This week’s deceased author is acclaimed short-story writer, Raymond Carver. The title of one of Carver’s short-story collections is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which, for some reason, is a phrase I’ve always loved.
The Carver story I read was called “A Small, Good Thing”. It’s the story of a woman who orders a birthday cake for her son but on the morning of his birthday, he’s run over by a car. As she and her husband keep vigil by their son’s bedside, the woman naturally forgets about the birthday cake. But the baker doesn’t and begins making threatening phone calls to them, oblivious to their son’s condition. At least, that’s the plot. What it’s actually about is grief, loneliness, and most of all people. People and how they react to the situations they find themselves placed in.
The writing was pretty much what I expected from Carver having read about his writing style. The prose was economical and the ending ambiguous, but I liked that and I’d definitely like to read more of his stories, specifically the collection I mentioned.
The interesting thing about Carver – and that collection in particular – is that, apparently, his prose style wasn’t as sparse as one might think from reading his stories. Supposedly, his editor, Gordon Lish, heavily edited Carver’s stories, specifically the ones in that collection. (Indeed, Lish changed the title of the titular story from “Beginners” to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.) Carver wasn’t happy about it at the time, but let it go because he knew Lish could get his work published. There’s been a lot of arguing since this information has come to light about who should be regarded as the actual writer of the stories. Of course, Carver is the writer of the pieces, but a lot of people are claiming that the role of Lish as editor should receive a lot more attention. The other side says, no, an editor is simply that. It is his job to edit and the story remains the writer’s wholly and completely.
In my research, I read this quote about Raymond Carver’s characters:
“Like Carver, his characters are masters of revision, torn between a compulsion to tell their tales of one “cruel turn of circumstances and then the next”, and an acknowledgement that one simple telling will not be enough. “I just want to say one more thing,” says one man, “but then he could not think what it could possibly be.”
And I thought, what a wonderful encapsulation of the human condition. Especially the following:
“There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”
Because that’s what we do: we talk incessantly. We try to talk ourselves into situations; we try to talk ourselves out of situations. We bitch, we argue, we moan. And – most importantly – in relationships between two people, when something is wrong, we think of all these elaborate things to say to address the issue. But then, when it comes down to it, a lot of the time there’s nothing to say.
Carver was a chronic alcoholic for many years. He finally quit a week after his thirty-ninth birthday. What he never quit, however, was his three-pack-a-day smoking habit, and 11 years later he died of lung cancer at the age of 50. Carver took a very zen attitude to his diagnosis, however, as evidenced by the poem “Gravy”. You can read it here.
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