilton E. Cochrane notes that “this conclusion reflects the unfinished business that is L. D.’s life. L. D. can make no sense of it—can make no connections, draw no conclusions—and the fragmentary and inconclusive form of the story itself seems to reinforce this.” This marriage of form and content marks the style that Carver would become best known for, and that would so influence younger writers.
Many critics, particularly ones who don’t like him, continue to take their measure of Carver from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is, indeed, the finest book that minimalism has to offer. Yet, as Jay Mclnerney has noted, “Carver’s career as a story writer and prose stylist had several distinct phases; only his [third] collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, can really be called minimalism—a conscious attempt to leave almost everything out.” Carver himself noted that it “had been in many ways a watershed book for me, but it was a book I didn’t want to duplicate or write again,” and, following What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver’s stories did indeed change again, becoming broader, fuller, and more generous. We have passed through the narrowest point of the hourglass of Carver’s minimalism—as exemplified by the truncations of the Furious Seasons stories—and we are now ready to broaden the form again as we turn to Fires and, especially, Cathedral.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Raymond Carver, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Adam Meyer, “The Middle Years: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,'” in Raymond Carver, Twayne, 1995, pp. 86-87, 108-11, 113