Tuesday, February 19, 2008

50 Book Challenge #2: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

I am about seven or eight books behind in reviews, and this is actually the most recent book I've read. I am better at reading than reviewing. So now I am just going to review books quickly without regard to how interesting or useful the reviews may be.

Oddly enough, I've never read this book, or much of Raymond Carver. TD, I am sure, would say it is because I wasted my time all those years reading "untestable" critical theory and Old English books that I can't remember because I read them in Old English, and so spent more time parsing and translating than I did actually reading.

So I'm catching up on modern fiction nowadays. And old canonical stuff too. Actually, I wonder what it is I did exactly those four years as an English literature major. Clearly, not reading much English literature. It astounds me how much TD has read even though he's a science major and has a real job--more than I have, I think, and even some critical race theory. I wonder if going to school actually depreciates the amount of free reading you do. And when I was reading literature for work and pleasure, I should not have taken so many ethnic studies lit courses . That was kind of a waste of time, in retrospect. The Joy Luck Club is not a book to be assigned in college.

Anyway, back to this book: it always felt weird that I never read it, especially since the title has become almost a pun nowadays, co-opted by journalists into pithy, mildly clever titles for their articles "What we talk about when we talk about ____" that is all very well and self-referencing enough to signify that they are literate and belong in the intelligentsia. Whatever.

It didn't impress me at first. In the first few stories, nothing seems to happen. They appear to be vague snapshots of emotion, a moment in a day in which nothing happens. It is like one of the very still, quiet schlubbed face paintings by Edward Hopper. Yeah, this is America. So?

But as you read the entire collection, the bigger picture of the culture and moral cosmology that Carver captures comes into view. It is as if by seeing all of these snapshots and emotions from a distance, or in the aggregate--say, pulled back from focus and into a photo album--one can see Carver's America.

This argues against the idea of a "greatest hits" approach to fiction, which the O.Henry prize collections tend to have. That is fine. It is hard to get introduced to new authors, and anthologies do a wonderful job of that. But it is also wrong to limit yourself to The Best American series. Just as your music library would be impoverished if you only had greatest hits albums or Time Life collection, so too is your fiction library impoverished by seeing stories de-contextualized from their surroundings. You do not read one chapter out of a book and call it a day. Even if short stories are more independent and contained than chapters of a book, they do have some relationship of coherence to the stories that surround them.

I like that each story in Carver's collection functions independently, but I also like that each story depends on the other to build a sense of overarching narrative, continuity, and meaning.

The prose is very spare and simple, as are the stories. But the cumulative impact of all the stories is one that resonates, amplified with fear and longing.

Fear? Yes. The more I read, the more terrified I became, by what people can do in or out of love, the violence under the surface, the fear and longing that come with having something you can lose. Some of the stories are actually quite disturbing, in a subtle, digging way.

The last story, the title story, is one that I didn't care for as much. It was too self-conscious. The people really did talk about love in a way that was too self-involved and too much like any other excavation of the delicate epiphanies of the bourgeoisie. It was like The Big Chill. I liked the other stories, where love was in the actions and undercurrents and the spaces between the words.