Updated on February 16, 2017
7. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ by Raymond Carver
Before What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, I don’t think I’d ever read a single Raymond Carver short story. And that’s ridiculous, because there’s so much about Carver’s style that so obviously appeals to me. The stories are short and sparsely written, but packed with emotional power.
Carver is known as one of the best American short story writers of all time, and he is held largely responsible for the revitalisation of the short story form in the USA in the 1980s. This collection was published in 1981, and it features 17 of Carver’s stories, including one of his most popular: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. A lot of the stories are only two or three pages long, and they tend to be realistic yet odd. He has an amazing grasp of dialogue and how people really speak to each other (such as talking over each other, talking at cross purposes, or not answering each other’s questions), and his stories are often written in a colloquial or conversational tone. It’s usually the scenarios that he puts his characters in that are more complex or surreal. For example, the opening story in this collection, ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’, is about a man who puts all his furniture outside on his driveway, set up like rooms in a house. It’s bizarre but believable, and somehow its this surrealism which helps Carver to get the truth about human emotion and interaction.
At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this collection. I thought the first few stories were a bit same-y, as they all seemed to feature abandoned, angry men in suburban settings. That is a theme that does continue throughout the collection – angry men and guilty women – but the stories get more varied in setting and tone as it goes on.
This book really needs to be read more than once, and studied in detail, because there are so many subtle clues in the writing about the characters’ histories and beliefs and relationships. Characters often refer to things in passing when they talk, or don’t explain things at all, and it’s up to the reader to try and work out what’s going on. For this reason, I found some of the stories quite confusing (I still don’t really understand what was going on in ‘Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit’), but once I got into Carver’s style of writing, I found it easier to decode his clues. This is definitely a collection you could return to again and again, and always find something new.
My favourite stories in this collection included: ‘I Could See the Smallest Things’, which is about a woman who has a night-time conversation about slugs with her neighbour that makes her rethink her marriage; ‘The Bath’, which looks at the aftermath of a boy being hit by a car; and ‘Tell the Women We’re Going’, which sees an angrily married man trying to flirt with women and taking an unexpectedly dark turn when he is unsuccessful. The titular story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is also utterly brilliant: it features a group of friends drinking together and talking about love. It’s so simple and gentle, and yet it manages to be powerful and heartbreaking too. That’s something Carver is fantastic at: containing enormous pain or love or violence in the quietest of sentences. The endings of his stories, in particular, often seem abrupt or understated, until you realise that they couldn’t have ended any other way.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a masterful, melancholic collection by a short story great, and it’s definitely a good way to introduce yourself to Carver’s work. I loved it.
“There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.” – ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy What We Talk About When We Talk About Love here.