The Secrect Places of the Heart
This review originally appeared in New York Magazine, April 20,1981
RAYMOND CARVER’S What We Talk About When We Talk About Love comes exactly to the point: In times of apocalypse, we speak not of love itself, but of the delicate structures and distortions that support love. Carver’s stories vocalize a hard respect for losses inevitable and quiet as the fall of ash from a burning cigarette. In this vacuum lies the strange tenderness that is Carver’s vision, a territory dangerously stark and unadorned. This new book by the author of Would You Please Be Quiet. Please? could function as a book of fables for this decade.
In the title story, two married couples sit drinking gin around a kitchen table. “‘What do any of us really know about love?’ Mel said. ‘It seems to me we’re just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it. . .’ He thought about it and then he went on. ‘There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love?'” Carver, in prose plain and still as clear water, addresses large questions and has the wisdom not to answer them. “Terri and I have been together five years.. The terrible thing is, but the good thing too. the saving grace, you might say, is that if something happened to one of us tomorrow. . . the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else . . all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory. Am I wrong? Am I way off base?”
Questions hover. Love comes and goes. moving through these stories like a shadow. People in the breakup of love live alone in their houses like survivors of a radioactive deluge. In “Whv Don’t You Dance?” an abandoned husband moves his furniture onto his lawn and creates a yard sale worthy of the twilight zone. “Things looked much the way they had in the bedroom—nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side. . . . He had run an extension cord out there and everything was connected. Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.” In “Viewfinder,” a similar survivor is photographed in front of his house, from every angle, by a man with no hands who sells door-to-door Polaroid portraits. “I don’t do motion shots,” says the photographer. In this bent and surreal aloneness. the contents of rooms are exposed as props. The furniture of the domestic is still and frozen as a stopped watch, resonant with what has vanished, and the air is charged with dark possibility. Duane and Holly. in “Gazebo.” are splitting up as the motel they mismanage goes to seed around them: “There was this funny thing of anything could happen now that we realized everything had.”
The reader moves through Carver’s landscape as a witness to private rites spoken simply. Some of the stories appear to be so slight that they are over as they begin; like most stylists, Carver must allow the reader into the world of the book and then teach him the geography of that world. It is a geography of ordinary American life whose surface implies currents of violence, terror, desperate yearning. Carver uses silence within his language. and cuts to the heart; he possesses a splendid ability to isolate a moment and render it completely. Motion and time are captured as in the freeze-frame of a stopped film, and a distillation of experience is revealed. The moment itself is a recurrent fascination. What is the texture of memory? What is saved and what is meant?
Characters in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love tell stories in an attempt to discover or communicate the moment, talking to one another or directly to the reader. In “The Calm.” the narrator remembers sitting in a barber’s chair in Crescent City. California, the exact moment when barber and client peer into the mirror together, “his hands still framing my head.” Meaning and resolution may remain secret, but the image itself exists indelibly: “Today I was thinking . . . of how I was trying out a new life there with my wife, and how, in the barber’s chair that morning, I had made up my mind to go. I was thinking today about the calm I felt when I closed my eyes and let the barber’s fingers move through my hair, the sweetness of those fingers. the hair already starting to grow.” In “Sacks,” a father tells his son. a textbook salesman, the story of the one infidelity that broke up his (the father’s) marriage. The son asks all the wrong questions. “You don’t know anything. do you?” the father responds. “You don’t know anything except how to sell books.”
What we know and feel, how things fall apart, and what is left when they do, what holds in the purity of emptiness—these mysteries are Carver’s concerns. and he takes the reader into them. “I could hear my heart beating.” ends one story in a near-whisper. “I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making.”