Monday, June 16, 2008

Reader's Diary #367- Raymond Carver: Cathedral (FINISHED)

Short Story Monday

This is my 2nd Carver story for Short Story Monday. Back in October of last year I had reviewed "A Small Good Thing." Having loved that one so much, I had perhaps expected too much. I also compared too much. Last year I was surprised that albums by the White Stripes and Bjork didn't make many critics top 10 lists, when I thought they were great compared to everything else that was released that year. The problem was (if it was indeed a problem), most people compared them to their previous albums. No, Icky Thump didn't measure up to Elephant, and Volta wasn't able to impress upon Homogenic. Likewise, "Cathedral" didn't have the same brilliance as "A Small Good Thing." But it was still a fine story.

To analyze them side by side, "Cathedral" doesn't feel as neatly woven. Whereas there's much more of a plot in "A Small Good Thing" to wrap details around, Cathedral's plot isn't as dramatic or defined: a man awaits a visit from his wife's blind male friend and doesn't quite know how to act around him once he shows up.

But of the two stories, "Cathedral" is much funnier. With a lot of politically incorrect jokes, I often couldn't tell if I was laughing with the main character or at him. His demeanour and awkward comments towards the blind man seemed sometimes to come out of jealousy and other times out of ignorance. Neither makes him excusable, but perhaps forgivable.

In any case, the comedy was the opposite of comic relief and I appreciated Carver's ability to make me feel just as uncomfortable as the husband.

However, the ending is a bit too vague for me. I actually had to check to make sure I had all of it, suspecting that I had accidentally not printed the last page. There seems to be a heavy importance placed upon the cathedral that the two men set out to draw towards the end (it's the title of the story after all), but it comes across as stoner talk. I tried to see the significance. Cathedrals were built to pay tribute to something that can't be seen, and out of faith that there is something beyond vision. But what is it that the blind man is building? And was the husband understanding his point? I gave up after a while, feeling too obtuse to grasp what Carver was getting at, and beginning to doubt he was getting at anything.

When I reviewed "A Small Good Thing" I said that to reduce it to a moral would be doing the story an injustice. With "Cathedral" it feels as if the crime is not being able to reduce it to a moral.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I do enjoy some good cringe humour periodically, so look forward to reading this one.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Carver's earlier version of A Small, Good Thing? In the fourth of edition of her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway uses both versions (both were published) as an example of what happens when revision takes an author much deeper into the heart of the story. The original story was called The Bath.

Dale said...

I liked the comparison and examples you used in the review John. Poor Bjork, can't catch a bjreak.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: The cringe factor perhaps explains why I love Mordecia Richler's books.

Amy: I hadn't seen the earlier version, though I'll definitely look for it now. I love comparing earlier to later drafts. Books need special features just like DVDs.

Dale: What can I say, I actually liked the swan dress.