A Serious Talk by Raymond Carver: What makes a great short story?
by Jennifer Harvey Views: 4385
Everything you need to know about Burt and Vera, the protagonists in Raymond Carver’s story A Serious Talk, is right there in the opening passage. In the opening sentence even.
“Vera’s car was there, no others, and Burt gave thanks for that.”
On first reading, Carver’s minimalist style can deceive the reader, the simplicity hiding a mass of truths. But take a closer look at that opening sentence, because it tells us so much.
Something has gone wrong between Burt and Vera and whatever it is, it is Burt’s doing. There he is, after all, pulling up outside her house and relieved to see no-one else is there.
The immediacy of that opening sentence pushes the reader directly into Burt and Vera’s lives and poses a question, almost subliminally. Why is Burt keen for no-one else to be there?
It is classic Carver; precise, controlled prose that reveals so much by saying very little.
So here we have Burt returning to Vera’s house the day after Christmas.
Outside he is immediately confronted with the messy aftermath of his Christmas day visit – a pumpkin pie lies splattered on the drive, like an accusation, where he dropped it the night before.
The visual impact of the pie is given added force by what comes next.
A straightforward telling of a Christmas morning scene; presents are unwrapped, the tree twinkles.
But below the surface idyll, the tension is palpable.
Vera has given Burt until six o’clock to visit, when he has to leave because that is when her new friend and his family will arrive to spend Christmas.
In this way, Carver sets up the tension to come. Already we can see that Burt is not wanted in the house, that before he has even arrived he has been told when he is expected to leave.
Yet Burt perseveres.
He has bought a cashmere sweater for Vera, an expensive gift, a well-considered gift, wrapped with a ribbon.
But when Vera receives it all she can say is “it’s nice.”
An understatement that contrasts sharply with the care and attention Burt has clearly put into choosing the gift.
Carver then layers on Burt’s isolation by listing the impersonal gifts he is given – a gift voucher from Vera, a ballpoint pen from his son, a comb and brush from his daughter.
The kinds of gifts people buy for a stranger.
Leaving the reader to wonder, is that what Burt is to them?
It tells us everything we need to know about the extent of the breakdown in the family relationships; a breakdown that is given an extra dimension when we consider that only Vera is named in the story: we never find out the names of the children. Similarly, while we get details of Vera’s gift from Burt, we don’t ever know what gifts Burt bought for his children.
It is a very interesting plot device, this. Carver does not explicitly state Burt’s apparent indifference to his children. He doesn’t need to. It is there, in their very anonymity. The reader can only wonder how such a state of affairs could arise.
It’s worth pointing out here, however, that the original edit of this story, “Pie” did contain these personal details: the names of the children, the gifts they gave Burt. In this version of the story, Carver even allows Burt to muse on a bicycle trip he may take with his son.
All of these details were edited out by Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor, and it makes for an interesting side note to consider the way the impersonal aspect of the final edit packs a heavier emotional punch than the original. The things that are missing in Burt’s life are cut from the text and as readers, we feel this loss. And it makes for painful reading.
The Christmas day scene ends with Burt sitting alone in his own house watching his family prepare for dinner. They busy themselves around him and seem to barely notice he is there.
And we can feel pity for Burt at this moment, at his isolation and his exclusion from the festivities.
As he sits and ponders this little scene we understand that he still loves Vera, that he is lonely and sad.
And then Burt shows the petulant side of his character. He loads the fireplace with logs and steals the row of pumpkin pies that have been laid out neatly on the sideboard.
It’s a petty act – borne of loneliness, we understand this much – but no less vindictive for it.
And what are we, as readers, to feel about Burt now? Do we pity him, try to understand him? Or do we simply tolerate him as Vera and his children do?
Now we see Burt’s attempt at reconciliation in a new light – the significance of that splattered pie becoming clear.
Burt is returning to Vera to apologise. It could be seen as something admirable, but Carver undermines Burt in the small details that are now revealed.
Layer upon layer of broken things are piled up.
The front door to the house is “permanently locked since that night his key had broken off inside it”.
Inside the detritus of Christmas is clearly visible. The “pile of coloured paper”, the “leathery remains” of the turkey carcass, what’s left of the fireplace: “A trail of smoke stains rose up the bricks to the mantel, where the wood that stopped them was scorched black”.
This is not a home. This is a trail of destruction.
And it has been like this for years.
Burt looks out the window and sees a broken bicycle lying upside down, the front wheel missing. The garden fence is broken, and weeds run riot.
Vera reminds Burt that he also ruined Thanksgiving the previous year. She reveals she is smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and keeps vodka chilled in the freezer.
And we see Burt then as he is. The mess he trails behind him, the splattered pumpkin pie just one incident among many.
And what are we to make of him now? Should we sympathise?
It’s a measure of Carver’s prowess as a writer that he does manage to elicit sympathy for Burt, even after all these revelations.
Burt is still saying sorry. He still wants to make amends, even though we understand now it is probably too late. He is trying. And we feel it and perhaps even want him to succeed.
But then comes the final incident of petty destruction and we are left realising that though Burt may long for a “serious talk” with Vera, though he still loves her and feels a great loss that he cannot be with his family, we know this reconciliation will never happen. Burt will sabotage his chances time and time again.
As a writer, I come back to this story often because it is a master class of character development.
By all counts we should feel nothing but frustration with Burt. So many of his actions are destructive, ill-timed and petty.
But Carver shows us little glimpses of the man beneath the chaos – those little touches of humanity that allow us to empathise with Burt, despite his many flaws.
It’s a very difficult thing to accomplish within six pages and yet Carver manages it expertly.
You can read “A Serious Talk” in Carver’s collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
If you want to know a little more about Raymond Carver take a read of this insightful interview with The Paris Review.
 For an example of Gordon Lish’s editing take a look at this piece in the New Yorker which compares and contrasts versions of Carver’s classic story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.
Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.