Essays and Criticism
Carver's Use of Figurative Language
Carver is best known for his minimalist writing style, as embodied in a sparse use of language and paired down prose. He is also known as a neorealist, capturing the working class milieu of bluecollar America with his mundane, naturalistic, everyday dialogue. Nevertheless, he does make use of figurative language throughout ‘‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’’ by exploring its central themes of love, relationships, communication, and alcoholism. Through the imagery of the knight’s armor, the beekeeper’s protective clothing, the ‘‘pill’’ and the word ‘‘heart,’’ Carver demonstrates that the surface level conversation of his four characters is only the tip of an emotional iceberg.
Since the character of Mel dominates the conversation, much of the figurative language is expressive of his own feelings about the subject of love. The image of the human ‘‘heart’’ takes on figurative connotations in the story, as it is referred to both in the mechanical sense, of the functioning of the human heart, and the symbolic sense, as the organ of love. Mel is a cardiologist, a doctor who operates on people’s hearts. The opening sentences of the story, in retrospect, play on the irony of Mel, a heart doctor, claiming to be an expert on matters of the heart: ‘‘My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, so sometimes that gives him the right.’’ Mel even describes his own work as that of ‘‘just...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)
The Middle Years: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Carver had stopped drinking by the time Furious Seasons was published, but he had not yet returned to writing. When he did, his stories were markedly different from what they had been. The obsessions were the same, but the stories were much darker, reflecting the hell of marital discord and alcoholism that Carver himself had experienced. Their style, moreover, was an exaggerated form of minimalism. Whereas he had once worried that a story like ‘‘Neighbors’’ might be ‘‘too thin, too elliptical and subtle,’’ Carver was now writing stories that would make ‘‘Neighbors’’ appear positively lush. As one critic has pointed out, in these new texts ‘‘language is used so sparingly and the plots are so minimal that the stories at first seem to be mere patterns with no flesh and life in them. . . . Characters frequently have no names or only first names and are so briefly described that they appear to have no physical presence at all; certainly they have no distinct identity.’’ Carver, looking back on the volume several years after its initial publication, told an interviewer that the texts in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love were ‘‘so pared down. Everything I thought I could live without I just got rid of, I cut out.’’ Urged on by his editor Gordon Lish, he began implementing Hemingway’s ‘‘theory of omission. If you can take anything out, take it out, as doing so will make the work stronger. Pare, pare, and...
(The entire section is 2121 words.)
The Several Varieties of Emotion
Readers often complain that nothing happens in stories like ‘‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’’ Two couples in this story—Mel and Terri McGinnis and Nick and Laura—sit around a table, drinking gin and talking about love. Several varieties of emotion, existing under the single rubric of love, enter into the conversation either in passing or at length—spiritual love, carnal love, chivalric love, idealized devotion, and even the sort of complex torment that exhibits itself in abuse, often murder, and sometimes suicide. Mel the cardiologist does most of the talking, and much of that about Terri’s former lover, Ed, who abused her, threatened murder, and finally succeeded on his second attempt at suicide.
Mel’s other anecdote focuses on an elderly couple injured in a car wreck. The injured husband drifts into depression because the bandages prevent his seeing his wife while they are in the hospital.
That is it—ostensibly. But of course that is not all there is to the story. The little ironies and revelations of the story help to develop a complete narrative that no summary can ever sufficiently provide. Although not explicit, they are capable of revealing the inability of these characters to see themselves or each other honestly.
The most graphic scene is Terri’s anecdote: Ed beat her one night, dragging her around the room by her ankles, repeating, ‘‘I love you, I love you, you b—.’’ She says...
(The entire section is 964 words.)