"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is not only the most well-known short story title of the latter part of the 20th century; it has come to stand for an entire aesthetic, the bare-bones prose style for which Raymond Carver became famous. Perhaps, it could be argued, too
famous, at least for his fiction's own good. Like those of Hemingway or any other writer similarly loved, imitated, parodied, and reviled, these stories can sometimes produce the sense of reading pastiche. "A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house." "That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window." "My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right." What other writer ever produced first sentences like these? They are like doors into Carverworld, where everyone speaks in simple declarative phrases, no one ever stops at one beer, and failure or violence are the true outcomes of the American dream.
Yet these stories bear careful re-reading, like any truly important and enduring work. For one thing, Carver is one of the few writers who can make desperation--cutting your ex-wife's telephone cord in the middle of a conversation, standing on your own roof chunking rocks while a man with no hands takes your picture--deeply funny. Then there is the sheer craft that went into their creation. Despite their seeming simplicity, his tales are as artfully constructed as poems--and like poems, the best of them can make your breath catch in your throat. In the title piece, for instance, after the gin has been drunk, after the stories have been told, after the tensions in the room have come to the surface and subsided again, there comes a moment of strange lightness and peace: "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 dark."
Much of what happens in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) happens offstage, and we're left with tragedy's props: booze, instant coffee, furniture from a failed marriage, cigarettes smoked in the middle of the night. This is not merely a matter of technique. Carver leaves out a great deal, but that's only a measure of his characters' vulnerability, the nerve endings his stories lay bare. To say anything more, one feels, would simply hurt too much. --Mary Park
"Carver's fiction is so spare in manner that it takes a time before one realizes how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch. This second volume of stories is clearly the work of a full-grown master." —Frank Kermode
"Raymond Carver's America is...clouded by pain and the loss of dreams, but it is not as fragile as it looks. It is a place of survivors and a place of stories.... [Carver] has done what many of the most gifted writers fail to do: He has invented a country of his own, like no other except that very world, as Wordsworth said, which is the world to all of us." —Michael Wood, front page, The New York Times Book Review
"Splendid.... The collection as a whole, unlike most, begins to grow and resonate in a wonderful cumulative effect." —Tim O'Brien, Chicago Tribune Book World
"Carver not only enchants, he convinces." —J.D. Reed, Time