Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Raymond Carver: Cathedral (1983)
In his third collection of short stories, Raymond Carver occasionally lessens the severity of his minimalist aesthetic, letting a few of the stories continue on to ambiguously warm conclusions, which are the closest thing to a “happy ending” in Carver country. But just as often, the stories present security and stability as ephemeral illusions and end with Carver’s typical images of lives out of control. For example, in “Feathers,” a husband and wife gain self-confidence when they visit friends in the countryside and observe the minute class and social distinctions that set the two couples apart. Their friends vulgarly allow a pet peacock to live in the house and have what the narrator simply names the “ugly baby.” But the husband and wife’s sense of superiority and distinction is quickly erased when the story’s conclusion indicates, without explanation, a transformation: “The change came later – and when it came, it was like something that happened to other people, not something that could have happened to us.” In “Chef’s House,” the narrator’s husband, a recovering alcoholic, literally has a short lease on happiness, as the titular house where he sets his life back in order is reclaimed by its owner at an unexpectedly early point. Describing a teacher whose life briefly comes together when he finds a nanny/maid to take care of his children, “Fever” mirrors “Chef’s House,” though with a slightly more optimistic ending. In “The Bridle,” an unemployed farmer and his family move to an apartment complex in Arizona. Despite the poolside community they join, they fail at their service jobs and move on, leaving behind a horse’s “bridle,” a symbol of their failure to gain control over their lives (pulling on the bridle, “You’d know you were going somewhere.”). “Where I’m Calling From” reveals a great deal about the fragile subjectivity and communication-at-a-distance of Carver’s characters throughout the volume. The titular location is an alcohol recovery center, from which the damaged narrator contemplates connecting to his absent wife through a telephone call. Taking place on a train crossing Europe, “The Compartment” is a rare shift of scene for Carver that demonstrates how easily his minimalist fiction can slip into the Mobius Strip models of metafiction. The desire of the narrator not to interact with the outside world, and particularly with the estranged son he is on his way to visit, his attempt to solipsistically seal off his psyche, is figured by the titular train car. Although the man desires to stay locked in comfortable isolation, an intruder enters the car and steals from him, and the man’s response ironically leads him to get trapped outside in a crowded second-class car. Two stories most clearly distinguish this collection from Carver’s earlier ones. “The Bath,” previously included in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, reappears in a revised and extended form in Cathedral as “A Small, Good Thing.” The earlier version, fitting with the dark tone of the rest of that collection, ends with a brutal moment of misunderstanding, a baker calling and coldly demanding payment for a birthday cake that was never picked up because the family’s son was killed in a hit-and-run. The newer version, however, allows the misunderstanding to be cleared up, and the final reconciliation of the baker and the parents edges too far towards a form of sentimentality that, while perhaps responsible for the popularity of the story, seems at odds with Carver’s emotionally-constricted writing program. The concluding story, “Cathedral,” also takes a dip into sentimental waters. As with many of Carver’s stories, “Cathedral” reflects on the limits of and the desire for communication by including different mediated interactions. The narrator insecurely and anxiously awaits the arrival at his house of a blind man, a ham radio enthusiast who has exchanged audio tapes through the mail with the narrator’s wife over the years. The awkward encounter between the narrator and the blind man seems to take a turn for the worse when the narrator’s wife falls asleep watching television, leaving the two men alone to converse. But when the blind man asks the narrator to show him what the cathedral seen on television looks like by drawing it with him, Carver reveals the goal of all his fiction: to elevate the mundane to the level of the sacred.