Short Stories * Raymond Carver * Caucasian Ennui * 1981
Have you ever taken a creative writing class? If you’re here I’d say the chances are about even that you have. If not, they’re pretty much what you’d expect. There’s a group of liberal arts students sitting in a circle sharing their writing with each other. Depending on the class, you’re typically sharing short writing exercises (generally derived from a writing prompt so everyone is exploring a similar idea) before writing a proper short story to share with the class. You then read these stories out loud to the class and everyone judges you. Sometimes you swap with other classmates and do a critique for them, and then you do a rewrite and come back and see if it’s better. Sometimes that critique is helpful, sometimes it’s not. The talent level is all over the place, as you might expect, and it’s rough to sit there with a really enthusiastic, exceptionally terrible writer. Especially when they’ve never been given criticism before. Anyway, this is all rather beside the point. I bring it up because when it comes to the kind of stories being read in class, they all tend to hew to a few groups. You’ve got your aspiring genre writers, the super-serious stories about feelings and stuff, the weirdos (that would be me), and then the austere, slice-of-life stories. This latter group are the ones (whether purposely or unconsciously) trying to write like Raymond Carver.
Cathedral is a collection of short stories about various disaffected Americans doing things. Most of the things these people do is fairly unremarkable. Most of the people are unremarkable. In fact, if you really want to get into it, Carver’s actual writing style borders on unremarkable as well, in that it’s stripped-down and Hemingway-esque. And yet, and I’m still trying to figure out what kind of black magic fuckery is afoot here, all of these stories are in one way or another fairly remarkable. I’ll hasten to add that, personally, none of the stories within this collection really blew me away. There was no moment where I put the book down because I was just so dang impressed with it. Carver is the kind of writer, however, that has a following of readers who react to him in such a way. It’s possible that you could read one of these stories and be moved. I see that potential even if I didn’t feel that way. I absolutely appreciate Carver’s craft, which while sparse is still ridiculously well-honed. It is deceptively simple writing, which is why I imagine that it appeals to aspiring writers so much. It’s easy to read one of these stories and think, “yo, I know people like this and I know all these words, easy peasy.” Well, maybe not so much.
The stories within Cathedral are not necessarily bleak, and the characters are not necessarily fundamentally broken. I can only think of one story which borders on being emotionally manipulative. In fact, a majority of the stories have some element of redemptive humanity within them. This is not a Denis Johnson situation where everyone is terminally fucked up and doomed to a sad, wet death. Yet the bright moments, the redemptive moments, the moments of small human gestures, never feel saccharine or obvious. They just kind of are. There are a few alcoholics in these stories, but their problem never dominates their humanity. There are bad husbands and fairly racist jerks as well (using the word “spade” instead of the n-word does not make it less gross), but again these issues never seem like they’re at the forefront. Carver doesn’t revel in their deficiencies. That said, there is an emptiness that pervades these pages. A sense of a greater social and cultural disconnect is at the forefront, which the sparse prose accentuates. It’s a very post-modern kind of feeling, even if the text itself is styled heavily after one of the more famous American Modernists.
The stories of Cathedral are not connected by a single character or loose plot elements, nor is there any particular overt thematic message which resonates throughout the book. There’s an austere atmosphere which pervades the collection, however, and while the connective tissue isn’t necessarily concrete, most of the stories feel the same. The first story, “Feathers,” is about a man taking his wife, Fran, to a dinner given by a work friend, Bud, and his wife. That’s pretty much it. It’s as awkward as such situations are in real life, stiff at first but as the evening progresses the characters relax and go with it. What gives the story life is a smattering of strange details, something which Carver has mastered. In a short story, you don’t have much time to make an impression. If you want to speak to the fragility of human relationships, you’re limited in your approach. In this story, you’ve got a free-range peacock who comes it the house because Bud’s wife loves it. In addition to the bird, there’s also a plaster cast of her gnarly teeth. Finally, they have an extremely ugly baby. And yet they make it work to the point where they inspire the childless couple to change their mind regarding having a family. Almost as a footnote, the narrator states that their relationship failed. Probably they should have got a peacock.
“Feathers” reads as a mildly amusing anecdote with a sad ending. It’s never comfortable, but there is a clear understanding that these are actual Americans doing their best. Other stories here have a similar vibe. “Careful” is about an alcoholic who separates from his wife in order to attempt to get his shit together. He drinks cheap sparkling wine instead of hard liquor because he is lying to himself. Having once had a job where I sold booze to plenty of alcoholics, this poor bastard’s situation resonated with me. I had more than one regular customer who was a practicing champagne alcoholic (three bottles of pink Andre sparkling wine a day for one, a case of Cook’s Brut every three days for another), and if anything, “Careful” was a window into the mindset behind the practice. Yet the focus of the story isn’t Lloyd’s battle with his demons, at least not directly. Instead, it’s about a moment with his wife, who is in the process of becoming estranged, and some onerous earwax. Lloyd’s more serious problems take a backseat to the more pressing matter of cleaning his damn ears, but this brief moment of mundane connection rings hollow by the end. Again, sad but not unbearably so.
Most of the stories here have a similar feel. There’s “A Good, Small Thing,” which is as close as Carver gets to smarmy, and that’s because the subject matter is a dying child and it’s hard to really bring that kind of thing up without feeling a bit emotionally exploitative. My favorite might be “Fever,” which is about a man whose wife abandoned him and their kids because she’s a hippie dipshit. Again, not much happens but it seems like the guy got his life together, so that was nice. The collection ends with “Cathedral,” which is about a dude getting over his prejudice against blind people by smoking some weed and watching documentaries. Most of the stories within Cathedral are like this. There’s a positive bent to most of them, but it’s a small kind of good. This is the post-modern America of the late 70’s and early 80’s, in which the perception of an innocent America full of promise has been thoroughly dispelled. What’s left is a country populated by the kind of people you’d find in a Raymond Carver story. There’s not much to do, not much to look forward to, and the only feeling outside of the usual grey nothing is the occasional glimmer of human interaction. Honestly, the stories are less dire than that last sentence sounds. Yet there is still an emptiness to the stories which are never fully redeemed by these small moments of connection, and that’s a tricky feat to pull off for a short story writer, which is probably why that guy wearing the scarf and the tweed jacket in your creative writing class isn’t pulling it off.