November 10, 2004

What I Talk About When I Talk About “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

I realize that all of my response are simply my way of talking about what I read. These thoughts come without excessive premeditation, and so they resemble Carver’s narrative in the ordinary, around-the-kitchen-table banter central to it. This is what I talk about when I talk about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

This wasn’t my first time to read this story. In fact, my first time reading this story was this past summer when I assigned it to my “Introduction to American Literature” class. Like many things I teach, I assigned it without reading it in advance and I read it only shortly before we covered it in class. As I reread the story for our class I remembered that this was one of the stories (we often read three or four for a given day of class) that we never made our way to discussing. Our class discussions were designed to be organic, following the interests of the students and the questions and responses they have to the assigned texts. My first response to this text, then, was, “I’ve read this. If I remember right, although I found it reasonably interesting, we never ended up talking about it in class.”

My other responses are more directly aligned with the narrative and characters.

I relate to the shape of the narrative: sitting around the table and talking. That certainly seems like a familiar setting and the fluidity of the conversation seems “natural.” I’ve experienced conversations like this, in fact I quite enjoy them. So I can understand writing a short fictional piece that never leaves the table and that is consumed with the unplanned conversation of four characters, two couples.

Mel McGinnis is an odd character that I cannot quite figure out. He is assigned a certain respectability and intelligence by virtue of his profession as a physician, but he appears broken and, frankly, a bit off. It doesn’t seem to me that it is simply the booze that alters his speech and thinking. Mel has some fundamental anguish or sorrow that remains unresolved.

Terri is a fittingly mysterious match for Mel. She has her own shadowed past with her ex-husband, Ed. Her relationship to Mel seems strange and the terms in which they sometimes describe their love seems particularly pragmatic and unemotional. Terri is a kind soul—probably too forgiving and too accommodating, but these features probably qualify her to be a companion to Mel with his controlling tendencies.

Nick and Laura are the “regular” folks of the story. They are the people that we all imagine that we are. In the context of love, we like to see ourselves as they seem: in love with each other in a way that seems both romantic (magical) and practical (pragmatic). They seem to be well matched without seeming to be a fairy tale couple that gives us reason to feel incredulous or resentful. They are patient friends who know Mel well and put up with him without complaint. They are the “nice neighbors” that we all hope to have or to be.

My other responses include responses to the concepts and definitions of love that the two couples toss around the table in their conversations. Inasmuch as they present a number of different models of love, I find it is easy—and almost expected—to respond to each one in turn, deciding as I read whether or not I agree with it. I find the theories of love presented generally unacceptable, if a little uninteresting.

For some reason, I find this story pleasurable, or at least pleasant, without ever feeling very engaged. I find myself wondering why I enjoy it, when so little about it seems notable. I wonder why it appeared in the anthology I chose for class and I try to remember what arbitrary conditions led me to choose it for the class. And yet, I would be willing to defend the story on the basis that it is rather unpretentious and ordinary—that it seemingly seeks to be plain and unadorned, and that its “greatness,” if it aspires to that, is contained within it simplicity and everydayness.

My final response is a reaction to my responses. I find that I am drawn to evaluate the characters in this story as if they were people that came into my social circle, as if they were people that I would have to sort out in the social organization of my personal life. I therefore judge and assess the characters as people—not as literary characters—and I make statements that reveal who I would likely invite into my life and who I would keep a safe distance from.

Similarly, I respond to the plot (or the absence thereof) as a situation that I might experience in the routine of my own life. It becomes evident that my response is a process of drawing this text very close to me and making it a very personal experience, or an experience which is evaluated on very personal criteria. I wonder if it is the nature of the storytelling itself that causes me to respond in this way. If the story was more dramatic, the characters more spectacular, the plot more active, would I be forced to hold the text at a greater critical distance? Would it be more difficulty for me first to consider myself as a part of the narrative? I think that I do see the conversation around the kitchen table and imagine myself sitting there in ways that might be impossible if the setting and context where more spectacular or dramatic.

Posted by ogde0004 at November 10, 2004 10:57 PM