What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, 1981

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by Raymond Carver, 1981

Intending to have a few drinks before going out to dinner, two married couples get caught up in conversation and still haven't made it out the door by story's end. Such is the full extent of Raymond Carver's most celebrated story, "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love," first published in hardcover in 1981, running 17 pages. It was quickly termed "minimalist" by several critics, yet Carver himself rejected the label since it emphasizes the story's form to the neglect of its human focus.

Compared to the blue-collar inhabitants of Carver's fiction, the four characters—Mel McGinnis; his wife, Terri; Nick; and his wife, Laura—are relatively well educated, but they share a sense of bafflement over matters of the heart. (Ironically, Mel, the most obtuse of the four, is even a cardiologist.) The more these characters talk about love the less they feel they know, so that rather than moving toward understanding they are eased by the growing darkness and the guzzled alcohol into nearly stupefied befuddlement. Yet witnessing the process leads the reader, remarkably, to genuine insight.

Two anecdotes serve the party as case studies. The first is summed up in a sentence that is key to Carver's style as well as to the story's themes: "Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her." Both in its staccato rhythm of monosyllables and in its insistent pattern of repetitiveness, the sentence (like the story's title) captures the barely furnished nature of Carver's distinctive style. The paradoxical twinning of declarations of extreme love with a violent effort to kill the beloved is what gives Mel, in particular, an insoluble riddle that nonetheless prompts much of his increasingly boozy, angry, and hurt talk.

The second anecdote, related by Mel, concerns two of his patients—an elderly couple very badly injured in a car crash. Their greatest wish, as they lay all bandaged, was to be able to see each other. This, too, like the report of a miracle, is something that Mel cannot understand yet cannot dismiss.

Both couples eventually reveal themselves to the reader as pairs of refugees from previous failed marriages. True love has seemed, at one time, unattainable to them, and insulating themselves from vulnerability and pain has since become second nature. Yet they feel the tug of devotion as an amputee might miss a limb, and hence they are driven to talking, talking about and around love.

The story's title implies that, on this subject at least, either we don't mean what we say, or we don't say what we mean. Imprecision and inarticulateness are the joint curses of Carver's characters, and they are delineated precisely and articulately. In a 1981 essay titled "On Writing," Carver embraced a saying of Ezra Pound's: "Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing." He also set forth his own formula for achieving the discipline of economy that is exemplified in "What We Talk About…": "Get in, get out. Don't linger. Go on." Yet the very redundancy of the title also shows how we bury its central concern beneath our own inarticulate words.

One of the four characters, Nick, narrates the story, but his observations and asides are kept to a minimum, leaving a fiction that, like many an early Hemingway story, is nearly all dialogue, much of it in brief spurts. The narrator, too, knows that something significant is being expressed, but he doesn't dare to express it directly. Nonetheless the stylistic exclusions and the truncated phrases succeed in pointing out the characters' frustrations, particularly the truncation of their own feelings. Defining by omission, the story makes palpable the presence of an absence. Eventually what Carver's characters compulsively discuss yet neurotically avoid, his readers are led subtly yet memorably to feel.

Carver sculpted his prose to make it sound the way we talk. One consequence of that effort is that it looks like no one else's work on the page. Soon after the publication of the collection to which this story gave its name, Esquire magazine announced that Carver had "reinvented the short story." His writing has the familiar ring of originality—he writes with the true originality of the strikingly familiar. Readers of this story will continue to find in it a common fate jostled into sudden focus by his spare, lean, knowing prose.

—Brian Stonehill

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, 1981

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