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Book Review: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Cathedral is Raymond Carver’s next collection of short stories after What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection that was heavily edited, and to some extent influenced, by the author’s editor, Gordon Lish. One can sense a shift in style in the stories contained in Cathedral. A noticeable change is the dwindling number of stories. The first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, has 22. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love has 17. Cathedral has 12, and although it has the least number, its stories are some of Carver’s longest, and in some sense, more conventional.

The stories in this collection are comprised of the kind of people you know, such as your office mate or your neighbor. There is often the feeling that one is not reading fiction. One can sometimes feel that the stories are his or her stories. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a point except to portray the lives of the working class. In the first story Feathers, a couple is invited to have dinner at a work mate’s place who has an ugly baby and a smelly peacock. These two things are seared in the couple’s mind, even when things start changing in their marriage. Chef’s House is about an alcoholic man who rents Chef’s House to patch things up with his wife. The man’s happiness and recovery are threatened when Chef asks them to leave.

These first two illustrate a dominant theme in the collection: isolation. In Feathers, the couple isolate that singular moment at the dinner and try to build a future from it. In Chef’s House, the time spent at the house is an isolation in itself. It is also as much a delusion and an inability to face realities outside that house. The isolation of the man on a train, on the way to visit his son, in the story Compartment is clearer and it climaxes when he realizes that he is on the wrong compartment, on the wrong car, and probably on the wrong direction.

For readers familiar with Carver’s earlier stories, A Small, Good Thing is a surprise. It is familiar since it’s a rework, or rather an extension, of The Bath, a story where a mother orders a cake for her child’s birthday but the child is in coma due to a car accident. The Bath ends with the baker following up on the mother about the unclaimed birthday cake. In A Small, Good Thing, the story is extended up to the point where the parents and the baker meet and eat at the bakery.

This clearly shows the reader how editing can completely change a story, and this is more potent in the case of Lish’s amputating style. Stories can bring different thoughts to the reader depending on where they are cut. The Bath is more intense as it dangles up there, not even confirming to the reader if it is indeed the baker who calls about the cake. A Small, Good Thing ends neatly, but its power comes from its ability to draw out the humanity of the adult characters, who are isolated in their own grief and yet connected by the circumstances that they find themselves in.

There is the usual cast of desperate characters, the ones that try to make it better, whom Carver always come back to. Disaffected and drunk as they are, they still make up for very good short stories. Preservation and Vitamins, although slightly nuanced in Carver’s storytelling, shows us these kinds of Carver characters.

Two stories in this collection seem more like character studies than slices of life. In Careful, a man struggles to get out something stuck in his ear. The act in itself is metaphor of how difficult it is to cope with things that seem so simple on the surface. In Where I’m Calling From, another of Carver’s titles that is often riffed, alcoholism takes the center stage. This is perhaps the most blatant story on alcoholism that Carver has written since it details the before-and-after of drunkenness.

The Train, a story dedicated to another short story master, John Cheever, is about a woman who gets back at a man for trampling her feelings. This is, in fact, a retelling of Cheever’s The Five-Four-Eight, whose point of view is on the man. The reversal of point of view is a delight for fans of both Cheever and Carver.

Two more stories on helplessness (The Fever) and being trapped (The Bridle) are offered before the title story is served. Cathedral is amazing in so many ways. The narration is more vivid than the rest of the stories, which is an irony because the story centers on a blind man. A man narrates the visit of his wife’s blind friend to their house. He is not at ease with their visitor because of his blindness. As the wife and the blind man catch up on each other’s lives, the man comes up with different notions and thoughts about the blind.

She died in a Seattle hospital room, the blind man sitting beside the bed and holding on to her hand. They’d married, lived and worked together, slept together—had sex, sure—and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding. Hearing this, I felt sorry for the blind man for a little bit. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better. Someone who could wear makeup or not—what difference to him? She could if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks, and purple shoes, no matter. And then to slip off into death, the blind man’s hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears—I’m imagining now—her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave.

Despite the man’s thoughts on the blind man’s predicament, it is revealed later on that he, compared with the blind man, is the one less capable of seeing. His traits and habits, such as his drug and alcohol use, his jealousy, his condescension to his wife, and his general contempt, these all show how narrow his field of vision is. On the other hand, the blind man seems as if he were the one who has the perfect eyesight. He seems to understand the wife better than her husband does, his friendship is apparently more meaningful than the husband’s marriage to her, and he seems to have a clearer insight on life.

The story tells of a man’s ability to transcend beyond his limitations. Its placement as the last story gives a sense of hope to the rest of Carveresque characters in the previous stories. With or without the editing of Lish, Carver’s stories are really something.


[Read in May 2013.]

[5 out of 5 stars.]

[228 pages. Trade paperback.]

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