Thirty years ago, in 1982, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love came out in a paperback edition, wrapped in wild acclaim and surrounded by a media buzz. I bought mine not long afterward, read it carefully, intently, then it went on the bookshelf where it stayed for decades.
Decades? How could a book that made such an impression be put aside for so long? Maybe it became too closely linked to a particular time and setting: the Pacific Northwest, where I went to college, a place that was fast leaving behind — or turning its back on — the working-class world of Carver’s characters. And yet it was impossible to forget the book, a perennial staple of writing programs, parts of which were adapted into films: Altman’s 1993 Short Cuts, the 2006 Jindabyne, and 2010’s unfortunate Everything Must Go.
Short Cuts and Jindabyne reprised Carver’s grim, taut and effective moral fable “So Much Water So Close to Home.” Carver cannily adapted his tale from “Guillemot Rock,” by the French master of the short story, Guy de Maupassant. Like Carver’s, Maupassant’s tale is a moral fable, more light-hearted and comical than the American’s, but whose account of friends on an annual bird hunting trip carries powerful undertones of crime, sin and fatality. Was it “Guillemot Rock”‘s narrative dilemma that appealed most to Carver or the story’s Zola-like touches of tragic atavism?
The guillemot is an extremely rare migrant with curious habits. … At the mating season a band of emigrants crosses the Atlantic every year and comes to lay their eggs and hatch them out on the same spot, the rock known as Guillemot Rock…. They are never to be found anywhere else. They have always come there, they have always been shot there, and still they come back; they will always come back.*
The sense of a tragic and inevitable return seems to have fully infiltrated Carver’s stories in What We Talk About, and one phrase from the book always came back to me; it seemed to sum up the character and tone of his writing, whether ‘dirty realist’ or ‘minimalist,’ as it came to be known. In “Why Don’t You Dance?”, the collection’s opener, two teenagers are seen through the eyes of the main character. As I recalled it, the man watches the two kids coming down the street and says to himself, “there was something about them. It was nice or it was nasty.” For me the phrase condensed the extreme compactness of Carver’s writing, its ambiguity and its tone of impending menace or reversal of fortunes; a hard-boiled style raised to a level of elemental clarity and offhand allusiveness.
When I took the book off the shelf recently I specifically looked for that phrase, knowing it was somewhere in the first pages. I noticed right away that the enigmatic main character was less opaque to me; I identified more with him because I was now closer in age to the man. Before, I had identified with the feckless “kids,” who were more my own age at the time, more like my baffled self reading the story, trying to divine the tragedy or disaster lurking in the older man’s unspoken background. And of course part of the story’s subject is just this switching of roles, as the “kids” adopt the cast-offs of the older man’s life, all unknowing of those objects’ presumably haunted backstories, and presumably doomed themselves, according to Carver’s fictional universe, to future heartbreak and defeat.
Then came the passage where I expected to find the memorable phrase, though it turned out it wasn’t the “kids” coming down the street but the man: “The man came down the sidewalk with a sack from the market.”** There ensues a series of exchanges between the man and the “kids,” in which they take advantage of him (bargaining for his furniture which inexplicably litters the yard) and he corrupts them, manipulates them (getting them drunk, etc.). It grows dark. Here comes the phrase, but not where I expected:
He looked at them as they sat at the table. In the lamplight, there was something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling.
Carver’s equivocal phrase is meant to suspend meaning and moral values, highlighting the characters’ efforts to understand their situations, but also role of the reader, an interpreter invited to join the scene. But I’m a different reader now. I wonder, considering the scene at the table and its place in the author’s work: is Carver’s narration blunt or merely brutal? Are his meanings ambiguous or indecisive? Is that famous phrase spare and laconic or is it just mean and parsimonious?***
The table turns. But did Carver turn the table, or is it the passage of time?
*Guy de Maupassant, “Guillemot Rock,” in Selected Short Stories, Roger Colet, trans. (London: Penguin, 1971), 275.
**Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Random House, 1981).
***With the release of Carver’s complete stories in the Library of America edition (2009), readers can more fully gauge the influence of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, on Carver’s early stories. Cross-checking What We Talk About against the manuscript it is based on, Beginners, one can argue that Lish’s version of “Why Don’t You Dance” is significantly more ominous and blunt than Carver intended. Notably, the memorable word “nasty” in the quote above is entirely Lish’s addition.