Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #365: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

When I was young and thought that I wanted to be a writer, Raymond Carver was a god. Not my god, though: my gods had names like Silverberg and Wolfe and Zelazny and a different Raymond named Chandler. But a little bit in highschool and a whole lot in college, Carver's minimalism was the epitome of what a would-be writer was supposed to aspire to, the template of what we should be trying to achieve.

I was reflexively contrarian in those days -- perhaps not so different now, though maybe more self-knowledgeable about it -- so I avoided Carver at every turn. I didn't want to travel his route, I didn't want to be influenced by him, I didn't want to read him, I barely acknowledged that he even existed.

Thirty years later, though, Carver is dead and I'm not a writer. So the question of which writers I'm not like is purely academic, in dustiest medieval-scholastic style. And so I finally found time to read Carver's Cathedral, one of his major short-story collections. It was originally published in 1983 and reprinted in paperback in the fall of 1984 for the launch list of Vintage Contemporaries, which is why I came around to it now.

Cathedral has a dozen stories about small-time people and their small-time lives: living in cheap furnished apartments, working as chimney sweeps or at "the plant," getting by but no more than that. Their landscape is the mid-20th century, domestic edition; the stories take place in living rooms and kitchens, mostly, with people who smoke and drink too much and whose intimate relationships are very likely to have just fallen apart. So call it grubby realism, call it kitchen sink drama: it's close to the cliche about literary fiction, though there are no professors here. No one in Carver's world is a professional or a success: there might be a highschool art teacher but not anyone tenured, and if anyone works at a hospital it would be a janitor rather than a doctor.

They're inarticulate people, too: they can't say what's wrong with their lives, because they don't have the words to describe it. When the estranged wife calls from California, where she's run off with another man to find herself and become an artist, Carver's narrator can't yell at her or lash out, so he just sits there quietly and says standard bland pleasantries while she natters on about her self-actualization. So Carver can't have them explain themselves or their lives to us, and his narrative voice is stripped down and stark, too [1]: we have to feel it for ourselves.

And yet it works. More than that, it works brilliantly: Carver really does craft epiphanies out of this incredibly unlikely material, and makes stories that have an amazing Everyman appeal because of that kitchen-sink-ness. After all of these years, it turns out my professors were right: who would have thought it?

[1] Although it turned out that voice didn't really originate with Carver himself but was imposed on him in slashing edits by Gordon Lish of Knopf.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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