A Critical Analysis of
Raymond Carver’s Collection
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Thomas Jay Rush
The first story of Raymond Carver’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love ends with the narrator saying “There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out,” referring to a young woman who had stopped at the home of a man whose furniture was on his lawn. The obvious reading of those words is that she was trying to understand what caused the man to put his furniture outside. However, I think there may be another, equally valid, reading. I think one could read those words as direct statement, not about the situation, but about the story itself.
As soon as I read those words, I started wondering what exactly the girl needed to “talk out.” I wondered what happened that was so dramatic that she was still talking about it weeks afterwards, and what exactly was the “more” the narrator has not told us about.
If one thinks about the words “there was more to it” for a moment, one realizes that the writer is saying that something has been left out of the story. One also realizes that the writer is aware that something has been left out (otherwise why would he say there was “more to it”). It seems to me that, because the writer is aware that something is missing, he has made a conscious choice to leave that part of the story out of it.
Using three example stories from the collection, Why Don’t You Dance, Tell The Women We’re Leaving, and Sacks, I will argue that this purposeful “leaving out” characterizes Raymond Carver’s entire collection. I will further argue that he drops hints, such as the words “there was more to it,” that point to directly to what’s been omitted. Further, I will argue what is left out is the most important part of each story, and that it is exactly these left out parts that help the reader understand what Raymond Carver is really talking about in each story.
I recognize that a paper like this, a personal interpretation of a writer’s work, is filled with difficulty. That the interpretations I make are mine alone, and that other readers may have wildly different interpretations, all of which are equally valid. Therefore, my final argument in this paper will be that the craft that the writer exhibits most forcefully is his ability to write stories that are open to broad interpretation. It is this aspect of the writing craft that I most wish to incorporate into my own work. It is a writer’s ability to communicate things that are not said that I take the most pleasure from when I read a great short story.
So, what did I find when I went back and re-read Raymond Carver’s Why Don’t You Dance? looking explicitly for the “more”? I found a lot. Did I find anything “more” in any of the other stories in the collection? Yes, I did. Will I spend the rest of this paper trying to explain what I found? Yes, I will.
About half way through the story Why Don’t You Dance?, when the boy and the girl first get out of the car, the girl lays down on the bed. She tells the boy to lay down with her and says “Kiss me.” He says “Let’s get up,” feeling uncomfortable. A few sentences later she says “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” and trails off without finishing the thought. The obvious implication unsaid thing is “Wouldn’t it be funny if we made love on this bed out here in the driveway.”
Further in the story, after the man returns from the store and puts his sacks of groceries on the table, he puts a record on the record player and tells the young couple to dance. The narrator describes this thus: “Arms about each other, their bodies pressed together, the boy and the girl moved up and down the driveway.” I found the words “up and down” an interesting word choice.
A few sentences later the girl says “Dance with me,” and the narrator goes on to say “…when the man stood up, she came to him with her arms wide open.”
Then there is a section break; two blank lines in the narrative.
Then the girls says “Those people over there, they’re watching,” as if a crowd has formed and is standing in the street looking at them. The man says “Let them watch,” and then “I hope you like your bed.” The story ends with the last paragraph where the girl is still, weeks later, trying to “talk it out.”
Because the writer told me that there was something “more”, that wasn’t told, I wondered exactly what happened during that section break. What happened in the time interval between those two blank lines. What did the writer not say? Why did a crowd form? Why, weeks later, was the girl still trying to “talk it out”?
I think what happened is that the man and the girl explored fully, and to its conclusion, the question “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” In my mind, what Carver was really talking about in this story was sex.
Of course, there is no way for me to know if my interpretation is correct. There is no way for me to know if the man and the girl made love on the bed in the driveway. It is very likely that I am completely wrong, but that’s not the point. The point is that the writer, clearly and on purpose, put the words “there is more to it,” into his story – and that those words opened up (at least for me) this interpretation.
I think this same sort of openness to interpretation is exhibited in Carver’s Tell the Women We’re Going.
In this story Jerry and Bill, two young men who’ve been life-long friends, ostensibly kill two girls that they meet by chance one Sunday afternoon. While returning from an afternoon of drinking and playing pool, the two men come upon a pair of girls riding bikes along the road . Jerry and Bill play a cat and mouse game with the girls, driving ahead of and behind them in the car as they peddle along the road. After a while Jerry pulls ahead and parks, waiting for the girls near a trail leading to Picture Rock, where he presumes the girls are going. When they arrive they get off their bikes and start to climb the trail. The boys follow them and the blunt, and surprising, end of the story is presented.
