Raymond Carver Praise
"What we talk about, when we talk about love"
Raymond Carver was an American short-story writer and poet. He died in
1988, of cancer. So many of my heroes have died of cancer, it seems to
be an illness that feeds off talent as much as off the body.
Raymond Carver had, by any stretch of the imagination, a difficult
life. He was extremely poor for many years, he was an alcoholic for a
lot of the time, he had tempestuous relationships with women.
He is, in my view, the best American writer there has ever been,
although he never wrote a single novel. If you want to take a look at
American life, read one of his stories.
If you want to learn about people, read four or five of his
Carver was a great disciple of Chekov, who believed that short stories
could throw a light on significant moments in the lives of ordinary
people, even if the plot of the story itself seemed very quiet.
For the most part, Carver's stories are simple and quiet. He doesn't go
in for plots that twist or shock endings. Most of them seem to have no
ending whatsoever, like life. The reader is just left thinking quietly
about a small moment when they had a glimpse into someone else's
Carver writes, more than anyone else, about ordinary people, trying to
get along with their lives. He has lived amongst these people, he has
done menial jobs to make ends meet.
Carver has been described as a 'minimalistic' author. I think that's a
bit wide of the mark, there are many subtle counterpoints in small
details in his story to the main theme.
What is true, is that Carver was very interested in the pure simplicity
of story-telling. He makes his words carry their weight, anything that
is not of purpose, he would cut out. His technique is to use ten words
whether other writers would use twenty-five. As he progressed as an
author, in his own words, he stopped cutting stories to the bone and
began cutting them to the marrow.
Once he achieved what he was seeking in this area, he moved away from
it, his final collection of stories being longer and fuller than in the
This means that the stories are lean, nothing is wasted. They have a
wonderful purity to them. They are descriptive, but Carver says what is
needed and gets out.
In "Neighbours", Carver tells a story about a couple who agree to look
after the apartment of another couple while they are on vacation. The
man goes in to feed the fish and water the plants and out of mild
curiousity starts to look through drawers, taking surreptitious sips
from their liquor bottles.
His curiousity becomes a compulsion and he eventually begins trying on
the clothes of the people who own the apartment, even trying on the
woman's underwear. By the end of the story, his wife has become
involved in a similar preoccupation, which revitalises their
However, with the apartment in disarray and evidence of their
curiousity and breach of trust inside, the couple end up locked out of
the apartment, unable to get back in. Their fear and sadness seems as
much at the loss of their treasure as the worry of being found
'Don't worry, ' he said into her ear. 'For God's sake, don't
They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as
if against a wind, and braced themselves.
In " Fat ", Carver takes the voice of a waitress, describing to her
friend a customer, a fat man with huge fingers who comes into the
restaurant and orders a lot of food.
He works his way through it and the waitress describes it in such a way
that you can almost feel a film of butter greasing your fingers when he
picks up buttered rolls to eat with soup. The friend perceives the
story as comedy, an entertainment that the man was so fat, but this
doesn't seem to be what the waitress is trying to say.
You get left with an almost infinite sadness about the fat man in the
restaurant, feeling that you want to hug him and hold him. There is a
barely tangible suggestion that the story will end with the man dying
at his table, but this isn't the case.
The waitress is left, with her pleasant but unsatisfactory partner and
she cannot stop touching her stomach, feeling it between her fingers,
imagining that she is fat.
The reader is denied a neat ending to the story and is instead left
with the feelings and emotions that the writer has conveyed.
In "A Small Good Thing", Carver tells of a woman ordering a birthday
cake with icing for her son. The son later dies in a car accident and
the family are plagued by phone calls which say, "Did you forget about
your boy ? ".
Eventually they are at the end of what they can bear and realise that
it is the baker calling about the cake, which they never
They go down to challenge the baker, to show him how heartless and
cruel he is, even if only by accident. Instead, they end up sitting in
the bakery, watching the baker go about his trade, making his bread and
cakes and achieve a sort of peace in this.
In "Cathedral" a working-class man is grouchy and slightly jealous when
his wife's pen-friend, a blind man comes to stay with them. The blind
man and his wife have an intimacy that seems lacking in the marriage,
the wife was writing to the blind man years before she met her husband
and he knows her better than her husband does.
The narrator is not only jealous of the blind man, he is openly
hostile. He makes no effort to disguise his dislike and is almost
mocking of his visitor's disabilitity. He entices the blind man to
smoke dope and then in an astonishing display of ignorance and
prejudice, turns on the television set, well aware that the blind man
cannot see what is on.
