What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Summary
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love vaulted Raymond Carver to the forefront of literary attention in the 1980’s. His pared-down style was praised and maligned, and he was celebrated as his generation’s most capable spokesperson for blue-collar frustration.
Ordinary life is the antagonist throughout the seventeen stories. Short on education, Carver’s people work assembly lines, wait tables, stock shelves, and manage second-rate motels. Their houses are trashy; their cars and furniture break down. Treading debt, they sell off their belongings at reduced prices or bank on getting lucky at the local bingo hall. Even their weekends and vacations turn out miserably. After years of hard work, they have little to show for their efforts. Most turn to alcohol, knowing that the things they want most for themselves and their families are never going to happen.
These low-rent tragedies are played out between men and women. Some couples are just beginning their relationships, some are locked in unfortunate marriages, and others are divorced. Carver explores in each story some aspect of “dis-ease,” a term he often used for “a certain terrible kind of domesticity.” In “Gazebo,” for instance, Holly and Duane, a young married couple, have arrived at an impasse because of Duane’s infidelity. He and Holly try to get past the issue by getting drunk and making love, but her trust has been shattered. Their future is now vastly different from what Holly had once romantically envisioned, and silence engulfs them. Claire in “So Much Water So Close to Home” is amazed to learn that her husband and his friends had found a dead girl in a lake they were fishing and continued on with their three-day vacation before reporting to the authorities. In the end, Claire feels herself drowning in emotions that are too murky for Stuart fully to understand.
The collection’s title story unites youth and age, innocence and experience, and failure and enduring hope. Love, Carver shows, traverses a vast spectrum. It can be impoverished and suicidal or it can be spiritual and life-fulfilling. Mel, the narrative’s “heart specialist,” tells his wife and the newlywed couple they have invited over for drinks that they should feel “ashamed” when they act like they know what they are talking about when they talk about love. It is too extraordinary to explain and all attempts to do so are destined to fail.
About identifying with America’s underclass, Carver said: “They’re my people. I could never write down to them.” His realistic depictions of their struggles and thwarted dreams have made Carver one of the most recognized short story writers of the second half of the twentieth century.
Nick, who is Mel’s close friend, recounts a conversation that the two men and their wives had over gin and tonics in Mel and Terri’s kitchen. The remembered dialogue is dominated by Mel, who is determined to articulate a definition of real love. Nick occasionally departs from recounting the conversation to remark briefly on the room, or on the progress of their drunkenness, or to give background information about himself or whoever is speaking. The story begins with Nick’s suggestion that because Mel was a cardiologist, that sometimes “gave him the right.”
Nick says, as background information, that Mel spent time in a seminary before going to medical school. Mel thinks that real love is nothing less than spiritual love. Terri recalls Ed, the man with whom she lived before she lived with Mel. Ed, she says, loved her so much he tried to kill her. She describes his brutal treatment of her, and she wonders what can be done about love like that.
Mel disagrees strongly with Terri’s contention that Ed’s feelings for her were love. As they argue about it, Mel accuses Terri of being a romantic. Nick and Laura are reluctant to judge, but when Terri says that when she left Ed, he drank rat poison, Laura is shocked. Mel tells them that Ed is dead and begins...
(The entire section is 1,858 words.)