Thursday, April 14, 2011

Literary Bite: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, America's short story master. 

His writing style is very sparse and minimalist. Some of the stories are only a couple pages long, and none take more than ten minutes to read. Just as you’re settling in, the story stops at an unsatisfying non-ending. It can be jarring to re-orient to a new narrator every few pages, but that’s part of the power of Carver’s fiction – it keeps you on your toes.

As the title suggests, the collection is about love and human relationships, but not in the way you would expect. The book as a whole is perplexing and often depressing. According to English professor Fred Moramarco, it’s about Carver’s “puzzlement about the odd and battered condition of love in the contemporary world.”

Many of the stories are disturbing. Carver touches on all kinds of love - spiritual, carnal, platonic, possessive, brutal, obsessive, unrequited, and even parental, searching for what "real" love is. And since his stories end so abruptly, you’re always left wondering what really happened or what is going to happen.

Carver’s own love life was a bit strange, perhaps contributing to his slightly depressing perspective on love. When he was 18 he married a sixteen-year-old, Maryann Burk, and they had two kids right away. They separated twenty years later in 1976 and Carver was hospitalized for his alcoholism four times between 1976 and 1977 (they eventually divorced in 1983). He quit drinking in 1977, and published What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981.

Because Carver wrote as a recovering alcoholic, alcohol often plays an important role in many of his stories. A common theme is two couples, spending time together and drinking, and usually misscommunicating. Drinking is often contrasted with eating – Carver presents food as nourishing and nurturing, while alcohol is a kind of empty substitute that serves to distort and confuse. (For more analysis, read Moramarco's whole essay here.)

Overall, I think What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is worth reading as an example of great American fiction. And it’s short – you’ll finish it in less than a week!

The Stories in the Collection:
  • Why Don't You Dance?
  • Viewfinder
  • Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit
  • Gazebo
  • I Could See the Smallest Things
  • Sacks
  • The Bath
  • Tell the Women We're Going
  • After the Denim
  • So Much Water So Close to Home
  • The Third Thing That Killed My Father
  • A Serious Talk
  • The Calm
  • Popular Mechanics
  • Everything Stuck to Him
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  • One More Thing