Book Review: Cathedral, by Raymond Carver

I recently made the acquaintance of someone who works as a literary agent for TV and films. I didn’t know this when we’d been first introduced, just as she was unaware that I wrote fiction. In these sorts of situations I tend to play it cool, because the last thing I want to do is come across as a “desperate unpublished writer” (insert images from Dawn of the Dead) and thus endanger the non-professional relationship. Still, she nonetheless asked if I’d be interested in sending her some work to read. I obliged and, happily, she liked it very much.

We got to talking about writers and influences, and she asked whether I’d ever read Raymond Carver. I hadn’t (insert sound of audience hissing), though I’d heard of him. [It occurred to me later that I’d seen Robert Altman’s Short Cuts – which (very loosely) strung together several of Carver’s short stories into one long, dark ensemble piece.] It was when she mentioned that one of my stories reminded her of Carver that I figured I might as well find out for myself.

So, I picked up Cathedral, a collection of short stories at Babel Books & Music, a local second-hand bookstore and immediately proceeded to satisfy my curiosity.

Firstly, I was thankful. Yes, there was a similarity, but I found that the “world” Carver inhabited as a writer (I use the past tense because he passed away in 1988) differs from mine. This may sound selfish, but I still sometimes suffer from an irrational fear that everything I’m writing has been done by someone else, and that it’s only a question of time before I find out, like some sick Twilight Zone episode. But I digress…

And what, pray tell, is Carver’s world? It’s a sparsely urban, godless place, inhabited with people who find ways to ignore the mounting problems facing them. This doesn’t speak for all the stories, but it certainly summarizes the atmosphere. He paints as a writer what Edward Hopper writes as a painter (though I would argue that Carver’s characters probably aren’t as well-dressed, and if you’re wondering why I’ve switched from past-tense to present-tense, it’s that I’m trying to wittily suggest that the product of an artist can survive its creator’s demise). And yet, this world isn’t one that has gone to hell. There is love, though it is often tempered by the cool water of circumstance. There is even a sense of magic lurking in the shadows, albeit a neutral magic; one that can spell enlightenment or tragedy at the slightest moment.

Since this is a collection of short stories, providing a synopsis for each (or any) would probably spoil the pleasure of reading them – and despite the picture I paint of Carver’s literary universe (or at least that contained in Cathedral), it is a unique pleasure to read them. Carver is a model of tight writing – he takes the “why say in 30 words what you can say in 10?” mantra and says it in five. Most recently, an article in the New York Times highlights an ongoing controversy about the editorial authority of some of Carver’s published work, with speculation that some of this tightness may have been the work of an over-zealous editor.

In short, I clearly understand why Raymond Carver is praised as one of the great American writers: his vision is clear, even when the lives of his characters are muddied, and his writing style is immediate and bracing.

Cathedral, by Raymond Carver (ISBN: 978-0679723691) is available at an independent bookstore near you, new or second-hand. You can also purchase it at any number of online vendors.


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