What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Raymond Carver
“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” Raymond Carver
American short story writer, poet, and essayist. The following entry presents criticism on Carver's short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” (1981).
“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” (1981) is one of Carver's best-known short stories. The short fiction collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, in which the story appeared, was published in 1981 to critical and commercial acclaim. The story was termed minimalist by critics upon its arrival, a term Carver himself rejected since it emphasized the narrative's form to the neglect of its human focus. Praised as highly original and one of Carver's finest tales, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” explores the vicissitudes of human emotion, especially the inconstancy and power of romantic love.
Plot and Major Characters
In “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” four characters sit around a kitchen table in the afternoon: Mel, a cardiologist; Terri, his wife; Nick, the narrator; and Laura, Nick's wife. They are drinking gin and discussing love. Mel asserts that true love is “nothing less than spiritual love” and emphasizes the chivalric nature of romance and devotion. Terri recalls the abusive and possessive love of her ex-husband, and maintains that his physical abuse was a sign of his love for her. Initially, Mel is shocked, but then confesses his fantasy of murdering his first wife, Marjorie, because she remains financially dependent on him. Nick and Laura believe that they are too much in love to be torn apart by external circumstances. Mel tells a story about an elderly couple badly injured in a car crash whom he attended in the hospital. They were still in love after many years and their sole wish was to see each other. The devotion of the husband and wife affects the group. After musing about the confusing and transitory nature of love, the two couples finish the gin and seem to arrive at a new understanding of their marriages.
Dominant “obsessions”—Carver preferred the term “obsession” to that of “theme”—in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” include the impermanence of love and the inadequacy of verbal communication to fully express the complexity of human passion. In the story, the four characters debate the nature of love, only to find that their ideas are wildly different—instead of love, they seem to be talking about jealousy, misunderstanding, and pain. In fact, their conversation underscores their alienation from one another. Some commentators perceive each couple as representing a different stage of love: Nick and Laura are in an early, idealistic period, while Mel and Terri are the older, more cynical couple. Critics have also discussed “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” as Carver's updated version of Plato's Symposium, stripped of its classical aspects.
Critics have aligned Carver with minimalist writers because of his truncated prose and elliptical delineation of characters and events in the volume What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, in which Esquire magazine claimed that Carver had “reinvented the short story.” The stories of this collection, which reach extremes of stark understatement, have been called spare and knowing masterpieces by some reviewers and laconic, empty failures by others. Specifically, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” has been described by some commentators as a story where nothing really happens, but others see it as a demonstration of the barely-furnished nature of Carver's distinctive style. Most critics laud the impact and power of the stories in the collection, including “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” Scholars have praised the realistic and evocative dialogue of the couples in the story as well as Carver's use of irony. Critically and popularly, Carver is acknowledged as a profound influence on contemporary writers and literature, and stories such as “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” are considered valuable, original contributions to the American short fiction genre.
Put Yourself in My Shoes 1974
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? 1976
Furious Seasons, and Other Stories 1977
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love 1981
The Pheasant 1982
Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories 1983
If It Please You 1984
The Short Stories of Raymond Carver 1985
Those Days: Early Writings 1987
Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories 1988
Short Cuts: Selected Stories 1993
Near Klamath (poetry) 1968
Winter Insomnia (poetry) 1970
At Night the Salmon Move (poetry) 1976
Two Poems (poetry) 1982
This Water (poetry) 1985
Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (poetry) 1985
Ultramarine (poetry) 1986
A New Path to the Waterfall (poetry) 1989
(The entire section is 93 words.)
SOURCE: Marsh, Meredith. “The Mutability of the Heart.” New Republic 184 (25 April 1981): 38–40.
[In the following laudatory review of the short story collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Marsh contends that the title story “suggests many of the problems of both love and conversation.”]
“‘I'll see if anybody's home,’” says the nameless boy in “Why don't You Dance?,” the first short story of Raymond Carver's masterful collection. The boy and his girlfriend, who are furnishing their first apartment, have happened upon an odd yard-sale in which the contents of the house have been reassembled on the lawn exactly as they stood inside. An extension cord even allows the blender, television, and lamps to keep on whizzing and glowing in the twilight. “‘Whatever they ask, offer ten dollars less,’” the girl advises. “‘… they must be desperate or something.’” She is wrong only in using the plural pronoun. All the occupants of Carver's houses are desperately alone, whether or not they are living with each other.
Apparently the enigmatic man who lives in this house has been left by someone, and he sells the furnishings of his broken life at prices that the youngsters find absurdly low. In their eagerness to begin living together they never guess that, were the man a stranger driving past his own sale, he would not stop. His-and-her...
(The entire section is 1758 words.)
SOURCE: Houston, Robert. “A Stunning Inarticulateness.” Nation 233, no. 1 (4 July 1981): 23–5.
[In the following review, Houston regards “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” as emblematic of Carver's short stories.]
Raymond Carver is a pernicious alchemist. Take this setting, for example, from the beginning of the title story of his new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: “The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from someplace else.”
Nearly all of the elements of a Carver story are here: people with the most ordinary of local habitations and names, rootless, with busted marriages behind them, who drink cheap gin at kitchen tables and for whom the outside world arrives over kitchen sinks. Base metals, dross indeed, to most writers. How many nowadays would have the gumption to attempt to dazzle, to move, with such clay? Or more to the point, how many could succeed in molding it into some of the finest and most original stories of their generation?
That's why Raymond Carver is an alchemist. And that's why he is pernicious. With his primer-simple language, his terrible lucidity, his...
(The entire section is 1562 words.)
SOURCE: Bumpus, Jerry. “Gut Shot.” American Book Review 4, no. 2 (January 1982): 8.
