I’ve only ever met one person called Raymond irl and don’t have any Facebook friends with the name. It’s a name that has odd connotations to me: it doesn’t make me think of the same-aged human I went to primary school with, it instead sounds like an old man’s name, despite me never having encountered an example. There’s something ancient and out of date to it, in my mind. It isn’t, though, is it, as Raymond Carver – who’s probably the most famous Raymond to have existed other than possibly Chandler1 – was writing and publishing his best works in the late 70s and early to mid 80s.
I’ve never read any Carver, and everything I know about him I learnt from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring and occasional remarks in the works of Haruki Murakami, who’s a big fan.
My not having read any Carver before is somewhat deliberate. I never read him when I was young, and since entering this ultra-depressing stage where I’m no longer young enough to justify the lack of adult signifiers in my life other than baldness but am still not middle-aged, I’ve been deliberately avoiding the canonical dead white males I’ve never read. Instead of ploughing through the North American sexists I missed when an undergraduate, I’ve been trying to expand my literary knowledge with wider reading in the contemporary scene as well as writing by non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male people. It’s led me to some great places, but – as much as I’m enough of a wishy-washy liberal to not want to say this – it also means I’ve eschewed prose I’d probably really enjoy.
Raymond Carver – who’s often described as a “dirty realist” in places that synch him up with my pre-blogging favourite Pedro Juan Gutiérrez – is an obvious example. I don’t have much love for short stories but really like short books. And short stories that are in short books and deal with topics I’m interested in I do like. And what kind of books do I like?
Well, I like books that are about:
- sad people
- desperate people
- guilty people
- horny people
- lonely people
- addicted people
- struggling people
- hopeless people
- hopeful people
- hurtful people
- normal people
- depressed people
- drunk people and
- falling apart people.
So why in Fuck’s name haven’t I got into Raymond Carver before?
The real risk of reading Raymond Carver as a dysfunctional, barely employed borderline alcoholic is the ring of familiarity, the chiming resonance of reciprocity. He writes arguments I’ve had, experiences I and [the people I’d describe as] my friends [if I was more self-confident] and family have had, he writes painfully realistic descriptions of life as unglamorous, unthrilling, just normal, y’know. Normal, unfancy, unforgiving, life.
Carver’s short stories are short, which is something that always impresses me in short story collections. The longest is less than 20 pages, and most of them are less than ten. Bliss.
I like comparatively short stories in short story collections because I’ve never read a collection where at least some of the stories aren’t shit. If they’re short it means you, me, the reader, isn’t stuck somewhere they don’t want to be for very long. Carver, however, has torn up my prejudices about short story collections, because there isn’t a single piece in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that sticks out due to its poor quality.
There are 17 stories here, and none of them are bad. Not one. Not a single story in this collection is tiresome, badly structured, unmoving, underwhelming or inconsistent. This is, without any serious competition, the best short story collection I’ve ever read.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is the first short story collection I’ve consumed that felt like a good book. It is thematically and tonally consistent, Carver evokes around 100 characters fully and intensely in a few short pages almost 20 times, he writes family life and ennui and substance addiction and love and domesticity and excitement and violence and regret and shame with constant dexterity. He tells 17 stories, all of which feel believable and alive. Even the ones that contain murder and sexual assault and extreme violence don’t feel exaggerated, don’t feel unliveable. This is the grime of real life, an accurate depiction of the lust and boredom that threatens to overwhelm all of us who aren’t pious, delusional, fuckheads.
There are 17 stories and bits of each of them echo in my head. Stories of break-ups and heartbreak and romance and pain. Of the excitement of desire and the destruction of love, of children and pets and housework and money and booze and sex and physical and psychological pain. Carver’s characters vary in their affluence and their societal position – we meet doctors as well as labourers, people running a hotel franchise as well as the unemployed, farmers, the retired, people who are traditionally successful but severely mentally flawed, sad people brought lower by their own actions and those of other people.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is heartbreaking and difficult reading. I cried at some point during pretty much every story, sometimes when Carver evoked great beauty and happiness, other times when he evoked pain, familiar pain. People here are real, multi-faceted, hungry and greedy but yearning for happiness. Life is merely a stopgap as we wait to die, y’know, it’s that kind of attitude and it hit me, smacked me, slapped me, woke me up, mirrored me.
Carver evoked unexceptional lives, the dark bits, the dirty bits, the real bits. Though I’ve never been involved in violence, the way he wrote the tale of a murder, ‘Tell the Women We’re Going’, felt very believable, as too did ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’, where a group of friends are ostracised by the inhabitants of their town after they find a dead body on the first day of a fishing trip but do nothing about it until their fun, preplanned, weekend is over. Seeing unpleasant actions spun from momentary selfishness, the empty failures that arise as a result of the pursuit of easy lives… Real consequences to real actions, here. Real life, and real horrors.
This is an upsetting but deeply human read. I cried many, many, times, but I also held an ultimate sense of hope, because though there are many low moments here, Carver evidences the human propensity for happiness, too. Happiness may be fleeting, but so is deep pain. And though we may all swim in a psychological sea of ultimate suffering leading towards bodily decay and eternal death, there are islands of hope, islands of peace, and islands of calm within that.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is humanising, moving and perfectly pitched.
I wish I’d discovered this half a decade or more ago, before I felt guilty reading books from the patriarchal canon. Really worth a read if you haven’t touched it.
NOTE ON MY PREJUDICE: I’d always presumed Carver would be misogynistic, but although there are men who hate women here, we are never expected to like or respect them, and in many places it is women who are breadwinners, homeowners and more financially mature. Likewise, it is women as much as men whose drinking and promiscuity has affected other people’s lives. This book feels contemporary, modern, it’s a strong and universal collection and really touched me. Thanks, Ray.
1. As in Raymond Chandler, I’m not blowing your minds and revealing the “true name” of Chandler Bing. ↩