Book Review: “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” by Raymond Carver, first published as a collection of short stories in 1981 by Knopf.
I’m not proud to admit that I read Raymond Carver only last month. Of course, I’ve heard of Carver—one of the most influential American short-story writers—but I never felt compelled to read his work until I watched “Birdman” and “Everything Must Go,” both of which were inspired by Carver’s stories.
In the Oscar-winning film, “Birdman,” a fading Hollywood star (played by Michael Keaton) directs an adaptation of Carver’s short story, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” Carver’s influence was so strong throughout the film that I just had to read the story collection bearing the same title.
Leaner than Hemingway
Carver is often compared to Ernest Hemingway for his minimalist style. I discovered that Carver is even leaner than Hemingway. While reading the first five stories in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” I felt famished as a reader and I was getting bored fast with Carver’s spare writing.
The first story, “Why Don’t You Dance,” turned out to be very different from “Everything Must Go,” the movie version starring Will Ferrell as an alcoholic who’s forced to live on his lawn after his wife leaves him and changes all the locks of their house. The movie provided more back story—more backbone, if you will. So reading the skeletal story that inspired the movie left me unsatisfied.
The next two stories, “Viewfinder” and “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” were more of the same. I was beginning to think that Carver was overrated. If I want a Hemingway-style of writing, then I should read Hemingway. Why bother with Carver?
When I got to “Gazebo,” about the crumbling marriage of a couple managing a motel, something happened. The story of Duane and Holly pulled me in. Carver, who didn’t provide much description of the characters in previous stories, described Molly as tall, with long black hair and green eyes—she’s beautiful. Yet Duane cheats on her. He sleeps with a cleaning lady at the motel. The story is presented in a conversation between the couple while they drink whiskey, clearly establishing Molly’s devastation over Duane’s unfaithfulness.
By the time I got to “Sacks,” I was fully engaged in Carver’s slim book. In this story, the themes of infidelity and transience are reinforced. Les, a traveling salesman, meets his father in an airport lounge during a stopover. Like “Gazebo,” the story consists of a conversation between two characters. In “Gazebo,” Duane and Holly are transients as motel managers who deal with travelers. Similarly, Carver’s choice of a traveling salesman in an airport in “Sacks” represents transience.
In “Sacks,” Les’s father talks about an affair that ruined his marriage. Even though the story focuses on the father, we learn that Les might also be having marriage troubles. In this story, as well as “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” I marveled at Carver’s great talent for writing dialogue.
The title refers to the father’s gifts: sacks of candy for Les’s wife and children. At the end of the story, when Les leaves in a hurry to catch his next flight, he forgets the sacks. He thinks his wife won’t need it anyway, alluding to their troubled relationship. I was crushed by this deceptively spare ending, which was loaded with the cumulative effect of the father’s regret and the irreparable effects of his infidelity, about Les’s sad reaction to his father’s confession, the hint of Les’s own unhappy marriage, and his abrupt departure though his father clearly wanted to spend more time with him.
Carver’s approach is so low-key that I didn’t even know I was getting suckered into his minimalist style. Hemingway doesn’t affect me this way. Carver’s writing is everything critics and fans alike say it is. His characters are ordinary people whose stories often have open endings. His prose isn’t dazzling—it’s simple and direct. There’s no attempt to be lyrical or witty or funny. His themes and choice of words are repetitive, and yet his rhythm works. Put all of these things together and the result is powerful storytelling. Carver admired Hemingway’s work so I understand why many readers compare the two authors. However, Carver’s voice is distinct. His writing is in a class all his own.