[In the following review, Bumpus discusses the dominant themes of the stories in What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.]
Like the buck in “The Calm,” people in Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are still on their feet, though mortally wounded. “It was a gut shot. It just like stuns him. So he drops his head and begins this trembling. He trembles all over. … So I shot again but missed. Then old Mr. Buck moves back into the brush. But now, by God, he doesn't have any oompf left in him. … I'd rammed one right in his guts.” He doesn't track down and finish off the buck, but in the other 16 stories there is no one to blame for all the pain. The suffering which people inflict upon each other, especially those they love, happens almost accidentally—the result of natural eruptions of the inner self. In the title story [“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”], a woman tells how one man loved her so much he tried to kill her. “He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room. My head kept knocking on things. … What do you do with love like that?”
Estrangement recurs in these stories, and the relationship...
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SOURCE: Aarons, Victoria. “Variance of Imagination.” Literary Review 27, no. 1 (fall 1983): 147–52.
[In the following excerpt, Aarons emphasizes the significance of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” in Carver's short story oeuvre.]
Writer Guy Davenport, in the title work of his collection of essays, The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981), argues that the imagination, that process that governs the way we perceive the world, has boundaries, boundaries we cross while trying to shape and define our experiences. He begins “The Geography of the Imagination” with a definition of the imagining process, emphasizing the differences that emerge from divergent perceptions of and responses to the world:
The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.
Davenport goes on to say that discourse itself is an act of the imagination, one that creates differences, crosses boundaries, and seeks to make sense of experience.
Contemporary fiction, in its variousness of style and content,...
(The entire section is 1537 words.)
SOURCE: Carlin, Warren. “Just Talking: Raymond Carver's Symposium.” Cross Currents 38, no. 1 (spring 1988): 87–92.
[In the following essay, Carlin considers “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” to be a theological exploration of love and finds parallels between Carver's story and Plato's Symposium.]
John Updike, in the course of a visit to Paris in the summer of 1986, was interviewed in the popular literary review, Le magazine litteraire.1 He comments on the stylistic and mechanical excellence of many young writers in America. He then goes on to mention his one serious complaint: Their stories, he says, are too localized, too provincial, and as a result the themes of those stories are too limited. “Young talented writers,” he says, are closed up in the world they describe. Where,” he asks, “is Plato in all of that?”
The question is challenging. Where is Plato in all of this? Where are the great universal ideas? Where is the eternal? These questions are appropriate, I believe, because much in American writing today is particular, personal and regional. This particularity may strike us as an accurate description of the lives of many Americans, as a kind of contemporary realism; yet it is rather limiting. Plato, if present, is not manifest.
Updike's implication that eternal concerns are lacking in contemporary American short...
(The entire section is 3082 words.)
SOURCE: Saltzman, Arthur M. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In Understanding Raymond Carver, pp. 100–23. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Saltzman identifies the impermanence of love as the dominant theme in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”]
Frustrations burn like scraped nerves throughout Carver's third collection. Every story documents the ducks and feints of couples who prefer the static of “human noise” to the rigors of more substantial contact. Carver continues to write about America's written-off—people who cannot communicate and bemoan that impairment constantly. What they talk about when they talk about love is usually anything but. As in the preceding collections Carver's characters settle for abbreviations; because the ties that bind them together are so tenuous, they are forever making long stories short.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is Carver at his most astringent. The prose style displays the subtle ravages it recounts and runs almost to formula: gelid, skeletal sentences, stifled descriptions, pedestrian diction, and a narrative voice that “seems to come from the furniture.”1 Carver has received regular congratulations for the economy of his language, but “economy,” with its connotations of clarity, effectiveness, and control, hardly...
(The entire section is 5671 words.)
SOURCE: Campbell, Ewing. “Breakthrough: What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 31–3, 45–7. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Campbell lauds the complexity and accomplishment of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”]
When What We Talk about When We Talk about Love appeared in 1981, its spare style and unity of method caught the attention of reviewers and readers alike. Suddenly Raymond Carver, working consistently in a minimalist idiom, had people talking about the renaissance of the short story and about his new collection as the masterpiece of minimalism. After he had labored for almost two decades in relative obscurity, its impact created a breakthrough for him and opened up new opportunities. His sudden fame also left him with a feeling of wonder and elevated confidence: “It's a continual amazement to me, this attention that's come along. But I can tell you that after the reception for What We Talk About [What We Talk about When We Talk about Love], I felt a confidence that I've never felt before” (Simpson, 210).
The handsome little volume with the long catchy title provided something else as well, a selection of previously published stories subjected to rigorous cutting, “cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone” (Simpson,...
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SOURCE: Runyon, Randolph Paul. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In Reading Raymond Carver, pp. 131–35. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Runyon offers a stylistic analysis of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”]
In the title story [“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”] of the collection [What We Talk about When We Talk about Love], two couples are sitting around talking and drinking gin: Mel, a cardiologist; his wife, Terri; the narrator, Nick; and his wife, Laura. Terri recalls her lover Ed, who used to beat her. “He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you, you bitch’” (138). Mel argues that such violent behavior couldn't have been love, while Terri maintains that it was. Mel recounts Ed's threats against his life, and Ed's eventual suicide.
Mel then wants to give what to him is the definitive example of true love. He had performed surgery on an elderly couple who were gravely injured in a car accident. They were given only a 50 percent chance of survival. Becoming increasingly drunk from the gin as he tells this story, Mel gets sidetracked and says that if he could be reincarnated he'd like to come back as a knight. “You were pretty safe wearing all that armor. … what I liked about knights, besides their ladies, was that they had...
(The entire section is 1561 words.)