Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review of Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was pushed in front of me in an undergraduate Fiction Writing class. I recall labeling his style simple, natural and unmemorable save for the narrator protagonist. Two years later when browsing a ma and pa bookstore, I pulled “Cathedral” from the shelf to admire the alluring cover illustration. His name and the book title were unfamiliar until I came across a few lines in the last short story “Cathedral” about incessant drinking and a blind man, and everything came back to me. It was a time in my life I was starving for simplicity, so I bought it.

If Carver had been stripped of literary approbation, I might not have bothered to give myself pep talks to push through Cathedral. Although the clarity of his prose is refreshing, many of his stories' endings felt shortchanged and the plots moved at a distractingly glacial pace, causing my interest - both counterfeit and genuine - to falter.

"Feathers" – puzzling, quirky, subtly wistful
I liked this story more after a second reading because instead of being distracted by Carver’s staple ingredient, the perpetual feeling of “where is this going,” I was able to notice how well Jack knew and adored the quirks, faults and strengths of his wife Fran.

The strongest part of the opening of “Feathers” is when the main character Jack describes Fran as a tall glass of water, but doesn't explain why.

Fran’s a big tall drink of water. She has this blond hair that hangs down her back. I picked up some of her hair and sniffed it. I wound my hand in her hair. She let me hug her. I put my face right up in her hair and hugged her some more.” (p. 5)

Carver lets the story unfold, showing how Fran is a tall glass of water, and then reminding readers of the aloof comment by having Fran ask the host, Bud, for “some of that Old Crow and a little water. … In a tall glass, please. With some ice.” (p. 12)

The beginning and end of “Feathers” gave me an immediate appreciation of Carver’s vision and control as a writer; though, I wasn’t much a fan of the fluff in the middle.

"Chef's House" – mild, neat, one-dimensional
Tight prose, doesn’t go below surface level. Very ho-hum.

"Preservation" – deficient, prosaic, obscure
Carefully chosen diction, weak ending. Too abstract for my taste. Take a gander at the story’s last paragraph below. I would prep you with some story context, but it’d be an unnecessary favor. You’ll feel lost either way.

She looked down at her husband’s bare feet. She stared at his feet next to the pool of water. She knew she’d never again in her life see anything so unusual. But she didn’t know what to make of it yet. She thought she’d better put on some lipstick, get her coat, and go ahead to the auction. But she couldn’t take her eyes from her husband’s feet. She put her plate on the table and watched until the feet left the kitchen and went back into the living room.” (p. 46)


…Still, nothing.

"The Compartment" – stirring, raw, bleak
A powerful piece, heavy on flashbacks and reflection and light on present action. The setting was limited to a train compartment, but Myers’s inner turmoil took readers to scenes of violence and sadness in his past and fear and anger while traveling to see his estranged son for the first time in eight years.

Myers earns readers’ respect and appreciation with his bravery and vulnerability - by tucking away his past and fretting over their reunion, respectively.

He stayed awake after that and began to think of the meeting with his son, which was now only a few hours away. How would he act when he saw the boy at the station? Should he embrace him? He felt uncomfortable with that prospect. Or should he merely offer his hand, smile as if these eight years had never occurred, and then pat the boy on the shoulder?” (p. 49)

Just as readers begin to soften toward Myers, he takes a sharp left and doesn’t look back. He had bought his son an expensive Japanese wristwatch in Rome as a gift, but it was stolen from his coat pocket when he left the compartment to use the restroom. The theft of his son’s gift seems responsible for Myers’s moment of change, as it occurred immediately after he realized it was missing.

It came to him (Myers) that he didn’t want to see the boy after all. He was shocked by this realization and for a moment felt diminished by the meanness of it. He shook his head. In a lifetime of foolish actions, this trip was possibly the most foolish thing he’d ever done. But the fact was, he really had no desire to see this boy whose behavior had long ago isolated him from Myer’s affections. He suddenly, and with great clarity, recalled the boy’s face when he had lunged that time, and a wave of bitterness passed over Myers. This boy had devoured Myers’s youth, had turned the young girl he had courted and wed into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied. Why on earth, Myers asked himself, would he come all this way to see someone he disliked?” (p. 54)

On page 48, the narrator foreshadows Myers’s change of heart: “Now and then Myers saw a farmhouse and its outbuildings, everything surrounded by a wall. He thought this might be a good way to live – in an old house surrounded by a wall.” Instead of meeting his son, Myers opts for the selfish safe choice. He reneges his promise to reconcile with his son and remains in the compartment, surrounded by a wall.


On Deck: Cathedral's “A Small, Good Thing,” “Vitamins,” “Careful,” “Where I’m Calling From,” “The Train,” “Fever,” “The Bridle,” “Cathedral” and a conclusion

No comments:

Post a Comment