Raymond Carver (1938-1988)
Carter is considered a master of minimalism, that is, fiction that stresses only the essentials of action and description. Generally, his writing is economical, stripped to the bone; he kept his stories to the essential minimum, writing on the theory that “less is more,” being suspicious of all showy effects. He seems to enjoy teasing the reader with the puzzle of personality. Many of his characters seem unusual if not odd or even cruel.
“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (pp. 190, 218-27)
This story perfectly exemplifies Carter's minimalist style. The language is pared down, unadorned, even blunt. His sentences are clipped, and the tone is essentially factual. Nick the narrator simply tells us what is happening, what he does and sees and hears. He rarely tells how he feels, or comments on or explains anyone else's behavior, and the effect of this technique is unsettling to the reader. Carver's characters, who either choose not to interpret the conversations and events of their lives or don't know how to do so, shift that responsibility onto us, the readers. And when we aren't sure we understand the meaning of these things either, we suddenly become a lot like the characters in the story--people we may not want to be like at all. As the reviewer James Atlas put it, "Carver's stories gather dramatic tension from his disavowal of motive or interpretation; their very minimality gives them a certain bleak power ("Less Is Less," Atlantic Monthly, June 1981, pp. 96-98).
Typical of much modern short fiction, nothing happens in Carver's story (is it in fact a "real story" or is it a mere reporting of a transient moment, or the capturing of a mood?). And we ask ourselves, do any of the characters change? Or what is the point of the story? Nothing profound happens--perhaps these characters are just talking and thinking like people who have had too much to drink. We can only work with what the author has given us, and Carver deliberately hasn't given us much. His characters never reflect or try to figure out what things mean, so we can't work with their thoughts. Instead, Carver has chosen to reveal his characters almost exclusively through dialogue (much in the manner of Hemingway's fiction)--action, exposition, and description are kept to a bare minimum.
The title is perhaps the best way to approach the story since the focus of the character's conversation is the subject of what constitutes love. and the scarcely veiled animosity between Mel and his wife, Terri, gives tension to this story of three married couples. Through Mel’s thoughts and experiences, Carver is investigating the nature of married love. Mel insists on asking an impossible question: What is the nature of love? What is the meaning of sharing? Mel and Terri are veterans (four years married to each other), who are past the bliss of their first attraction and not yet two halves of a whole because they have survived the long haul together. Each has been married before, and each is obsessed with the earlier partner. Their talk appears to ramble, but Carver keeps it under control by sticking to his subject–specific examples of different varieties of love–and organizing the four friends’ conversations by chronicling the stages of their drunkenness as they go through two bottles of gin in the afternoon.
The passing of time is brilliantly described in the story, paralleling the waxing and waning of the stages of love. When the story opens, sunlight fills the New Mexico kitchen where the four friends with their gin and tonics are talking around the table. Midway, when the narrator is beginning to feel the drinks, he describes the sun like the warmth and lift of the gin in his body. “The afteroon sun was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity.” As the conversation wears on and Mel tells Terri to shut up after she’s interrupted one too many times, the light shifts again, the sunshine getting thinner. The narrator is a shade drunker, and his gaze fixes on the pattern of leaves on the windowpanes and on the Formica kitchen counter, as if he’s staying alert by focusing deliberately on the edges of the objects around him. “They weren’t the same patterns, of course.” Finally, mysteriously, the light drains out of the room, “going back through the window where it had come from.” The alcoholic elation has evaporated. At the end of the story, the couples sit in darkness on their kitchen chairs, not moving. The only sound the narrator hears is everyone’s heart beating, separately. Unable to penetrate the mystery of love or cope with the pain of living (when Terri offers him a pill for his depression, he declines with the comment, “I’ve taken everything there is,” Mel transforms his depression into anger about his ex-wife. The grim ending is underscored by Nick’s final words which seem to offer little hope for the future of love. Maybe, then, he has learned something he has never heard before, and that this "human noise" is making him completely aware of his own vulnerability for the time. He may be realizing that something terrible could happen to him, that he could become capable of the kind of hatred Mel bears his ex-wife, or worse, the violence Ed inflicted on Terri.