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What We Talk About When We Talk About Raymond Carver

Few writers are able to acknowledge the ocean of heartache that exists inside all of us as well as Raymond Carver does. This is what comes to mind when re-reading Carver after a decade. I forgot what story it was that first drew me into his work. It might have been “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which has several couples talking about being stricken and attached as well as the petty infidelities that chip away at what could be our most meaningful relationships.

At 17, I had never touched alcohol, never really been broken up with or cared for in a way that carried the gravity of commitment, or loved in a sense that would make betrayal hurt the way it does now. “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.” A perfectly turned phrase can add something to us, and whatever it may be at 17 changes upon being read again at 27.

What Carver was so particularly skilled at was capturing that moment in which having another warm body in your bed becomes more of a fact than a favor. It articulated what was stagnating and mundane in a manner which still bore the weight of the history which preceded it, and this is a quality of his work which makes it as personal as it is anonymous. Whether or not Carver was writing autobiographically is beside the point, the point is that the concise descriptions and the simple dialogue tell the story of anyone we might know. The point is Carver tells us stories of ourselves. Take this scene from “Blackbird Pie,”

When we’d finished eating, and after we’d had our coffee and dessert, my wife said something that startled me. “Are you planning to be in your room this evening?” she said…
Are you planning to be in your room this evening? Such a question was altogether out of character for her. I wonder now why on earth I didn’t pursue this at the time. She knows my habits, if anyone does. But I think her mind was made up even then. I think she was concealing something even as she spoke.

Few writers are able to narrate that slow and painful process of climbing out of that oceansized well of hurt and loving someone again unburdened by the possibility of heartbreak. And then there’s John Darnielle, who writes lines like “I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow,” which don’t make sense on their own, but flow seamlessly in and out of lines like “I wonder now why on earth I didn’t pursue this at the time.”

There’s Julian Barnes, who despite the hurt and loneliness that creep up in his subject matter, has never written anything ugly or angry.
And as you keep on keeping on, these other people–writers or otherwise–just come in from out of nowhere with the uncanny ability to speak for you or articulate your thoughts before they were even fully-formed in your own mind. The same can be said for what’s in your heart. What’s utterly terrifying is that the same can be said for what’s in your heart.

I bring this up now because of the week that was. My sister came home from Texas a couple of weeks back, got married, launched a book, and as of now she is on a plane bound for LAX, from where she will transfer to Houston, the to McAllen. I miss her, yes, but above everything I will miss the normalcy her presence brought to the household. She hadn’t been around for a year, but getting out of bed and finding her in the dining room heating up a cup of coffee felt like the most natural thing in the world – like a link snapping back into place.

But aside from that, it was also driving to and from the hospital, the wedding, the family affairs in between and the small victories we had as daughters, sisters, and friends. There were little breaks – my students had their fashion show, time was taken out to see friends, passion projects were attended to. But we’re back in bed now, and it feels like so much to take in the span of a week and now, all I want is to lie down and revisit Raymond Carver’s short stories.

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