Sunday, July 11, 2010

Short-a-Day: Raymond Carver's "Beginners" vs. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

Originally compared here, in The New Yorker, December 24, 2007.
Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 94 (What We Talk About) vs. 26 (Beginners)

From the neatly broken up short paragraphs to the emphasis on opinion and the minimalist touch that invites us to fill in gaps, "What We Talk About" is a much easier to read story than "Beginners." It's also a much better draft, though arguably not Carver's, but rather the result of a master sculptor-editor, Gordon Lish, who has chiseled away the lengthy digressions, focused the action by limiting it to the present (and to this single room/table), and really summed up the absurdity of trying to explain love.

Whereas "Beginners" is a lengthy albeit generally natural slog through an increasingly drunk conversation, "What We Talk About" is a sharp and fiery story from the get-go: "Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right." (As opposed to "My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking.") But I don't need to complain any more about the difference between showing and telling, or the difference between engaging the reader and preaching to him. "What We Talk About" works by cutting the two lengthy digressions of Carver's short, and refocusing the action on Mel's personality, which not only makes a logical sense--for instance, why is Mel telling this particular story about love?--but creates a coolly crafted one, too, in which the opening conversation--about a Stella/Stanley sort of violent love--comes back to haunt Mel, for while he's argued against that ("I don't know what you'd call it, but I sure know you wouldn't call it love"), it's what he feels strongest--and toward his ex-wife, Marjorie, whom he hopes is stung to death by bees; not toward his current wife, Terri, who seems to have devoted her life to Mel.

The reason for the huge difference between the two scores, though the stories share much in common, is that "What We Talk About" comes together, whereas "Beginners" doesn't go anywhere. That doesn't mean there aren't some good observations, some nice lines, but a story needs to be more than a bunch of precariously (or preciously) strung together prose. In Lish's version, Mel is cruder, which makes him more human and, therefore, more sympathetic. It also makes his fantasy of being a knight--violence again--seem more elegant, and it gives more weight to his self-deprecating description of himself as a "mechanic." (In "Beginners" he's reading Ivanhoe and making out-of-character quips like "Vassals, vessels, ventricles, vas deferens," which don't really mesh with someone who'd confuse "vassals" and "vessels" in the first place.) Going a step further, Lish strips out the specifics of the story Mel tells, understanding that it's not about an old couple's car-crash and their mutual recovery (and memories of Victrola records)--it's about his slant on it, which in "What We Talk About" is brusquely presented as "I'm telling you, the man's heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife." It's his current situation all over again, right down to being stuck in the same room--he's trying to see Terri, he's looking right at her, but he only sees a distasteful stranger. And what he wants--what he needs--is that yearning, that love. It's a stake-raising moment, for while there's still not much plot, and really no action, it's filled with character, and that's sometimes all a story needs.

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