What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
“L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.
He said, ‘I just want to say one more thing.’
But then he could not think what it could possibly be (p.134).”
This passage, the conclusion to the final story in this collection, ‘One More Thing,’ is emblematic of the world which Raymond Carver so precisely describes and dissects. In post-war America and subsequent decades, mostly young and inexperienced couples struggle to understand the bourgeois mores they are expected to observe and to find something meaningful in the suburban world of consumption and commerce they inhabit. Generally, they are unable to do so and so we see L.D. thrown out of the house by his wife after being abusive to their 15-year old daughter after what is “… another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies (p.130).” In the end, faced with the consequences of their actions, inadequate as they may be in the face of overwhelming forces beyond their ability to influence, they are reduced to silence. The image brings to mind the conclusion of Dante’s Inferno, where we are brought into the presence of Lucifer, who has been reduced to glacial, frozen immobility because of his inability to bring the universe under his own control.
In the eponymous story around which this characteristically slim collection is based, the characters try with only limited success beyond the obvious and the physical. Estranged seemingly from both religion and political ideology, they have few resources when seeking to explain or to understand their own circumstances. They search for something special in love, as if such a construct could genuinely provide some meaning to life. They are also reduced to silence and then all the gin runs out.
Carver was a wonderful writer and while, on the one hand, it is possible to appreciate and enjoy these short stories for what they are, on the other hand there is some measure of regret that he did not write something more substantial to outline his world view in some more depth. Instead, he moved towards verse an while poetry is of course a perfectly good medium for dealing with the big picture, it does seem that he preferred to pare down his work until he could illuminate daily life in a haiku or a moment of zen-like enlightenment. The stories in this collection are a little bleaker than in other collections and the sense of optimism to be obtained is very fragile and ephemeral. The most that people can hope for, it seems, is that things are not worse than they are now and then things do get worse and then they die. Usually in silence. At least they can have a drink while they get through it all – something that Carver himself had to give up in order to save his life and launch his writing career. He became a major part of modern American literature.