What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the American short story has always been more closely associated with lyric poetry than with its overgrown narrative neighbor, the novel. Regardless of whether short fiction clung to the legendary tale form of its ancestry (as in Nathaniel Hawthorne) or whether it moved toward the presentation of the single event (as in James Joyce) the form has always been a “much in little” proposition which conceals more than it reveals and leaves much unsaid.

There are two basic means by which the short story has pursued its movement away from the linearity of prose toward the spatiality of poetry—either by using the metaphoric and plurasignificative language of the poem or by radically limiting its selection of the presented event. The result has been two completely different textures in short fiction—the former characterized by such writers as Eudora Welty in the 1940’s and 1950’s and Bernard Malamud in the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose styles are thick with metaphor and myth, and the latter characterized by such writers as Ernest Hemingway in the 1920’s and 1930’s and Raymond Carver in the 1970’s and 1980’s, whose styles are thin to the point of disappearing.

Carver’s first collection of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, published in 1976 and nominated for a National Book Award, was, although drained of imagery and other language devices usually associated with prose lyricism, at least characterized by a play with the plenitude of language, exploiting talk as a means of understanding in the colloquial fashion of Sherwood Anderson. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, however, language is used so sparingly and the plots are so minimal that the stories seem pallidly drained patterns with no flesh and life in them. The stories fulfill the by-now familiar expectations of modern antifiction, associated with such writers as Julio Cortazar, Heinrich Böll, Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Eugène Ionesco, and others: they are antiplot, anticharacter, antitheme, and antianalysis. The stories are so short and lean that they seem to have plot only as one reconstructs them in memory. Whatever theme they may have is embodied in the bare outlines of the event and in the spare dialogue of characters who are so overcome by events and so lacking in language that the theme is unsayable. Characters often have no names or only first names and are so briefly described that they seem to have no physical presence at all; certainly they have no distinct identity but rather seem to be shadowy presences trapped in their own inarticulateness.

The charge that is often lodged against such fiction is that it is dehumanized and therefore cold and unfeeling. Such a charge ignores the nature of art that has characterized Western culture since the nineteenth century and which José Ortega y Gasset so clearly delineated thirty-five years ago in The Dehumanization of Art. In their nostalgia for the bourgeois security of nineteenth century realism, critics of so-called antifiction forget that the royal road to art, as Ortega delineates it, is the “will to style,” and to stylize “means to deform reality, to derealize: style involves dehumanization.” Given this definition of art, it is easy to see that Raymond Carver’s stories do emphatically embody “the will to style.” Carver realizes that the artist must not confuse reality with idea, that he must inevitably turn his back on alleged reality and, as Ortega insists, “take the ideas for what they are—mere subjective patterns—and make them live as such, lean and angular, but pure and transparent.”

The lyricism of Carver’s stories lies in this will to style in which reality is derealized and ideas live solely as ideas. Carver’s stories are more “poetic,” that is, more “artistic” than one usually expects fiction to be and thus help define the difference between the loose and baggy monstrous novel and the taut, gemlike short story. Georg Lukacs, in his Theory of the Novel (1972), describes the short story in a way that perfectly delineates Carver’s stories, for they select events that “pin-point the strangeness and ambiguity of life,” events that suggest the arbitrary nature of experiences whose workings are always without cause or reason. In Carver’s stories, as in the short story form generally, according to Lukacs, the focus is on “absurdity in all its undisguised and unadorned nakedness,” and the lyricism is concealed behind the “hard outlines of the event.” Absurdity, says Lukacs, “is given the consecration of form; meaninglessness as meaninglessness becomes form; it becomes eternal because it is affirmed, transcended and redeemed by form.”

The first story in the collection, “Why Don’t You Dance?,” is one of many examples of this particular kind of lyricism in Carver’s fiction. Plot is minimal, event is mysterious, character is negligible. A man puts all his furniture out in his front yard and runs an extension cord out so that things work just as they did when they were inside. A young couple stop by, look at the furniture, try out the bed, have a drink, and the girl dances with the owner. The conversation is functional, devoted primarily toward making purchases in a perfectly banal garage-sale way. At the conclusion, the young wife is telling someone about the event. “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.” The problem is, the event cannot be talked out; it is completely objectified in the spare description of the event itself. Although there is no exposition in the story, the reader knows that a marriage is over, that the secret life of the house has been externalized on the front lawn, that the owner has made a desperate metaphor of his marriage, that the hopeful young couple play out a mock scenario of that marriage which presages their own, that the event itself is a parody of events not told, but kept hidden, like the seven-eighths of the iceberg that Hemingway said could be left beneath the surface of prose if one knew one’s subject well enough.

Things not said because they are unsayable also underlie “Gazebo,” a story of a shadowy couple named simply Holly and Duane who have taken over as managers of a motel. As Duane says, everything was...

(The entire section is 2620 words.)