What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
Vintage, 159 pages
This powerful collection of stories, set in the mid-West among the lonely men and women who drink, fish and play cards to ease the passing of time, was the first by Raymond Carver to be published in the UK. With its spare, colloquial narration and razor-sharp sense of how people really communicate, the collection was to become one of the most influential literary works of the 1980s.
I attended the wedding of my brother’s best friend last week. I like weddings. It may be something that runs in the family since my brother is a wedding videographer. But I really, really like attending weddings, because it’s such a happy, happy day. Plus, I really like hearing wedding vows.
Anyway, my wedding weekend read is Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which I borrowed from Angus when I got the chance to check out his bookshelf. This is my first Carver, and the first time I have heard about him also because of Angus’ rave review. This is a collection of short stories about people who talk about, well, love. I figure it may be a fitting book to bring since it’s a wedding and all. What do people talk about when they talk about love in weddings?
Before I go to the proper review, let me tell you what people talk about when they talk about love in a wedding. Weddings are happy, happy days, not only for the couple but also for everyone who came to celebrate with them. It’s funny, though, how people often look forward to the wedding and see it as a “happily ever after”, when it is really just the start of something new. The priest gave this lovely homily during my brother’s best friend’s wedding that had all of us laughing and me thinking really hard. He talked about good memories and bad memories, and how ten, twenty years down the road, the couple will lose a lot of things: their youth, their health, their money. And when people lose these things, when life gets difficult, sometimes it’s harder to hold on and remember your commitment. And then he reminds them that they’re not the boss of each other, and getting married in the church – in front of God and in front of the people – is their promise of giving up the right to give up on each other, no matter how hard life gets. Then they said their vows, and…it was so real and so beautiful.
Then, I spent time with my parents over the weekend, and I took the time to observe how they treat and interact with each other. My parents have been married for 30+ years, and sometimes I think I take that for granted. That weekend, I saw how they act around each other, and I realized how their love is that quiet, enduring love that I also want for myself. There are some things that my mom would say or do that, if I were my dad, would rub me the wrong way and I would say something back in defiance…but my dad does nothing. Instead, he smiles, and just takes it and does something. My dad would do something, or say something that, if I were my mom, would feel like it lacks emotion or affection, but I see that my mom doesn’t see that. I see how they’re around each other and how they support each other and how they love us so much, and my heart just swells because I see a glimpse of what the priest said, and I see what kind of love I want, and the one that I wish I would be able to give, too. Imperfect, yet strong and enduring.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love isn’t too romantic — in fact, sometimes I think it’s not romantic at all. It’s not like the romance books I usually read, with fluff and cheese and swoon and kilig that makes them so fun to read. No, Carver’s collection of short stories about love is about love in many forms, but it dealt with love after all the kilig and swoon and cheese and fluff are gone. Most of the stories are melancholic in its nature, and for a moment, it didn’t seem like the right thing to read on a wedding weekend. But it seems perfect, too, because this book somehow set my thoughts straight — or at least, gave me a different perspective, after the reception is over and the wedding fuzzies have started to fade.
Most of the stories in this collection are stories of lonely people, or people seeing lonely people, or people talking about old experiences of loneliness that is related to love. The realness in these stories is what got to me: this is what could happen, days, months or years after the wedding day. These stories can happen, but it doesn’t mean that it is the only ending. Love doesn’t mean mistakes won’t happen, or your loved ones will always be healthy or you will never fight. It’s a little bit more complicated than that. The stories were short and the writing was simple, and sometimes I get surprised when a story is over and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was supposed to tell me. But as I read on, I realize that these stories are fragments of love in its everyday form, during the hard parts, and also, in some of the happy parts, too.
I liked most of the stories, but three stories stood out: After the Denim (“He’d tell them what to expect! He’d set those floozies straight! He’d tell them what was waiting for you after the denim and the earrings, after touching each other and cheating at games.“), Everything Stuck to Him (“Things change. I don’t know how they do. But they do without realizing it or wanting them to [...] he stays by the window, remembering. They had laughed. They had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come, while everything else – the cold, and where he’d go in it – was outside, for a while anyway.“) and the title story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (“I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.“). When I was done, I found myself rereading parts of some of my favorite stories (especially the last one), and then sitting down at home and thinking about love.
Because really, what do people talk about when they talk about love? My friends and I do this a lot, and while we all have these ideas and dreams and everything, I don’t think we will ever grasp what love really is about. The best we can do, I think, is try.
Let’s have a toast. I want to propose a toast. A toast to love. To true love. (p.141)
This is my first Carver, and I don’t think this will be my last. :)
My copy: borrowed paperback from Angus