26 July 2017

Serious talks

My latest hobby is revisiting tried-and-tested literary titles. The classics. I think that I’m a better, though slower, reader today; and so, in a way, better able to give them the reading that they deserve. Besides, adulthood can be an amazing filter.

Raymond Carver makes so much sense to me now. Stories in What we talk about when we talk about love aren’t exactly slices of life, but more like pieces of jigsaw puzzles. Carver zooms in on an dull moment until he catches characters in a profound split-second. He barely gets into their psyche. The images he uncovers are real enough to cause a jolt of recognition.

Raymond Carver. What we talk about when we talk about love. New York: Vintage, 1989.

What stood out for me in the collection is A serious talk. Burt visits his wife, Vera on Christmas day. The two have children but appear to be separated, at least not living together anymore. He came over to have a serious talk with her — which never happened.

Instead they spoke but skirted anything of importance. In the middle of their non-conversation, Burt lit a cigarette then scrutinized the ashtray on the table.
He studied the butts in it. Some of them were Vera’s brand, and some of them weren’t… The ashtray was not really an ashtray. It was a big dish of stoneware they’d bought from a bearded potter on the mall in Santa Clara. (p 109)
Later the phone rang and Burt answered it. The voice on the other end of the line was looking for a Charlie. Vera took the call in a different room. While she was away, Burt searched for a knife then cut the telephone cord. After realizing what her husband had done, Vera screamed at him and swore that she’s going to get a restraining order.

Burt picked up the ashtray and attempted to throw it, but Vera pleaded, “Please, that’s our ashtray.”

He left.
He was not certain, but he thought he had proved something. He hoped he had made something clear. The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon. There were things that needed talking about… He’d tell her the goddamn ashtray was a goddamn dish, for example. (pp 112 – 113)
Oftentimes I'm Burt, orchestrating that serious talk but failing. And in failure I reach for an ashtray to break or a knife to carve my way back to someone's attention.

My friends and I — and I’ve observed this with colleagues as well — still resort to composing letters when we want to express something important. Obvious reasons are: Emotional sobriety. Writing allows a calming down. There’s time to weigh feelings and opinions, and therefore make sure that nothing aired will be regretted. Things are recorded, so it may be reviewed again and again, diminishing the chances of misunderstanding.

And that illusion of finality. Having said everything you wanted to say the way you wanted it said makes you feel like you’ve had the last word on the matter. That’s why as much as I appreciate the act of letter-writing, I find it a weakness when talking face-to-face is an option.

Everyone is quick to prescribe communication when forging a healthy, lasting relationship. And it’s hard to disagree. It’s also hard to admit that we don’t know what that means. We’re told to communicate; we aren't taught how.

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