A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day 1 – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day 1 – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver.

Read it online here:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

This podcast has an audio version, read by the author. The actual story starts at the 6 minute mark.

It is no accident that I am opening the month of short stories with a Raymond Carver story. I have been reading his work a lot over the last year and I have decided that his stories are the stories I would write if I could.

Today’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a classic, arguably his most famous. It is especially well known now – because it is a stage version of that simple story that is being developed and staged during last year’s Oscar Winning Best Picture, Birdman.

Birdman opens with the quote that is on Raymond Carver’s tombstone:

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

The plot of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is simple enough. Four people, two couples, sit around a table drinking and talking. There is a lot of drinking in Carver’s stories, and a lot of hopelessness. In this story one couple talks about her ex-lover, who never was able to get over her and was cursed with an unstable mind. It lead to his death.

Was this love? Or was it madness? Or was it both? Or is there even a difference?

Those are only some of the subtle and complex questions the story brings up – it is overflowing with ideas and questions, despite its short length.

That is one thing I love about Carver’s stories – the efficiency and the brevity. It is genius to be able to say so much in such a small space.

In researching and reading deep about how he worked I did discover one interesting fact. Carver didn’t write with quite that much brevity. His editor was relentless in driving him to down his word count – to cut his prose to the bone.

For example, once you’ve read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – then go to this story, Beginners, from the New Yorker. It’s the same story, in draft form, before editor Gordon Lish had Carver chop away at the prose.

It makes for a very different story. I like the short version better. The stuff that has been exorcised – it’s all fluff, things you know anyway… or at least will know once you think about it. There is genius in brevity.

Thinking about Carver’s short stories and about movies… there is a well-known film, Short Cuts, directed by Robert Altman, that strings together several Carver stories, but not today’s. I watched the film to see if it gave me any more insight into the writing.

I was disappointed… even though the movie was well-done. It was more of an Altman movie than a Carver one. For example, it was moved from the Northwest to sunny Los Angeles. These stories need overcast skies, I think. Altman’s natural humor is sprinkled throughout – which dilutes the agony of the characters too much, I think.

Even though I haven’t said very much, I don’t think I’m going to say any more. Brevity…. well, you know.

Quintet

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
—- Robert Frost

Ok, I’m going to write about a movie you will never see. I can’t really call it a review – the movie sucks so much and in such an interesting and ambitious way that it isn’t really reviewable. I knew it sucked – had known it sucked for decades. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy watching it (Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t).

I’m not sure why I even bothered to watch it. Or why I even bother that it exists. I could write about a fictional movie. You’re not going to see this one anyway – so who cares if it actually exists. If nobody except me sees a movie-does it even exist?

This movie that you aren’t going to see is called Quintet and it stars Paul Newman and is directed by Robert Altman. When I think of science fiction dystopian film making… I always think of Robert Altman. It was made in 1979 – a year after I graduated for the last time.

Quintet

A scene near the begining of Quintet. Don't think I blurred the edges of the frame for artistic effect - I didn't. The whole movie looks like that. They must have used a gallon of vaseline on the lenses.

Back then I used to love to read the movie reviews in Time magazine. I think I enjoyed reading the reviews more than seeing the movies. Remember, this was long before the Internet – information was scant then. You tended to believe what you read.

Now we know better.

So I read the reviews of Quintet. It was a big deal – Paul Newman, Robert Altman, all-star international cast. With all this going for it, with all this at stake, it couldn’t suck. But it did. They didn’t really come out and say that – but we all knew how to read between the lines.

I bought my first television cable in about 1980. That was when HBO was still called Home Box Office. Quintet was on, but I only saw a few minutes of it. It actually looked like something I might enjoy – odd, eccentric, but entertaining in a quirky sort of way.

I was wrong.

Now, all these decades later, we have Netflix – and I’m able to watch this old chestnut in the privacy of my own laptop.

1979 were pre-global warming days – when it was assumed the world would end in ice, not fire. In the film, ice has taken over and the world is about to freeze solid. Everyone has given up and is waiting around to die. Paul Newman arrives from the wilderness – the prototypical outsider of the dystopian tradition – with a young pregnant wife. This should be a big deal – but nobody cares about anything. They go on playing this game, Quintet, and the losers get slaughtered and literally fed to the dogs.

ext for the image, e.g. “The Mona Lisa”

"The earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." What the hell does that mean? I suspect very little.

The only interesting character is killed off thirty minutes in.

The move has a languid pace and an interesting frozen broken down look – but in the end, nobody gives a damn about anybody.

So why should we?

Another scene from Quintet

Paul Newman and Fernando Rey enjoying a hearty drink together. At least the beer is cold.