What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Raymond Carver
I struggle with short stories. There you are, I've said it. I often find myself finishing one and thinking 'but what does it mean?', because there is a feeling that a short story should be conveying some great message or life lesson in its few pages. They can be a bit tricksy you see. Hemingway captured a story in six words (For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn) and you can't beat that for brevity. Some go for the killer first line but Chekhov wrote the perfect opening for The Lady With The Dog. More often than not it's a paradigm shifting final paragraph or a story which is just kookiness from start to finish. I have recently been impressed by A M Homes and Miranda July who in different ways have shown that short fiction can still have developed characters, plot and leave the reader fully satisfied.
I was given this collection as a Valentine's gift which, with its subject matter and sometimes bleak outlook, may seem a little twisted but the first book I bought for my wife was Angels by Denis Johnson and anyone who has read that (and if you haven't I recommend it) will know that it is not the story of a happy relationship. The spare, minimalist style of these stories is well known so the first thing that surprised me was the sense of humour that pokes through every now and then. In the the story Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit our narrator deadpans:
I've seen some things. I was going over to my mother's to stay a few nights. But just as I got to the top of the stairs, I looked and she was on the sofa kissing a man. It was summer. The door was open. The TV was going. That's one of the things I've seen.
Then comes the punchline.
My mother is sixty-five.
And he keeps doing that, using each new paragraph to develop this scenario and make it more and more entertaining. Even with a sad tale like The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off which begins:
I'll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was Dummy, that Dummy died. The first thing was Pearl Harbour. And the second thing was moving to my grandfather's farm near Wenatchee.
And after telling the story of the sad demise of Dummy he can't resist a throaway finish.
But as I said, Pearl Harbour and having to move back to his dad's place didn't do my dad one bit of good, either.
There is lots to unsettle as well. Tell The Women We're Going seems to be detailing an extra-marital dalliance by best friends Jerry and Bill but with the final paragraph Carver executes one of those paradigm shifts that sets your head spinning, forcing you to look on the whole story differently. These short stories, many of which are just a few pages, are deceptively rich, one reason perhaps that So Much Water So Close To Home was so effectively adapted into a feature film Jindabyne last year. It isn't that they're vastly detailed, the prose as I've said is unembellished but with it's acutely observed dialogue, like any good play, there is plenty of subtext to infer from what these characters say to one another.
The title story is slightly longer (at a massive 14 pages) and a classic 'plotless' short story. Two couples sit in a kitchen discussing love. Mel is a cardiologist, a fact which 'gives him the right' to hold forth on matters of the heart. His second wife Terri speaks about her previous partner Ed who was abusive but whom she maintains loved her. Mel isn't so sure, 'The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people'. He however has an acrimonius and money draining relationship with his ex wife, who is allergic to bees, 'If I'm not praying she'll get married again, I'm praying she'll get herself stung to death by a swarm of fucking bees.'
Nick and Laura on the other hand are still in the 'honeymoon phase' of their second marriage. They communicate their love physically with small gestures; a touch of the hand or leg, an affectionate smile. It is Mel who dominates the increasingly drunken talk. First with his belief that any one of them, losing their partner, would grieve, move on and love again. He later tells them all a story about an old couple in hospital after a traffic accident. Despite the fact that they are both going to pull through the man remains depressed because he cannot turn his head to look at his wife. 'I mean it was killing the old fart just because he couldn't look at the fucking woman.' As they finish the bottle of gin and evening draws in Carver conjures quite brilliantly through his narrator Nick an ending which allows us to join in, a moment of contemplation:
Terri said, "Now what?"
I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.
What does it all mean?