I chose this title for a reason. For non-Raymond Carver fans, the “What We Talk About” likely sounds familiar. It is an oft-copied phrase, from Nathan Englander’s 2012 short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank to the number of recent headlines covering everything from gun control to GMOs. For readers of Carver’s 1981 story collection, this article’s title has hopefully provoked a response, even if it’s ire over another turn of this well-worn phrase. In the same way countless writers pay homage to the father of dirty realism in our prose, I have attempted to honor his knack for titles in the title of my forthcoming book, Siblings and Other Disappointments, a collection that is both a tribute to him and my late brother.
For many people, the Carver they know is whichever story their English professor assigned them to read. This is usually “Cathedral,” arguably Carver’s most famous story. It’s the first one I ever read, although I didn’t discover him in a classroom, but rather found my way to him in a book that collected short stories originally published in Esquire. I’ve been drawn to Carver ever since because I’ve never been able to understand my brother more than when I read a Carver story. Reading Carver has been like therapy to me, a way to process and work through the tragic loss of my brother.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” “So Much Water So Close to Home,” and “Tell The Women We’re Going”—Carver had a gift for evocative titles that told just enough to hook you. I’ve never considered myself a skilled titler; my titles tend toward the obvious. I didn’t feel concerned with the individual story title until my first collection of short stories needed a name. I wanted to follow in the literary tradition of naming the collection after one of the stories within it. I knew without question that the story “Siblings” was the most important for me personally and it represented the theme of all my stories: your family will inevitably disappoint you, and you will inevitably disappoint them.
When my publisher considered the marketability of the title Siblings, the marketing team suggested that it was too vague a title for a book. There were far too many results when they ran the word through Google—nobody would ever find my book this way. They wanted something more specific, but all the alternative title suggestions felt too on the nose. Pulled from the mouth of Gary, a composite character of all the surly, stoic, and ultimately lonely men I’ve known in the West, You Need Them More Than You Want Them works in dialogue. Yet separated from my fictional bus driver, it sounds too much like a country song. My book is a country song of sorts with its tales of gamblers, drinkers, and runaways, but I’d rather it sound more Carver than Cash.
The titular short story focuses on adult siblings based loosely on my brother and me. After tragedy befalls the sister, she returns to her childhood home where her divorced, alcoholic brother has been living alone since their mother died. Burying past resentments, the siblings drink, reminisce about their shared childhood, and try to make sense of their separate failures as adults. After an alcohol-induced moment of reconciliation, the two have seemingly patched up their relationship, until the following morning when the sister realizes the brother will likely never change. This story pays tribute to both Carver’s “Cathedral” and my personal favorite, “Where I’m Calling From.”
“Where I’m Calling From” is based on Carver’s own experiences in a “drying out” facility. The story follows an alcoholic, the women he loves, and the men he meets at the facility. It’s an insider-glimpse into rehab for those of us who have only seen the waiting room. As the narrator bounces between observations of the inside in the present and his memories of his wife and girlfriend, all while considering the choices that led him to the facility, the audience is able to see what life is like for someone who suffers from alcoholism. Alcoholism was the mark of Carver’s life for many years, and it affected his decisions and actions as much as his writing. Alcoholism was also the mark of my brother’s life.
In its original form, my story “Siblings” showed the brother once again letting down his little sister. While in the process of editing this collection, I lost my brother to his long struggle with substance abuse. His absence from my life is a persistent hole inside me, a wound I consider often through the lens of writing. After his death, feeling that illogical guilt that survivors of tragedy feel—“I should have saved him”—I changed the ending to show the sister letting her brother down, essentially giving up on him. I also changed the title of the story and the subsequent collection to “Siblings and Other Disappointments.” For me, this title captures all of the ways we feel let down by life, starting with the most personal—our families—and moving outward to jobs, friends, and all the rest.
I hope the provocative title will resonate with many people. Before I shared the idea with my publisher, I ran it by my sister, explaining that I in no way meant it as an insult to her. Nor is it meant as an insult to my brother, as I assume people might guess at first glance. As the sister of an addict I am left with the kind of guilt I will never be able to shake: the feeling that I could have done more, fought harder, and that in the end I was the disappointment to him.
I often think of my brother and wonder what happened in our genes, in the blood that flows through both of us—what happened that we turned out differently? I doubt I’ll ever have an answer to that question, but I keep reading Raymond Carver—a writer and an alcoholic—with the hope that someday I’ll be more at peace with the not knowing. It’s the not knowing that fills the space between my stories, the ambiguous endings that I hope reflect our real lives. I read Carver for the same reason I write: to work through my unresolved disappointments.