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America is the land of opportunity, and everyone there can reach the maximum of their potential: perhaps that is why so much of its literature is tragic.
There must be failures even—or perhaps especially—in the most open of societies, and failure in such a society is more deeply felt than in a society that itself is a failure.
Raymond Carver is the poet of American failure. His short stories are what he calls “a long line of low rent tragedies.” He was born into a blue collar world; his father, an alcoholic, died young. Carver himself became an alcoholic, until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, but died aged 50 from lung cancer.
In the world he describes, people have insufficient command of words to express themselves, and love turns to hate. People argue past the point, and never about what is really on their mind. In “One More Thing,” a drunk called L D, who is about to be thrown out of the house by his wife, Maxine, argues with his 15 year old daughter, Rae.
“Tell him, Mom,” Rae said. “Tell him it's all in his head. Anyone who knows anything about it will tell you that's where it is.”
“How about sugar diabetes?” L D said. “What about epilepsy? Can the brain control that?” He raised his glass under Maxine's eyes and finished his drink.
“Diabetes, too,” Rae said. “Epilepsy. Anything! The brain is the most powerful organ in the body, for your information.” She picked up his cigarettes and lit one for herself.
“Cancer. What about cancer?” L D said. He thought he might have her there. He looked at Maxine. “I don't know how we got started in this,” L D said to Maxine.
“Cancer,” Rae said, and shook her head at his simplicity. “Cancer, too. Cancer starts in the brain.”
We've all heard angry discussions about aetiology like this that are really about something quite different.
In the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” one of the protagonists is a cardiologist, rather unusually for Carver, whose characters are usually at a much lower occupational level. Indeed, the story begins with the words: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.
“This rather implies that the right to silence in private life is not employed as often as it should be, and that the right to speak is conditional on possession of knowledge or skill of some kind.”
McGinnis and his second wife, Terri, are sitting round a table drinking gin with the narrator and his wife, Laura. A sense of dislocation—emotional, cultural, existential—is deftly conveyed: “We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.”
The four of them, progressively drunker, discuss the nature of love. The cardiologist and his second wife hover on the verge of an unpleasant, almost violent, dispute about whether her former lover, Ed—who beat her up, stalked McGinnis and eventually killed himself—really loved her. The subsequent discussion calls into question the reality, even the existence or possibility, of love.
What really disturbed me about this story, however, was not its scepticism about love but its suggestion that doctors were just the same as other people: illogical, inconstant, vulnerable. Surely we are not like others, but are a completely different order of beings?