f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Angel or Devil?—Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Angel or Devil?—Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Depending on whom you ask, Ray Carver may very well be known as the savior of the short story or the destroyer. Sometimes a person may very well say he’s both.

Carver died in 1988, but his impact on the form is undeniable. He along with Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, and some others made collections of short stories commercially viable for perhaps the first time in modern American history. And once something becomes commercially viable, watch out. What follows is a slew of sloppy seconds as people try and replicate such success.

Carver and Dubus also represent some of the first larger successes that developed through a writing program. Usually, M.F.A. students go their degrees and headed off to colleges and universities around the country to teach creative writing and hopefully to continue getting their stories published in journals. One of my profs was a student along with either one or both of the two writers and he seemed at once ecstatic for their fame and perhaps a bit bittersweet for his own anonymity.

So Dubus and Carver made it possible to be a writer, head off on scholarship or grant to a writing program, and then publish your collection and maybe make a name for yourself. The downside to all this, according to some, is that this mindset forced M.F.A programs became factories. Instead of creating writers who are discovering their own voices, they taught talented writers how to craft stories that would be picked up by journals. Publish or perish, baby.

One of the most public reactions against this was a joint effort between Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s journal (which, depending on your tastes is either hip and groundbreaking or annoying) and Michael Chabon titled, understatedly, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. From the introduction, Chabon laments the state of the American short story in the premier magazines. Gone are the pulp and genre masterworks for folks like Hammett. Gone are the action pieces of writers like London. Instead, the short story has become “recycled, plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.”

That’s Carver to a T. Except at the time he wasn’t recycled. He was writing in a fresh new vernacular that stripped language down to its essence and found power in everyday life. Carver is the literary equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting. His pages are filled with roustabouts and drunks who often despise their lives. Each Carver story, though, tends to fashion one moment of transcendence, one sparkling facet of understanding that in literary terms is called the “Epiphany.” This isn’t new to Carver. Short stories have found that moment for centuries—it’s just rarely been found in such mundane lives and situations. (The finest epiphanic story for my money, and the greatest short story ever, is Joyce’s “The Dead.”)

So that’s the mix into which we’re thrown when we read Carver these days. He feels dated in a lot of ways and I no longer stack his work up against Dubus’. But there are a number of stories of his that I like and “Cathedral” from the collection of the same name is one of them.

Told from the first-person POV of an unnamed narrator, we’re taken into the life of a married man who’s wife has invited an old friend over for the night. This friend is a blind man named Robert whom she’d read to as a summer job over a decade ago, but with whom she’s continued to keep in touch.

Our narrator doesn’t want the blind man over and though he finally acquiesces it’s not without some petulance. Robert shows up. They talk. They eat a huge meal. The watch TV. They drink a ton. (As does everyone in Carver’s stories. Would it shock you to hear he’d died of liver cancer?) They smoke dope. Chabon’s gripe about plot—absolutely valid here.

The epiphanic moment comes as Robert and our narrator “watch” a television program on cathedrals. The blind man has never seen one. The narrator tries his best to describe what’s on the television. Fumbles about and fails. The blind man suggests a different alternative and has the narrator draw a cathedral as he follows the etched lines with his fingers. And for the first time our narrator truly sees a cathedral as well.

Here’s a passage that gets to the heart of our narrator’s fumbling.

”They’re really big,” I said. “They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too. Sometimes. In those olden days when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”

“That’s all right, bub,” the blind man said. “Hey, listen. I hope you don’t mind my asking you. Can I ask you something? Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I’m just curious and there’s no offense. You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious? You don’t mind my asking?”

I shook me head. He couldn’t see that, though. A wink is the same as a nod to a blind man. “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”

“Sure, I do,” he said.

“Right,” I said.
What follows with their drawing is as close to a moment of grace as this narrator may have ever come.

I’m not sure what we can or should take from Carver. He ended the era of more stylized short stories filled with weighty dialogue and instead gave us a different kind of stylized story, this one blue-collar and stripped of its “literariness.” If you’re unfamiliar with him, his stories may catch you by surprise. I definitely encourage you to check him out.