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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories Paperback – June 18, 1989

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Editorial Reviews Review

"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

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (June 18, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679723056
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679723059
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (138 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,247 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1938. His father was a saw-mill worker and his mother was a waitress and clerk. He married early and for years writing had to come second to earning a living for his young family. Despite, small-press publication, it was not until Will You Please Be Quiet Please? appeared in 1976 that his work began to reach a wider audience. This was the year in which he gave up alcohol, which had contributed to the collapse of his marriage. In 1977 he met the writer Tess Gallagher, with whom he shared the last eleven years of his life. During this prolific period he wrote three collections of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral and Elephant. Fires, a collection of essays, poems and stories, appeared in 1985, followed by three further collections of poetry. In 1988 he completed the poetry collection A New Path to the Waterfall.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

170 of 172 people found the following review helpful By Steven Reynolds on June 16, 2003
Format: Paperback
I used to hate Carver. "Nothing happens in these stories!" I would say. "What does it MEAN, for God's sake?!" It took me a while to realise that Carver's genius isn't for the grand epiphany, the convoluted plot, or the surprise ending. His genius is for moments of pathos; for moments of carefully observed humanity; for human foibles unflinchingly, but never unkindly, revealed. You really have to read him for yourself to understand, but here's an example: the story "Gazebo", which is one of my favourites from this collection. The story works because what 'the gazebo' means to the couple in the story is something most of us have felt: a dream of future happiness that is now lost to us; lost because we don't see how we might escape the banality of our own lives; lost because we fail to see how close we are to achieving it, if only we could slightly change the way we see things, or the way we live. None of this is overtly stated in the story - and that's Carver's genius. It is simply implied by juxtaposition. Thematic statements and grand epiphanies undermine so many stories (even some of Carver's earlier ones) because they are embarrassing. I don't mean embarrassing for the writer, I mean embarrassing for us, the readers: to have these slightly pathetic, vaguely shameful, and yet very human moments which are recognisably our own shoved in our faces feels like an accusation, and one we understandably reject. But to have them placed before us, gently, apparently undeliberately, so that we might see them for ourselves is wonderful. It engages OUR powers of observation and reflection, not just the writer's. We see ourselves reflected there in the story, and it's a private moment of self-revelation, of self-understanding. And more often than not, this is NOT a life-changing experience for us.Read more ›
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 20, 1998
Format: Paperback
Raymond Carver's friend Tobias Wolff (see Carver's essay on his friendship with Wolff and Pulizer Prize winner Richard Ford in Carver's collection NO HEROICS,PLEASE) said that when he read the short story "Cathedral" for the first time he had the feeling he was levitating off the couch where he was stretched out reading. I had the same response to this essential work WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE as I emerged from my college library where I should have been studying, but was transfixed by this book I had just picked up by chance the day before. I had the feeling that I was floating across the campus toward the cafeteria for my evening meal after reading this book in one sitting. Who is Raymond Carver? Who is this guy ?, I kept saying to myself, feeling that all the persons and places I passed just NOW were the loveliest things I'd ever seen. How could anyone make me feel like that? I'm still wondering today and that was fourteen years ago! I might talk about Raymond Carver in very sophisticated terms today but my initial primal response still seems inexplicable. I have read everything I could get my hands on that Carver ever wrote or said, but this is the book in which Carver captured the solitary American experience at its heartfelt core. It shows what happens to us, the price we pay for our dreams , loves, and terrors. Or what is, perhaps, as the American poet Michael Palmer has characterized it: the "psychic cost of the American project." Carver wrote this book in the late 1970's just after alcoholism nearly killed him and he had given up everything just to SURVIVE (including, he thought back then, any sense that he might ever write again). My recommendation goes beyond the fact that this is my first and favorite Carver book. Why? This is it!Read more ›
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Brad on February 17, 2002
Format: Paperback
The question of authorship should be immaterial to the reading of this work. Do we care what was left out? Do we care who wrote which sentence? In the end, whatever the process that produced them, this collection contains some of the most tragically beautiful stories I've read. The prose is minimal, but masterfully minimal -- it feels like the stories form the briefest of forays across the skin of a giant animal, and though you can't tell exactly what the animal is, or where it is going, you know there is something vaguely wrong, deep down below. The style Carver employs means that the smallest of incidents become important in mysterious ways, as if each part of the story, no matter how seemingly insignificant, contains part of the clue to the whole. But because of the sparse nature of the work, the clues never sum to a complete solution -- I feel like these stories reside somewhere between the tiny fictions we invent for people we glance at in the street, and fully-fledged realism which doesn't leave us room for imagination. Carver takes this space and with deft touches makes it seem both familiar and strange. Can't say enough about him. If you aspire to writing short stories, this will either set the bar for you or make you want to give up...
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 9, 1997
Format: Paperback
Besides its title being just wonderful, this book, alongside all the others written by Raymond Carver, is a raw chronicle of modern world, of a rootless time and of the lives that live in it. These lives by people from the suburbs, meeting in crossroads and malls, tragic in their own plainness, looking for a hope that will never show up. Carver tells us of the people that are never on a TV literary debate, that do not buy the last book "everyone intelligent people should read"; thousands of miles from our decadent postmodern litterary intelligentsia. If you think litterature only should deal with "people worthy of being portrayed", never read Carver. It is not surprising why Carver was born in the USA. His stories tell us of the futur of our societies, of those faces we cross -me included- in the supermarket and that we despise because they do not look as succesful as us, of how a world of over-consumption lead to some to a hell call alcohol (or drugs, or bulimy, or addictions, or violence). Carver showed us the hidden face of the world we refuse to see, but which lies next door, car even the white trash and the poor also suffers . Thank you so much, Mr. Carver, for letting me know.
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