Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

1981

The stories of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) kind of make you wonder if Silvan Tomkins was thinking about him when he wrote about shame as the most vital and pronounced affect (along with its counterparts humiliation, contempt, and disgust). Shame is a sort of engine driving Carver’s work, which has also been called “dirty realism” (like that of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Anne Beattie). He pursues the problems of ordinary working-class and middle-class Americans, as well as social outcasts and misfits (he’d be interesting to compare with Flannery O’Connor in this sense).  I’ll just be writing on the eponymous story of the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, of which there are two versions – one more prolix, the other significantly cut down (by editor Gordon Lish) to something more muscular and streamlined (in other words, Carver:Lish :: Eliot:Pound).

It seems like Carver’s first version of the story, “Beginners” is concerned with the consciousness of the “real” vs. the “unreal,” in terms of both affection and phenomenological experience (“You’ve seen it in the movies even if you haven’t seen the real thing,” Herb says of the bloody accident). The flattening edits remove this consciousness from the prose, taking away, in turn, the characters’ consciousness of real and mediated experience – at least insofar as it is available for the reader to decipher. The depths are obscured, so that the edited story almost invites us to project (we can say this of Hemingway, Nabokov, Ellis, and a number of other “flat” writers as well). The main character loses, too, his cathartic moment of crying at the window, which is also the loss, to the second story, of the American pastoral. The tension between Terri and Herb is stronger than the original Laura and Nick.

Carver even talked about Lish’s edits in cardiologist’s terms – as a “surgery” Lish performed on his work, and worried that “my heart can’t take it.” Lish, for his part, seems to have wielded his higher class and more “literary” background over Carver and promised him that his edits would protect the writer from exposing too much, or appearing to lack craft. It is debatable which version is better; the original is more psychically complex, while the edited one has a sharper finish.

“BEGINNERS”

21 pages in length, the story begins in medias res in an odd tone that is both familiar and unspecific: “My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 927. Herb and Terri are the friends, Nick and Laura are the narrator and his wife. Terri claims her ex loved her so much he tried to kill her and ended up killing himself. Herb insists, “you know that’s not love,” and later “if you call that love, you can have it.” Herb’s example of true love, which he delivers as he gets drunker and tells Terri “Now just shut up for a minute. Okay?” is of an old couple badly injured in a car accident, which he invites the others to imagine based on the movies they’ve seen. They looked like “phony actors,” but this was “the real thing,” a parallel to the anxiety of performance surrounding love in the story as well 938. The old man says the last thought before the accident was the sadness of never seeing Anna again, and he is missing her in his recovery as well: “he pined for her. I nver knew what that word meant before” 940. As the couple are reunited, both Laura and Terri beg that the story end happily. They are both fine, Herb confirms as “The light seemed to be draining out of the room” 943. Herb’s desire to “carry off” Laura and his interest in vassals and knights demonstrates his confusion between chivalry and control, or perhaps the very fine line by which they are separated. Herb leaves to call his kids and Terri lets on that she’s worried about him because he’s suicidal. This reminds her of Carl, and she reveals that was once secretly pregnant with Carl’s baby, and that Herb himself performed the abortion. As Laura begins to comfort Terri, Nick pulls away to look out at the window, and we get an almost cinematic slow zoom outward: “I looked out… I looked past… I looked past… gate open… beyond… field of wild grass… another field… interstate connecting Albuquerque.” He sees the changed light and the blue sky like “the blue you see in tropical postcards.” His heart rate increases, then slows at Laura’s “penetrating” gaze when he turns around, which says to him “Don’t worry, we’ll get past this… That’s the way I chose to interpret the look anyway”. He looks back out, wishing there were horses to fix on: “I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house as long as there was something left to see.”

“WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE”

Cut down to just 12 pages, the edit of Carver’s original story switches to Mel (not Herb) McGinnis, and Terri’s ex is now Ed (not Carl). It begins: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 310. It’s interesting that the story is subtler about both women’s weight, but somehow Terri is vulnerable to abuse at least partly because she is “bone-thin,” it seems. Nick treats the question of whether he loves Laura much more plainly and flatly here, which actually makes it seem faker, paradoxically. When he begins the story of the old couple, Mel whispers, “Just shut up for once in your life,” which again seems harsher than the original. The story is shorter, and Mel is rougher with it:
He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? … the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife” 320. Mel’s thoughts about killing his wife here are also more equated to the violence of Ed – a stronger endorsement of the suspicion that he beats Terri. Mel doesn’t call his kids and the narrator’s heartbeat gets fast, but without resolution: “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.” This ending almost makes it feel like a stage play – we look at all of them as the lights dim, no resolution.

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