In this month spotlighting lovers, I turn to Raymond Carver for his struggle to define love, a life-giving but elusive gift. In Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the scene is set in a country house with two couples, including the narrator, conversing around a kitchen table, getting drunk on gin and grappling with the nature of love.
What is love? the story asks. And through the dialogue that makes up its content, it seems to answer that words are inadequate to define it.
When the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—in which the story of the same name appears— was published in April 1981, The New York Times critic Michael Wood wrote: “In Mr. Carver’s silences, a good deal of the unsayable gets said.”
It is this attention to the unsayable that embroils the story in controversy. Many would contend that story’s silences were due to Gordon Lish’s editing, that is, that they were the result not of Carver’s vision, but of his editor’s own minimalist esthetic inviting the reader to fill in the gaps.
Lish cut what he deemed to be false sentiment from the story Carver had titled “Beginners.” In the opinion of some readers, he transformed a conventional draft into an exemplar of the minimalist esthetic that helped win Carver his following. While extreme editing may be unusual, it is not unique. Case in point: Maxwell Perkins slashed sixty-five thousand words from Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.”
However, in the view of Tess Gallagher, Carver’s second wife (and after 1980 of Carver himself), Lish had encroached upon the writer’s artistic integrity. Gallagher wanted his stories reissued in what she called their original form.
Out of this controversy emerges two versions of the story—Carver’s original draft, titled “Beginners,“ and the Lish version cut by more than a third and published in 1981 as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
According to writer and critic Aaron Riccio, ”What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” works by eliminating two lengthy digressions, and refocusing the action on the present. In his blog of July 11, 2010, “That Sounds Cool,” Riccio argues that “Beginners” is drunk conversation while “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is pointed and passionate dialogue. The former preaches to the reader, he says, the latter engages her.
Lish, Riccio contends, strips out the specifics of the aged pair’s story that Mel tells, understanding that the point is not an old couple’s car-crash and their mutual recovery—it is about the speaker’s perspective on their relationship. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” this perspective is sharply presented in Mel’s exclamation, “I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.” Mel can see his own wife Terri sitting across from him, but rather than view her as a beloved partner, he sees her as a distasteful intruder.
Lish changed this character’s name (who knows why?) and personality. Lish’s Mel is cruder than Carver’s Herb, which, as Riccio sees it, makes Mel more human and, therefore, more sympathetic. Mel wants to experience the kind of love the old man feels for his wife.
Carver reaps praise for his powerfully evocative images as well as his penetrating characterization. To this point, Brian A. Oard has this to say in his blog, Mindful Pleasures, (August 27, 2010): “His [Carver’s} best stories move, with what seems in retrospect the logic of a mathematical proof, toward a culminating image that is enigmatic, multiply meaningful, and poetically complex.”
Knight imagery appears in “Beginners,” where Herb McGinnis reads Ivanhoe and quips with words like “vassals, vessels, ventricles.” The draft concludes with the narrator looking at the night sky and recognizing Venus and Mars (the apotheoses of womenkind and manhood). He scans the landscape and reflects:
I wanted to imagine horses rushing through those fields in the near-dark, or even just standing quietly with their heads in opposite directions near the fence. I stood at the window and waited. I knew I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house, as long as there was something left to see.
In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the knight imagery is explicit: “I’d like to come back as a knight,” Mel says. From his wife we hear, “Mel would like to ride a horse and carry a lance.” The image is deepened by the appearance of the injured old man, his whole body, including his head, wrapped in and protected by an armor-like cast.
Lish, however, chose not to conclude the story with a focus on horses but with the image of a beating heart: “I could hear my heart beating,” says the narrator. “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.” The noise of quiet desperation, perhaps.
The controversy as to which version of the story is superior still rages. Feel free to decide for yourself.
Here is “Beginners” as published in The New Yorker.
Here is the edited version, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
And as a Valentine treat, here is Carver reading “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”