Raymond Carver’s classic short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was originally published in 1981 and has been the subject of some controversy over the years, with questions raised about the importance of editor Gordon Lish’s role in establishing the unique minimalist style that pervades each story. Such questions of authorship vs. editorship have been raised by New York critic D.T. Max and re-raised more recently with the publication of Carver’s original unedited manuscripts side-by-side with the published stories. However, for those who wish to experience the short story form at its very best, it is both refreshing and entertaining to leave these questions aside and read the Vintage Classics edition.
The collection opens with “Why Don’t You Dance?” in which a man has set up his bedroom furniture in the front yard of his house. The man drinks and considers the situation, and Carver’s expert use of textual form is immediately apparent; short sharp sentences and frequent paragraph breaks provide deep emphasis without ostentation. A single phrase in its own paragraph – “His side, her side” – provides depth of meaning to the scene as we realise that the protagonist is lonely, perhaps after a break-up. From the outset it’s clear that relationships, break-ups and alcohol will all be important themes in these stories. Short single-sentence paragraphs are a hallmark of this book, often used to sign-post important moments and sometimes as powerful as a knife to the heart.
The stories seem to get both longer and weightier as the collection progresses and the overarching themes are investigated in more depth. Textually, the stories are light and easy to read, yet they raise complex philosophical questions for the reader about the nature of modern life and love. The eponymous story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, is long by Carver standards at around 15 pages, and revolves around a gin-soaked conversation between two couples. As the gin flows and they “somehow got on the subject of love”, we are treated to a variety of interesting digressions on the topic. From the fleeting nature of love – “now I hate her guts” – to the idea that “it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love”, the conversation goes on until the gin runs out, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Carver’s own struggle with alcohol dependence.
There are 17 stories in the collection, and despite the common thematic linkage there is enough variation to retain interest and even become addictive, as you wonder where you’ll be taken to next. It is an interesting exercise to compare these stories with the originals drafts that have since been published, and to gain insight into the differences between Carver’s original vision and the masterpiece that Gordon Lish has helped to create. However, before doing this, it’s certainly worth reading and appreciating these stories in their Lish-edited form, purely to marvel at the final product.
Published by Vintage Classics
134 pages, paperback