Friday, February 4, 2011

Cathedral (Raymond Carver)

Cathedral is Raymond Carver's fourth short story collection. Though the collection is most famous for its title story, each story reveals Carver's talent and dedication to the ordinary as extraordinary.


If you're unfamiliar with Carver's work or style, I am tempted to ask what is wrong with you. That being said, you have an exciting opportunity to delve into the works of one of my favorite short story writers. His intensity and deceitfully quiet writing never fails to wake me up to the hidden meanings in everyday life or just knock me out of whatever writing slump I'm in at the time. From genuinely funny and charming characters in "Feathers" (one of my favorites) to the eerie sound of a phone ringing in "A Small, Good Thing," Cathedral explores the gamut of human failure and, thus, emotion.


It's hard to review a collection of short stories without being tempted to write about each story, which would be tedious and besides the point. Instead I'll highlight some of my favorite stories, ending with the most famous title story that closes the collection.


Never has a short story made me laugh harder than this one. Carver manages to write about a woman who keeps her old jacked up teeth on a TV, a peacock, and an ugly baby without ever leaving the realm of reality or believeability. The couples in this story aren't perfect; each half of each couple has their flaws and Carver shows them to us not merely to endear them to us, but to explain what lies ahead of them. He hints at a bleaker future, when all of the hope and optimism that they experience in one night has been drained from them. Rather than sucking the joy out of the happiness they do get to experience, however, Carver skillfully displays the ebbing and flowing of life and the futility of trying to guess what's ahead.


This story strikes me as relevant to the current economic state in America. Though this collection was published first in 1981, the themes and despair in "Preservation" rings true today. There is a universality to hopelessness that transcends time and circumstances, and Carver was a master at relaying that in his stories. The narrator's husband loses his job, and the rest of the story is the slow descent that occurs afterward. The story is strongest in its unexpected moments. The narrator is strong, but not stronger than the forces against and we can't help but watch and wait, guessing which straw will be the one to break her back.


In this, one of Carver's most famous stories, there is just as much misunderstanding and miscommunication as in his other stories, but there is an underlying hope that makes it a lighter note to end the collection on. The narrator grapples; there is the understanding of blindness and an attempt, rather than a resignation, to communicate.


by Raymond Carver

Stories: 10 - This is one of my favorite collections of Carver's stories, as it travels the range of his humor and his despair.

Style: 9 - You can't help but read Carver with the background filter of how autobiographical his writing is. Stories like "Chef's House" and "Where I'm Calling From" hit closer than close to home, and his quiet and honest style resonates long after the story is through.

General: 10 - I'm biased; Carver has played a major role in my growth as a writer, as a reader, and as a writer who reads.

Overall: 9.67 - Take this glowing review with a grain of salt, but only after you've read the collection for yourself.

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