A review of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”
I’m usually not comfortable with writing a scathing book review, but in this case, the author is dead, so I’m okay with it. I wrote the first part of this review before I had finished the book, then the second part after.
I’ve read five stories so far in this book of short stories and I want to write what I’m thinking long before I’ve reached the end of the book, so this is like a pre-review; my first impressions that may or may not change after I’ve read the whole thing, but so far, the impression that the first story gave me has persisted through the next four stories.
This book is by an author I’d never heard of but it came highly recommended to me and after a little looking around online I saw that the author is revered as one of America’s greats; a master story-teller. Being a writer of short stories myself, naturally I was interested in reading a master I had previously not known about.
I had pretty high expectations. I’d even been saving the book somewhat like a treat. I have many books to read and I’m usually reading at least one in print and one in digital concurrently. I bought this one in print and each time I’d finish a print book I’d think of starting this one, but I’d put it off for a better time when I could really enjoy it. The time seemed right on this 4-day, holiday weekend.
I read the first story, looking forward to seeing the author’s brilliance. It started off like just about any story, and then it went on for a few pages, and then it was done and I just went, “Huh?” I didn’t even get how that was a story. I read the next one and it was the same.
Here’s a person, and they do something, and they say some things, and The End. By the third story, I realized that when I reached the end of a page on the right-hand side of the book, I didn’t know if the story was over or not. There was no way to know if it was going to continue on the next page, or if it had ended, because that’s how his stories are.
Think of that. You can’t tell before turning the page whether the story is over, or if there’s more to it before it suddenly and disjointedly comes to an end. I started thinking about the Acknowledgements and how the author said he’d received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That made me think of Robert Maplethorpe and Andres Serrano with his Piss-Christ “art.” I started to wonder if Carver is just some semi-talented rebel favorite of the left who is celebrated because he blatantly goes outside the norm. He apparently doesn’t have to actually do anything brilliant as long as he defies expectations and conventions.
I also wonder if I’m just not sophisticated enough to get his brilliance, as if I’m standing in a museum looking at a painting like Whistler’s Mother and going, “Huh? What’s so great about this? I don’t get it.” In fact, I’ve never understood what’s so special about the Mona Lisa, and I’m not afraid to admit it. 😛
Carver’s fame also reminds me of something I read once about a music professor who analyzed The Beatle’s music and described all of the brilliant and sophisticated things they had done with composition, arrangement, and extraordinary this and that, and he went into great technical detail describing their advanced musical genius. John Lennon read the book and said he didn’t even understand what the guy was talking about. They had just written songs – that’s all. I’m with you, John. Sometimes art is just art. Other times it’s just shit, with praised heaped upon it, and so a lot of people ooh and awe over it because the “experts” say it’s great.
Okay, I finished the book, hating the author more and more as I read each story. Each time I finished another non-sensical story without a point, I kept thinking of all the rave reviews and how this guy is the “master” storyteller.
I’ll give him credit for being able to really bring you into a scene and create realistic dialogue, but shouldn’t a story be more than just that? I would think any good writer has to be able to do those things as minimum requirements – but he or she also has to go beyond that and maybe even have a point to the story. It’s not sufficient to just take a camera and zoom in on two people in the world and give us some minutes of hearing them discuss some dysfunctional aspect of their lives and then zoom out again. The End.
I was also extremely annoyed with his speech attributions, telling one entire story like this:
“I’m going outside,” she goes. I go, “Why?” “Because it’s warmer out there,” she goes. She goes, “I won’t be long.”
How annoying is that?
And in two of the stories he used no quotation marks at all, and in one of those, a person IN the story was telling a story to another character, still without quotes. I had to keep re-reading paragraphs to understand what the hell I was reading. Was that dialogue?? I’d get to the end of some of these “stories” and want to say to the author, “Hey, Fuck you!”
I wondered if Carver had ever said to a friend, “Watch this. I’m going to write another piece of shit story and everyone will fawn all over it, drooling as they praise my brilliance. hee hee. Watch…”
I also thought of how his writing could be compared to a painting. Imagine if someone painted a toilet. And the critics raved about what a master painting it was. I (and maybe you) would look at it and say, “It’s a freakin’ toilet. What’s the big deal?”
“But look at the handle!” they’d say. “It’s like the last person who flushed the toilet had a greasy thumb and you can see the whorls of their thumbprint on the chrome. It’s magnificent! And my god, just look at the shitstains! You can practically smell them. It’s pure genius!”
Well, now you should have an idea of what you’re in for if you read Carver. Maybe you’ll see his writing the way my friend who recommended this book to me does and you’ll love it. The guy definitely has talent. There’s no denying that. I’m just not sure if he ever knew what to do with it. One of my thoughts of him was, “A government-subsidized wannabe Salinger.” You may find him to be even better than Salinger. I found him to be not even close.
But we all have our own opinions. And vive la différence.