Raymond Carver / What We Talk About When We Talk About Love / Review
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Raymond Carver, who Stephen King called “surely the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th century,” is generally regarded as having revolutionized the form. However, there are those who argue that the Carver style – what King says many critics “miscategorize as ‘minimalism’ or ‘dirty realism’ ” – is actually a product of his editor, Gordon Lish. The two had worked together successfully on Carver’s debut, the 1976 collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, but the relationship became strained when it came to the follow-up, a book Carver called Beginners, but which eventually appeared, in 1981, under Lish’s preferred title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It remains the book most general readers associate with “the Carver style.”
That style is on full display in “Gazebo.” It is characterized by a rigorous paring away of anything extraneous – subordinate clauses, adjectives, adverbs, anything remotely resembling verbosity or elaboration – as well as an unsentimental, almost vicious narrative aspect. King points out that Lish was responsible for excising epiphanies and moments of tenderness, resulting in stories that are chilly and austere. King finds this a failure when compared with Carver’s originals:
The contrast between “The Bath” (Lish-edited) and “A Small, Good Thing” (Ray Carver unplugged) is even less palatable. On her son’s birthday, Scotty’s mother orders a birthday cake that will never be eaten. The boy is struck by a car on his way home from school and winds up in a coma. In both stories, the baker makes dunning calls to the mother and her husband while their son lies near death in the hospital. Lish’s baker is a sinister figure, symbolic of death’s inevitability. We last hear from him on the phone, still wanting to be paid. In Carver’s version, the couple — who are actually characters instead of shadows — go to see the baker, who apologizes for his unintended cruelty when he understands the situation. He gives the bereaved parents coffee and hot rolls. The three of them take this communion together and talk until morning. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” the baker says. This version has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important: it has heart.
Interestingly, it is Carver’s version of the story, not Lish’s, that served as the inspiration for Robert Altman, who included it as one stream in his multivalent film adaptation of Carver’s selected stories, Short Cuts.
However, it is impossible to ignore Lish’s contributions to Carver’s legacy; the rapturous reviews that greeted the original publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love credited the collection with literary mastery that reinvigorated, if not completely reinvented, the short form. As Gaby Wood writes in The Guardian:
Lish’s edits become slices that depend on silence and suggestion, on the reverberations of the barely glimpsed. Carver’s original characters did a lot more talking – they told drunken anecdotes, they wept, they felt, they contemplated, confronted, confessed. These differences are not stylistic – unless you consider earnestness and emotion to be a matter of style rather than heart or disposition. In the most changed of these stories, the edited characters simply would not behave the way Carver’s original characters do; if they could, if they had the words or the taste to, there would, in a sense, be no story, since so much of Carver as we have known him until now is about what’s unspoken. The edited characters well up; the original characters spill over.
This is both true and not true of “Gazebo,” one of the best – and most despairing – stories in the book. Married couple Duane and Holly are typical Carver characters: working-class drinkers eking out a living as managers of a cut-rate motel. Duane has had an affair with the Mexican maid, named Juanita, and the crux of the story involves a conversation between husband and wife, each of them pounding Teacher’s whisky and trying to determine whether the marriage is salvageable.
Much has been made of Carver’s realistic prose style. Reviewing What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for The Nation, Robert Houston writes, “Nearly 200 years ago, Wordsworth and Coleridge started a revolution when they proclaimed their aim to write in ‘the language really used by men.’ Neither of them quite achieved that. … Raymond Carver has.” Well, no. As with other writers whose style has been praised for mimicking the way people actually talk – Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino – what we are dealing with in Carver is some of the most stylized writing around. Its very sparseness is canted to operate in an allusive, highly elliptical manner; like Pinter, it is what occurs in the silences that is frequently most important. Carver’s characters often talk at each other rather than talking to each other.
Houston would no doubt point to the dialogue tags in “Gazebo” as evidence of “the language really used by” people. Carver does not employ “said” as a verb to indicate speech, preferring the more colloquial “go.” So, for example, the second paragraph, featuring dialogue spoken by first-person narrator Duane, reads, “I go, ‘Holly, this can’t continue. This has got to stop.’ ” The fourth paragraph reads, “She goes, ‘Duane, this is killing me.’ ” At this early point in the story, we have no idea what “this” refers to; it comes clear that they are hashing out the affair, which has led Holly to try to throw herself out of a second-storey window. She later declares, in one of the story’s most bitingly humorous moments, “I’m moving to Nevada. Either there or kill myself.”
The conversation is strained and bitter, marked by pleading on Duane’s part and something like resignation on Holly’s. Duane’s narration is flat and affectless; his description of the steps leading up to the affair includes the bland, almost throwaway evasion, “Anyway, one thing and the other.” Holly is equally emotionless, though her dialogue at least allows the admission of some part of her inner state: “ ‘My heart is broken,’ she goes. ‘It’s turned into a piece of stone.’ ” And later, “ ‘Something’s died in me,’ she goes. ‘It took a long time for it to do it, but it’s dead.’ ” This passive construction – “Something’s died in me” – is immediately followed by an assertion much more active and accusatory: “You’ve killed something, just like you’d took an axe to it.”
The state of the relationship is inherent in the story’s verb tenses, which are easy to gloss over on a cursory reading. “Gazebo” is told in the present tense, except for moments in the narrative past in either Duane or Holly’s memory, and two key instances outside these flashbacks. The first is a short declarative sentence at the end of one section: “Holly was my own true love.” The verb “was” hits like a sledgehammer with its acknowledgement that something has died, not just inside Holly, but in the intimacy and trust the couple once shared. “It’s trust that you killed,” Holly tells Duane.
The other moment comes at the very end of the story. Two successive paragraphs of one line apiece conclude the narrative in a manner that is simultaneously open-ended and definitive:
“Duane,” Holly goes.
In this, too, she was right.
Here, we have Lish’s input on full display. Everything that is unspoken in Holly’s utterance exists in the interstice between her line of dialogue and Duane’s acknowledgement of her rightness.
Interestingly, though, Holly’s brief statement comes on the heels of a longer monologue, much more in the style of Carver’s original manuscript, that explicates the story’s title. Holly recalls a time when the couple was younger and they were out driving aimlessly. They got thirsty and stopped at the home of an elderly couple to ask for a glass of water. This is what Carver writes:
“Those old people must be dead now,” she goes, “side by side in some cemetery. You remember they asked us in for cake? And later on they showed us around? And there was this gazebo there out back? It was out back under some trees? It had a little peaked roof and the paint was gone and there were these weeds growing up over the steps. And the woman said that years before, I mean a real long time ago, men used to come around and play music out there on a Sunday, and people would sit and listen. I thought we’d be like that too when we got old enough. Dignified. And in a place. And people would come to our door.”
This is by some measure the longest speech in the story and it tilts in the direction of what King was suggesting about heart. The plaintive quality in Holly’s memory is palpable; the sense of loss that she and Duane will not grow old together and become the kind of couple who listens to music in a gazebo out back and have people come to their door is piercingly sad. And the notion that it is Duane who has killed this bucolic vision is contained in the monologue as it sets up the brutal final lines of the story.
In this instance, it is not Carver or Lish independently, but the two in tandem that provide “Gazebo” with its force and effect. Carver’s heart and Lish’s brutality combine to create a climax that steamrolls over a reader in a rush, not of easy sentimentality, but authentically earned emotion. Carver’s brief story, one shot in a barrage that helped change short fiction in the late 20th century, is a powerful stylistic monument to what the genre is capable of.