Friday, September 3, 2010
Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
Raymond Carver’s second major collection of stories pushes his minimalism to the threshold - without every crossing it - where economical realism might disintegrate into fragmented, experimental play. The guiding (de)compositional principle here - largely attributable to Gordon Lish’s editorial hand - is to cut as much and as early as possible without undermining the coherence of the fundamental scene. This reductive aesthetic produces an exceptionally bleak tone for Carver, as his characters - sometimes described as simply “the man” or “the girl” - are often frozen at the story’s end in a pose of emotional tension or despair. The decision to abruptly, even prematurely, end each story formally redoubles the inability of Carver’s characters to weave the events of their lives into some kind of overarching narrative. In fact, many of his characters are self-conscious about their lack of “plans”; dealing with alcoholism, crumbling marriages, and/or bouts of unemployment, they are all too aware that their lives lack any form of long-term consistency. For example, in “Gazebo,” one character nostalgically notes, “Everything was fine for the first year. I was holding down another job nights, and we were getting ahead. We had plans. Then one morning, I don’t know.” As Mark McGurl has recently argued in The Program Era, Carver’s stories aestheticize lower-middle class suffering, “beautifying shame” without explaining it. This exposure of private shame to the public’s eyes is thematized within many of the stories. For example, in “Why Don’t You Dance?” a man separated from his wife places all of his household furniture out on his front lawn, exposing his domestic problems to strangers passing by. In “Viewfinder,” the narrator is fascinated by the idea of having a photographer take photos of him inside and on top of his house. Communicational dysfunction is an omnipresent problem for the stories’ couples and friends, who are cognizant of their inability to express themselves. In “Gazebo,” one character admits, “I don’t have anything to say. I feel all out of words inside.” But moments of non-verbal communion provide much needed relief. In “The Bath,” a husband tries to comfort his wife after their child is injured in a hit-and-run: “The husband sat in the chair beside her. He wanted to say something else. But there was no saying what it should be. He took her hand and put it in his lap. This made him feel better. It made him feel he was saying something.” More mystically, the titular conversation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” ends in a powerful moment of silence (with unintentional echoes of John Cage): “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.” Yet Carver’s stories just as often stage scenes of storytelling, confessing to the problematic pleasures of narrative making that his minimalism would seem to repress. So whereas in “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off” a son is subjected to his father’s account of cheating on his mother, in “The Calm” the narrator overhears a hunting story while sitting in a barbershop. As McGurl notes, Carver’s characters appear apolitical (when not explicitly conservative) and cut off from any involvement in the currents of History. Outside of household appliances and color televisions, his characters even seem left behind by the latest wave of modernization. No doubt the long downturn of the U.S. economy since the beginning of the 1970s played a constitutive role in the stories’ sense of economic (and therefore individual) stagnation. Carver’s association with the house style of creative writing programs might lead some readers to be suspicious of the level of calculated craft involved in these stories, but, at times, Carver’s infamously simple syntax achieves a singularly powerful affective impact.