Written by Ella Walker


Shelf Life

This week Ella Walker assesses Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Is it worthy of a permanent place on her shelf?

books and windowWas it love at first sight?

You can’t really go wrong with a Vintage Books cover. Those pinky-red spines, those clean-cut designs, all luminous white space and typefaces unsullied by fuss and twirls. That’s what my slimline copy looks like anyway, but seeing as it was first published in 1981, you’ll probably have a different version. And the likelihood is you will have a copy somewhere, probably squashed in that corner usually reserved for your practically new (aka: unread) short story collections.

How long did it take you to feel truly comfortable around each other?

The short story is an art form which, to be frank, I have no sense of comfort around at all. They are the antithesis of comfort. A gaggle of stories strung loosely together that you plunge in and then out of, like a cranky shower that maliciously can’t decide whether to scald or ice you. How can you possibly relax? And then there’s the fact that a truly good short story – oh so few have I as yet encountered – is often so astounding, so neatly sewn up and ergonomically wrought for the brain, that all you feel at the end of it is grief (Bukowski is a key culprit).

How would you describe it behind its back?

A combination of guilt for having never read Carver before, the excellent title (it’s just so spiky and promising; I presumed it’d be a whole series of stories focusing on people rowing and throwing dishes and being passively aggressive and not kissing before bed) and the fact another book I loved kept going on about it, brought me to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

“Women are brutalised, abandoned, ignored or just plain old flippant, while the men are haggard, stunted, monstrous and, more often than not, drunk.”

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a romantic bubble of a book about a librarian who finds an abandoned toddler in his store and sets out to educate her thoroughly on the books we must all read to survive on this planet. It seems Fikry and I disagree on what books should be in this survival kit. Passive-aggressive rowing is spot-on, though.

Did it make you laugh out loud?

No, but I did have to keep putting it down to take deep soothing breaths between chapters. Tell The Women We’re Going is enough to bring on an anxiety attack; the tug of war over a baby in Popular Mechanics is painful to read, while So Much Water So Close To Home is bewildering (a group of blokes carry on with their fishing weekend despite a dead woman floating in the shallows).

Women are brutalised, abandoned, ignored or just plain old flippant, while the men are haggard, stunted, monstrous and, more often than not, drunk. Even when families aren’t crumbling beneath their inability to express themselves, or heads are not being caved in by rocks, Carver’s inclination is still to make you think, angrily; never giggle.

How would you describe your commitment levels – did you put the effort in?

Of course, once you’ve got in the shower, no matter how enjoyable, you still got in there for a reason. You have to see it through, even if you jump out feeling thoroughly morbid.

You’ve had a nightmare time. Would it provide the understanding to get you through / soak up your tears?

No, unless you can think of nothing better than complete surrender and abject wallowing.

Would you let it meet your other friends?

The problem is, it’s so worthy and honourable and distinguished (sigh), that everyone should probably read it, in the same way you should probably read War and Peace (I haven’t bothered yet) and Middlemarch (I promise, this is actually worth it). Just don’t go buying it for anyone as a present; they might take it personally.

carver book coverCould you take it on holiday with you, without getting severely hacked off after three days?

This is not a holiday read, no way. The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, on the other hand, certainly is.

If you suddenly stumbled across it after several years of lost contact, do you reckon you would:
a) Think of it fondly but accept you’d both moved on (keep but don’t read)
b) Pick up exactly where you left off (reread every few years)
c) Ditch it, obviously you were never really friends.

I’m afraid Carver, it’s a c). However convincingly and vividly written, regardless of the fact that the stories keep niggling away in my brain, the collection is too damning of human nature, too bleak to reread and too accusatory sitting on the shelf.

Next month Ella will be reading I Am Zlatan by Zlatan Ibrahimović (yes, really).


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Written by Ella Walker

Ella Walker is an entertainment writer and book blogger living in Cambridge. She likes swimming in the sea and eating biscuits. Preferably at the same time.