There is an amazingly moving sequence where the husband grudgingly
spends some time with the blind man, describing for him what is on
television - a cathedral. He tries to describe the cathedral, but it is
difficult to express - the blind man suggests that he draw it, while
both men hold the pen. For reasons that are hard to express, this is
such a touching and painful moment, the man seems through this to find
a way of experiencing life anew, of looking again at things he felt
were jaded and finding them to be truly marvellous.
It is a simple experience which transcends the experience itself, to
becoming something of great import for the character. This episode,
really is what Carver's writing is about at essence. He was interested
in the strangeness that lay concealed beneath the everyday, the banal.
He was a poet of the prosaic world.
In "Errand" Carver pays direct tribute to his greatest influence, the
writer Chekhov. He describes the last moments of Chekhov's life, at
first in a tone befitting a great writer, an almost biographical
But later, he describes how Chekhov had ordered champagne from the
hotel before his death; he describes how the young bellboy brings the
champagne up. The great writer dies and the widow issues orders to the
bellboy, who is well aware that the guest was very famous, but
mystified by the situation.
It is the human business which Carver focuses on, the tiny detail of
the bellboy retrieving the champagne cork from the floor before
attending to the arrangements. This tiny moment makes the death of the
great writer seem all the more poignant, and yet fleeting.
In "What we talk about when we talk about love", probably his longest
story, Carver writes of two couples talking about love and romance.
They all have something to say on the subject and it becomes clear
during the conversation that the loves they currently have for their
current partner are not as incandescent and fierce as the love they
once had for previous partners.
Interestingly, the narrator of the story, Nick is almost silent. His
friend Mal, who is a cardiologist has most to say, he is the driving
force behind the story, talking about love and what we mean by it.
There is obviously significance to his career - he is a heart surgeon,
talking about matters of the heart.
Mal's ex-wife is very hostile and he is still paying her alimony.
'She's 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
Mal's current partner, Terri was previously involved with a man named
Ed, who was violent to her and shot himself after she moved in with
Mal. Mal cannot accept that Ed loved Terri, his violence to her says to
him that Ed couldn't understand love. This is not the view that Terri
takes, she is certain that Ed loved her.
Mal can't really accept that he once loved his ex-wife, but realises
that he must have done, once.
Nick and Laura have only been together a short while, and seem to be
deeply in love, but Nick's description of them damns them with faint
praise, "In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy
each other's company. She's easy to be with."
Carver is telling of an America where love has ceased to be permanent,
where someone can be your lover one year and a bitter foe, wrangling
over money in court the next. In a world where so many families have
been ripped apart by divorce, couples began to form relationships that
were 'easy-going', with people who just liked each other; but these are
at least as brittle as the tempestuous relationships that were driven
by passion rather than fear.
He ends on a note which is quite chilling, '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
The heart is what leads us to fall in love, but it is also a force that
keeps us alive. It is the impulses of the body which causes love and
the idea of love, it is not an intellectual function. You can't keep
the impulses of the body reined in, to protect yourself from the
consequences of love.
Raymond Carver wrote dialogue that sounds fresh and realistic, the
voice of the people of America who at that time lacked a voice. He told
stories about matters of small consequence to outsiders, but of huge
importance to the people involved, epiphanies, moments of realisation,
I could go on for pages describing the short stories, so many are just
utterly wonderful. He dealt with real people and real situations, yet
gave them an air of mystery and wonder. The voices, the tones he used
in his stories gave them a sense that they were utterly real.
Look at the opening lines to "Gazebo" - "In the morning she poured
Teacher's onto my belly and licked it off. . In the afternoon, she
tried to leap out of the window. "
Read the account in "Menudo" about a man whose mother has died in a car
accident, the guilt he feels about not sending her money for a radio
that she wanted, that she felt would make a difference to her life ( "
I can't afford any radios, is what I wrote." ) .
This guilt is emphasised when he goes down to the police station and
sees that the shopping she had bought that day is on a table, a
grapefruit, some orange juice, a bag of ground mince, already turning
No other writer makes me as jealous as Raymond Carver. His work
astounds me and moves me every time I read it.
Like most other people of my age, my first glimpse at short stories was
through the television show, "Tales of the Unexpected". It takes a long
time to get your mind away from the idea that short stories should have
a sting in the tale.
The immediate quest as a reader is to be able to say to yourself,
"what's this all about then ? " and find an answer. When a writer
reduces the importance of plot in a story, we become lost, flailing
about for structure and purpose.
Just take a breath, calm yourself and listen to what Carver is actually
saying with his stories.
The tragedy to Raymond Carver is that for so much of his life, he was
in emotional pain. He used this pain to good effect in his writing,
illuminating the small pain of blue-collar America. At the end of his
life, he had finally reached peace and happiness and it would have been
wonderful to see what lights he could have shed on this through his
fiction had he had the opportunity.