What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk Enough // Raymond Carver

On sincerity, and expressing the deep at the surface.


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.

                    (Raymond Carver, “Beginners”)

I could hear my heart beating. 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.

                    (Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”)

I remember the first time I read Raymond Carver. I was in Chesterfield, Missouri, for my cousin’s wedding. The rehearsal dinner had ended, so my family decided to kill some time at the nearby Barnes and Noble. On the shelf, I saw the beautiful Vintage Contemporaries edition of Carver’s last full collection Cathedral – its thick, cream-white pages, that cover photograph of a suburban house in dusky fog, one window lit from inside.

I bought the book and, back at the hotel room, began with the titular story, the last one in there. A simple story, ordinary language, not much happens. A guy gets stuck talking late into the evening with his blind houseguest, his wife’s old friend. They smoke pot. They watch (or listen to) television. They draw a picture of a cathedral together. The end. For a story so mundane, still something like a spark or a whisper hit me, and I was enraptured. I went to sleep deep in thought about nothing in particular. I read the rest of the book in two or three days, like an addict.

I have since gone back and read many of his earlier stories. While his characters and settings are consistently mundane—suburbanites, unemployed alcoholics, working mothers—Carver’s later stories carry a resonance, a gesture toward something almost mystical, which is less present in the earlier work. For instance, here is the ending of the story “Cathedral.” The narrator is drawing churches for the blind man, who has told him to close his eyes:

Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

“It’s really something,” I said.

What exactly happens there? It is difficult to say, but I see a turn toward real empathy on the narrator’s part, a version of seeing which reaches beyond sight, the dissolution of spatial limit in the midst of a little living room. The text does not explain too much, but just enough. It says all that perhaps could be said and simultaneously captures a deep sense of the characters’ humanity. I love this effect. However, this gesture toward something wondrous yet utterly human is often lacking from the earlier stories.

One of my undergrad fiction-writing professors informed me that much of the change is due to the editorial influence of Gordon Lish, who had less control over Carver’s later stories. Several years ago the New Yorker published an article discussing the editorial relationship of Carver and Lish, how Carver’s early minimalism and constraint, the signature features which brought him fame in the first place, were largely the effect of Lish’s cutting knife. In order to illustrate this, the New Yorker also published “Beginners” which was a draft of Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” before Lish’s edits. If you have not read Carver, you might recognize the story as the one Riggan Thomson adapts for the Broadway stage in Iñárritu’s recent movie Birdman.

I notice two main differences between the original and the edited draft. First, the original is much longer, particularly in the dialogue. The characters are allowed to say more. Second – and probably as a consequence of the first – the original feels less reticent, less stoic. With so much dialogue cut out in “What We Talk About,” more of the story’s import is moved to the subtextual space between the lines. The characters are sitting in a dining room discussing their ideas of love over gin-and-tonics, but immediate relational tension also laces their lines. In “Beginners” it is revealed to us that Herb (named Mel in “What We Talk About”) has been very depressed lately, even suicidal, but instead of dealing with it through conversation, he opts to go take a shower. We see that Terri, his wife, has had a difficult time coping with his depression, because she breaks down in tears when he leaves the room. Laura comforts her, and in her moment eye-contact with Nick, the narrator and her husband, we understand that they have their own marital dread. Nick tells us this.

She gazed into my eyes for what seemed a long time, and then she nodded. That’s all she did, the only sign she gave, but it was enough. It was as if she were telling me, Don’t worry, we’ll get past this, everything is going to be all right with us, you’ll see. Easy does it. That’s the way I chose to interpret the look anyway, though I could be wrong.

No one explains their emotions to us, the readers, in Lish’s edit of the story. In fact, all of that relational tension revealed in “Beginners” is suppressed in “What We Talk About.” The best we can access is an imaginative suggestion of such conflict, but we would need to imagine it ourselves. The point in “What We Talk About,” however, is I think not to articulate these conflicts, nor to reveal them, but to give the reader only the surface of a moment, the suggestion of the presence of something beneath but no suggestion as to what the thing beneath actually is.

I ran across a quote of Lish’s recently which has telling implications for thinking about his edits compared to Carver’s draft. He said, “Never be sincere – sincerity is the death of writing.” I can only think that when he says “writing” here he means roughly “craft.” The minimalism and constraint are the elements of craft which Lish helped make famous in Carver by butchering away what Lish saw as dead weight. But I think this sincerity – what he saw as so opposed to craft – was also cut away. Lish opts for suppression, silence, where Carver would at least suggest something which is there – not too much, but enough. Sincerity implies that there is something beneath the surface expressed at the surface, and it is the determination to preserve integrity in expression at whatever cost.

I think the concept of suppression versus suggestion is displayed well in the differing final lines of each version, both of which I have included in the epigraph above. Lish’s emphasis on suppressing what could be said leads to a failure of the characters relating to one another, the incapacity to share anything at all. We are left only with human noise, even after the lights shut off – noise without expression.

Carver suggests that the problem these couples have now – they may not last forever, and even in the waiting there is something valuable to be seen. Nick feels that he is responsible to that which can be seen. He knows he needs to wait this out, without burying it, but instead holding it indeterminately determinedly in his hands. He would preserve his human attachment to the others. These people may keep on failing at love, failing even at understanding what it is, but if they do not deny that simple desire that one day they would love each other well, they would have already overcome the disintegration of themselves. They would maintain their hold on the possibility of becoming sincere.

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