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

what-we-talk-about20091Raymond Carver is magic. Enchantment. His prose is sorcery. A handful of common words somehow reveal the depths of working class anxiety. It goes beyond minimalism or technique, beyond literary dissection.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood and the setting these stories evoke is familiar. Milkweed and cattails, an obsession with catching bass. Why bass?? I didn’t understand fishing then and I do not now. Old, wind-reddened men with inexplicable nicknames reminiscent of Disney characters like Dimmy or Smiley. Rusted cars on cinderblocks. My parents were married and I was born while they were teenagers, a predicament identical to most of Carver’s characters.

What I didn’t see as a pre-teen, before moving out to a more middle class neighborhood, was anything unordinary about the physical grind, the hopeless-hopeful conflict, and the booze and drug excess were only just becoming clear. Nor, of course, the love, drooping and hardy like weeds pinned between pavement, that is incredibly clear in retrospect and the subject of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The doomed romance of alcoholism and dashed hopes. And, just as unique and strange as the magic of Carver’s writing itself, is that despite love being probably the most common topic in all art — literature, film, songs, you name it — the sentiment here, the impetus behind the most memorable quote that I’ve appended to the end of this review, somehow feels unique, barely touched, new.

The best short story collections build on each other; they are not isolated occurrences. It’s hard to even isolate this collection as individual stories and not just facets of the same chiseled granite. It’s like people having the same conversations over and over, circling the same filthy drain.

There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me.

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