Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

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Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

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I am depressed.

Like many angry young men, I had a philosophy I stuck with. I thought that sticking to my principles was itself an admirable trait. Hypocrisy was defined as changing your mind. Since I wanted the moral high ground, among the reasons because I didn’t have much to boast about, hypocrisy was out of the question. The world was wrong. I was right. My opinion will defeat you all.

I was angry, but there was some sort of confidence. The path was clear. I thought I knew everything, which meant I knew where I was going. I also was, apperantly, as rational I bragged about. My ideas kept being challenged. They gradually changed. It didn’t happen over time, but I went from thinking sex is an evil force to it being something positive that we just can’t handle. I went from hating alcohol and all drugs to understand each drug should be judged on its own. I went from thinking you don’t need friends to thinking being social is a necessity.

The music I used to listen to back then was loud and angry. It also used to have something resembling confidence. I blasted Nu Metal, which was angry but had bravado. A little later I found myself blasting Nine Inch Nails, Local H Marilyn Manson. That’s when the self-doubt and self-loathing reared their heads. The anger at everyone was still there, but I started to admit I’m confused. There was even a brief period of listening to a lot of Glassjaw, which helped me through my toughest heartbreak.

After about eight years of exploring music, here I am finally listening to Unknown Pleasures. The album was always there. Its influence is everywhere on my favorite music. It took all these years, and all these changings of the mind for me to ‘get’ the album.

That’s not really a good thing.

That’s because I’m not that angry anymore. I don’t have the energy to hate the world, or women, or sex, or television. Everything just seems hopeless and meaningless. Everything is bad, but nothing specific and there’s no ideal to fight for. It’s an emptiness, which this album describes perfectly.

Sparse is the common description for Unknown Pleasures. You couldn’t find a better one. A band member said the producer made them sound like Pink Floyd, but Pink Floyd had space. The sparseness of Unknown Pleasures is not just a production technique but the way the songs work. Nothing takes the center. Nothing drives the songs, beyond the drums in “She’s Lost Control”. It’s no coincidence it’s the most accessible thing here.

“Candidate” and “Interzone” are the two defining tracks here. The first is the emptiest thing here. Its last seconds sound emptier than silence, and the guitars barely appear in it. “Interzone”, on the other hand, is an attempt to inject some energy. There’s even a guitar riff that could make for a nice single. Even that’s pushed to the back though. The song is a fast driving rocker, yet the guitar is distant and Ian Curtis sounds like he knows it won’t end well, but fuck it he’ll try anyway.

The sequencing is also great. Unknown Pleasures is not a concept album, but it flows like an exploration of a depressed mind. “Disorder” feels slightly brighter and rational, while “Day of the Lords” sink back into complete agony. On the aforementioned “Candidate”, the agony went for so long that there’s no longer will to express it. “Wilderness” and “Interzone” offer a glimmer of hope. The first speeds up things a little, as if the protagonist saw the light. “Interzone” has already been discussed. Then the album ends with “I Remember Nothing”, which sinks back into the emptiness.

It’s a wonder that the whole band didn’t kill themselves after this record. There is sadness, and there is emptiness. A strong feeling of sadness might still imply there could still be something out there, something worth feeling bad over. The emptiness of Unknown Pleasures says there’s nothing worth looking back at and nothing worth looking forward to. Doesn’t that sound like a suicidal mind?

Post script: This review was written a long time ago but I didn’t want to post it. I don’t know if things changed since I wrote it. My environment did, but the future still looks cloudy. I haven’t gotten over that emptiness. Things are better than before, but not by much.

3.5 days out of 5 lords