An acclaimed poet and short-story writer in his lifetime, Carver is now regarded as one of America's greatest writersANTHONYEASTON/FLICKR

Raymond Carver is perhaps the pre-eminent author in this series, considered by many as a pioneer of the modern American short story. His talent lies in drawing out the monumental from what, on the surface, appears banal but without slipping into sentimentality. His seminal collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is an assemblage of fragments, three to four pages at most, but they do not feel clipped or lacklustre. The brevity of Carver’s stories makes them ideal for those fleeting periods of time between seminars and supervisions, or whenever you are able to find a few minutes to yourself during a busy weekday.

The lives these people lead may be simple, but Carver grants attention and import to the very real emotions they feel

Strained, often voiceless love is the organising theme for this collection. Carver tells the stories of men and women living in the American Midwest, who spend their days fishing, drinking, eking out a living, drinking some more. One senses this community is a self-contained one, its members not venturing too far beyond the perimeters of their circumscribed world. Yet there is something striking in the banality of it all. Carver is in no way preoccupied with staying one step ahead of his reader, there are no great surprises or plot twists, but equally this does not mean these stories are told in a manner which precludes gravity or seriousness to the situations described. The lives these people lead may be simple, but Carver grants attention and import to the very real emotions they feel.

A single moment can act as a lightning rod for a whole story. In this way, seemingly innocuous one-off incidences, like a man coming to the door of another character to sell him a picture of his house, can trigger a kaleidoscope of emotion, often unspoken, relayed through the private thoughts of a character. Similarly, in Why Don’t You Dance? a young couple come across a man selling the contents of his house at the side of the freeway. Stories unravel in a way that feels natural, in accordance with the inevitability of things, but they maintain an expressive spontaneity. The young woman tells the story of her encounter to everyone she meets, until of course, they tire of it. ‘We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?’

They are not borne from the glory of the American Dream, but its debris

Older characters are more worn down, weatherbeaten, ruminating on a life laid to waste. ‘There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself,’ one man muses. ‘But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I'd like to know. I wish someone could tell me.’ Made cynical by the disappointments of life, the betrayals of loved ones, the missed opportunities, the mundanity of existence? It appears to be a synthesis of these things.

Carver writes about what he knows - himself hailing from a small town in Eastern Washington called Yakima, his father working in a sawmill and his mother as a waitress. In interviews, Carver speaks of the inspiration he found in his father recounting stories about himself when he was a child, and also of his own father and grandfather. In this sense, the collection feels like a testimonial to his own loved ones. He also speaks of early, difficult years in his own life, having his first child at eighteen, managing this with attending college during the day and working in the evening. Later, he moved to Iowa where he worked night shifts as a janitor, followed by bursts of writing in the morning, when this collection was set into motion.


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Carver’s language is never quixotic or overindulgent, even if his writing calcifies around what is left unsaid. Such brooding silence are indeed reminiscent of the troubles that come with communication in relationships, and this is captured so compellingly in the hesitant cadence of Carver’s passages. These people are real and flawed, and Carver is never too charitable in his depiction of them; they are not borne from the glory of the American Dream, but its debris. There is something of the everyman in these stories, and it is perhaps why they have resonated with generations of readers.

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