The obvious reading of this story is that Jerry killed the two girls with a rock while Bill stood watching. But, as in Why Don’t You Dance? I think there is another interpretation. Unlike the previous story, I did not find a direct instruction from the author telling me that there was “more to it,” but I think it’s there, nonetheless.
The main reason I think there must be more to this story is because the murder makes no sense. Other than two very violent words (“cunt” and “cockteasers”) Jerry uses to describe them, there is no hint of a murderous intent on his part anywhere in the story.
In fact, just the opposite. The writer says Jerry is “the happy father of two” and that he had “moved up to assistant manager.” He seems firmly ensconced in his life. He does seem a bit unhappy, when he and Bill are sitting on the deck, before they leave, but not murderously so.
When the boys meet the two girls on the road they turn the car around and start following them. The interaction between them is “playful” with the girls frequently laughing and giggling. There is a cat and mouse aspect to the interaction.
Just before Jerry pulls ahead and parks to wait for the girls the narrator says that one of the girls looked at Jerry “in the right kind of way.” However, in the first part of that sentence the narrator says “It seemed to Jerry”.
This is a perfect example of Carver’s penchant for leaving things out. If the narrator had said it seemed the girls looked at Jerry “in the right kind of way” and then said “but he was wrong,” that would be one thing. But Carver doesn’t say that. He chooses the word “seemed” which is a weak word. It seems to me that the sun comes up every morning. And that’s turn, it does. But it also seems to me that the sun moves through the sky, but it doesn’t, the earth spins under it. There is no indication of whether Jerry was right or wrong in his interpretation of the girls’ look. It seems to me that Carver did this on purpose.
A similar thing happens when Bill first finds the two girls “crouched behind an outcrop”. The writer says “Maybe they were smiling.” Without the word “maybe” this sentence is as clear as it could be. The sentence “They were not smiling,” would be equally clear. “Maybe they were smiling,” says nothing at all about whether they were smiling or not.
One wonders who didn’t understand if the girls were smiling or not. Technically it is the narrator who says the may have been smiling. The implication is that, like Jerry who may have misinterpreted the look the girls gave him, Bill thought the girls may have been smiling. But, technically, it is the narrator who says this. The narrator – that is Raymond Carver – is leaving open the possibility that the girls were smiling. As if they were inviting what came next. Which makes the murder even less understandable in the context of the story.
The last paragraph of this story says:
[Bill] never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.
When I first read that paragraph I thought to myself “Jerry killed them,” but then I realized that this interpretation depends entirely on what the writer means by the word “rock.” If rock means “rock,” as in an object found on the ground, then the murder reading is the obvious interpretation. If, however, “rock” means something else (let’s just say something else that is frequently described as being hard) then the meaning of this last paragraph is totally different.
This second interpretation, that Jerry used something rock hard that he hadn’t found on the ground, (that is that he had sex with both girls while Bill stood by watching) makes much more sense (at least to me) given the rest of the story, and the purposeful ambiguity that Carver has used.
We know Bill stands by in the kitchen while Jerry and his wife are having sex in the bathroom. We know that Jerry has been “looking for something on the side” as Riley the Rec Center worker repeatedly says. We know the girls went up the hill and looked back down before disappearing, mirroring the cat and mouse play from earlier.
The author presents no “dread” in his telling of the interactions between the boys and the two girls on the bicycles. Jerry and Bill climbed the hill at a “walking pace” because they knew they “had it made.”
As in the previous story there is no way for me to know what the writer intended, but this wonderful ambiguity, this lovely openness to interpretation is the craft aspect of this story that I love.
As in the previous example, I think, what Carver is talking about in this story is sex.
As an aside, before moving on to the next example, I want to point out that as the two boys are driving down the road, after leaving the Rec Center, they encounter “an old pickup loaded with furniture.” When I read this I wondered if this was the same guy who had his furniture out in the driveway in Why Don’t You Dance?.
The final story I will look at is called Sacks. This amazing story takes place in a lounge in the Sacramento Airport where a son has flown in for a quick visit with his recently divorced father. The two have clearly not been in touch for a while (the son didn’t even know the father wore glasses).
Without much preamble the father launches in to the story of himself and the woman with whom he’s had an affair. An affair that resulted in his divorce. The father tells the entire story while he and his son share drinks. It is a pretty straightforward story. As in the previous example, I would note, this story in a story is fundamentally about sex. I looked hard but I did not find anything that I would say was clearly open to interpretation, except perhaps the title.
The title of the story seemed interesting. Why Sacks I wondered. There only two sacks mentioned in the story – first, a sack filled with small gifts for the son’s wife and children. The second sack is the sack the saleswomen holds when she first knocks on the man’s door. Neither of these two sacks seemed to play any real part on this story. Like the murder in Tell The Women We’re Going it made no sense to me why the writer would choose this as his title.
