Author: Raymond Carver
First Published: 1983
Rating: 3/5 (5 for the writing itself and the author’s skill with subtle social critique, 4 for character development and atmosphere, 2 for my own personal enjoyment)
Challenges: The Classics Club (Spin pick)
My Classics Club Spin book was supposed to be the Raymond Carver collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But I ended up on a waiting list at my local library behind multiple other patrons, with the only copy of the collection already over a week overdue. So, doubting I would get my hands on the book in time to complete it by the end of March, I opted to substitute another Carver collection published two years later, Cathedral.
I have reviewed the title story in this collection in greater detail for the Deal Me In short story challenge, here. I just want to talk a bit about the collection as a whole.
I always suspected I would enjoy Carver’s writing. I recall reading a couple of his stories back in the ’80s and thinking them well-crafted. Furthermore, he was an inspiration and friend of one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, so I had high hopes. But I have to say that I didn’t much care for this particular collection. I can’t be certain whether it is Carver’s style in general not meshing with me now or if it is something unique to this collection, with its themes of suburban angst and perpetual loneliness, but for whatever reason these stories just didn’t set off sparks in my brain. In fact, the collection depressed me more and more with each story, until I had to find ways to coerce myself to continue. I respect Mr. Carver’s writing ability, which he had in abundance. I suppose his knack for bringing out certain emotions in me is another sign of his strength as a storyteller. I respected this collection; I appreciated it. But I did not enjoy it.
The stories are saturated with melancholy, focusing on themes of loneliness, regret, infidelity, betrayal, desertion, job loss, and things falling apart. No one stays happy for long, and any semblance of stability is merely an illusion or the calm before a storm. Carver’s characters are discontent, resigned, inconstant, bitter and often numbed or seeking anesthetization. I can’t recall a single character that I actually liked enough to root for, with the oddly notable exceptions of a bossy and delightfully incongruous peacock and the “exceptionally ugly” baby boy with whom he was raised. These are not terrifically likable people, although they are often pitiable. More often, for me at least, they were simply exasperating and exhausting.
A few bullet-points:
- As I read, I kept thinking these stories were set in the 1950s or 1960s…something about that suburban middle-American vibe, the certain flavor of keeping-up-with-the-neighbors coupled with simmering discontent and ennui. But the collection was published in 1983 and is apparently set around the same time.
- Carver’s characters – nearly all of them – drink a lot. They are champion imbibers. No matter where they are or in what they are engaged, there will always be alcohol close at hand, be it whiskey, gin or beer. Booze seems to be the glue holding these relationships together, and it is as poor an adhesive as one might imagine. Carver himself struggled with alcoholism much of his life, and the tides of his personal life and writing career can almost be mapped by the peaks and valleys of his own drinking. The Airship has an interesting article on this topic: How Many Drinks Does It Take to Make a Raymond Carver Story?
- Ye gods, but the suburbs can be a bleak, hollow and joyless place! I already knew this, but Carver does a bang-up job of drawing his settings in “vivid” shades of gray, grayer and black. This guy could have written cautionary pamphlets warning of the pitfalls of chasing the suburban American dream. Then again, I suppose he did just that.
- In its original 1983 review of the collection, the New York Times compared Carver’s writing to Hemingway’s. I can see that, but while Hemingway rarely makes me feel good, neither does he often make me despondent.
- This may sound flippant, but I wonder if the reader should be enthusiastically drinking while reading Carver’s stories. There are elements in several stories that I can see being oddly funny if one were under the influence. I am not inclined to test this theory, so it shall remain but mere conjecture.
I can’t say I would recommend this as a general selection, but it would be a wonderful choice if one were looking to read something subtly satirical and focused on the miasma of suburban striving and internalized dramas. Furthermore, if you find yourself in want of a book that may just drive you to drink, Raymond Carver’s got you covered.