At one point the father says “You’re an educated man, Les. You’ll be the one to figure it out.” Like the words “There was more to it.” I read this as a direct instruction from the writer that there is something to figure out about this story. This is totally conjecture, of course, but I think this story is a puzzle. I think the goal of the puzzle is to figure out why the story is called Sacks.
Looking at the structure of the story one sees that this is a story within a story. Les, the younger man, flies into Sacramento where he meets his father. Quickly, the father tells the story of what happened in his marriage leading up to his divorce.
The framing story, the story about the son and the father meeting at the airport, contains the inner story, the story the father tells about his affair.
The father’s story in first person present tense. The framing story is in first person past tense. There is a large amount of dialog in both stories. The dialog attributions in the framing story use the word “said” while the dialog attributions in the father’s story use the word “says.” This has the effect of making father’s voice sound much less well educated than the son’s voice.
I think, instead of just two sacks in this story, there are three. I think the third sack is the framing story itself. The writer has placed the father’s story inside the “sack” of the framing story. Otherwise I can’t explain to myself why the story is titled as it is. It makes no sense. The sacks in the story have no importance.
I think, in this story, the writer is flexing his writing muscles. Pointing out his own prowess in the art of punctuation and story craft. Saying to a careful reader “Look what I can do,” and then pulling off this amazing act of punctuation (quotes inside of quotes inside of an inner story, and so on). In addition to the amazing punctuation (which as far as I could tell is perfect) the transitions into and out of the inner story are seamless.
In some paragraphs the father is deep inside the telling of his own story and the writer places a comma, a closing quote, and tells the reader that the old man “shook his head.” This shaking of the head happens in the framing story. Immediately following this the writer jumps right back into the inner story without missing a beat. The transition is totally seamless. The reader is not jarred or confused in the least. Carver is telling two stories simultaneously, both perfectly, without the slightest hitch.
There are many interesting hints and connections to other stories in this collection built into this story. The son in this story is constantly looking at his watch, reminiscent of Bill in Tell the Women We’re Leaving. The old man say “I’ll tell you what’s the most important thing…there are things,” which is reminiscent of the story I Could See the Smallest Things (the title of which, by the way, is also a direct instruction to the reader to pay careful and close attention to the smallest things).
When describing the scene where the saleswoman’s husband, Larry, returns home to find the father and her in bed the old man says he was afraid Larry would push him up “against this big fence in the yard” and that the woman stood in the kitchen in “her robe,” both of these things being reminiscent of I Could See the Smallest Things.
Finally, the narrator says “My father started to say something more. But instead he shook his head.” Again, there is something more in the story that has not been said. There always seems to be something “more” in Carver’s stories.
When I read a short story I don’t usually care much what happens in the story. If a story simply relates a series of events, no matter how interesting, I feel let down. I usually look for something special, something hidden, or hinted at. In most stories I read I don’t find anything. Sometimes, when I do find something, it is so blatantly obvious and so completely lacks subtly, that I find it unrewarding. But Raymond Carver’s stories are different.
Raymond Carver’s prose is so sparse and so clean that somehow it allows itself to be opened wider to interpretations. It’s as if all the underbrush has been cleared away allowing the reader to see more clearly.
I have no idea if anything I’ve said in this paper is accurate. It’s all my own interpretation, of course. I do know, however, that Raymond Carver revised these stories many times (in some cases 40 to 50 revisions for a single story). It is difficult for me to believe that, after 40 revisions, a single word remains in any of these stories by accident. I think he purposefully crafted these stories to be open to multiple interpretations. Why would the writer put the words “there was more to it,” at the very end of the very first story in this collection? I think those words were put there for a very specific reason – to admonish readers to pay close attention, and to instruct the reader that careful attention would be rewarded. This is why I think this is such a wonderful collection.
When I write I sometimes try to put these sorts of double and triple interpretation possibilities into my writing, however it always turns out very heavy handed. It is this aspect of the craft of writing that I love. This ability of some writers, such as Raymond Carver, to say things without saying them. And to say them in such a way as to not be heavy handed, but to be subtle and secretive.
One final word. I tried to convince myself as I went through this exercise that what Raymond Carver talked about when he talked about love was sex. In the first two examples, with the man in the driveway and Jerry and Bill, I think I’ve at least opened the possibility that there may have been sex involved. I tried, in the third example story, to find an unsaid hint that someone was having sex, perhaps it was the woman dancing in the bar with her arms wide (reminiscent of the girl in the driveway) as the bartender watched (reminiscent of Bill). But I couldn’t convince myself.
No matter. It was still very enjoyable looking.