Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Carver is generally considered the leading writer of the school of fiction called minimalism, which—as its name implies—eliminates all but the most important details. Minimalists are noted for using simple language and focusing on factual statements, implying rather than attempting to explain precisely what is going on inside their characters. The reader of a minimalist story is forced to make inferences from what the characters do and say. For example, it can be inferred that the narrator of “Cathedral” and his wife are not getting along well and might be on the verge of divorce. Indeed, the most striking thing about “Cathedral” is its simplicity of language. This type of narration from the viewpoint of a simple, uneducated man creates an impression of truthfulness, as the narrator seems too naïve to be dishonest or evasive.
Characteristically, Carver neither names nor describes the two principal characters and does not even reveal where the story takes place. Like other minimalist fiction writers, such as Ann Beattie, Carver deletes every word that he possibly can and even deletes punctuation marks whenever possible. The effect of minimalism is to engage one’s imagination, forcing the reader to make guesses and assumptions and thereby participate in the creative process.
In “Cathedral,” as in many of his other stories, Carver uses a narrator who is a faux naïf, like the narrators of Mark Twain’s Adventures of...
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Cathedral (Magill's Literary Annual 1984)
Raymond Carver’s decision to dedicate Cathedral to the memory of John Gardner, from whom Carver took a writing course in the fall of 1958, may seem rather odd to many readers. Gardner’s expansive stories and novels sprawl across page after page as the author seeks to affirm the eternal verities of moral fiction. Carver’s fiction is written in an entirely different mode: concise, elliptical, and tightly controlled, suggestive rather than (as with Gardner) exhaustive. This style, which several reviewers have inaccurately termed minimalist, is as clipped as Ernest Hemingway’s and as incisive and emotionally detached as Joan Didion’s. Nevertheless, Carver and Gardner do resemble each other in one most important way: their shared commitment to “values and craft,” as Carver phrases it in his foreword to Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1982).
Since the publication of his first collection of stories in 1977, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver’s distinctive prose style and commitment to the craft of fiction have provoked widely divergent critical judgments. Although his work has been richly and deservedly praised—his first collection was nominated for a National Book Award, while his second, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), helped Carver win the prestigious Mildred and Harold Straus Living Award—the two books (comprising thirty-nine at times very short stories) have led a few reviewers to question whether Carver’s style and “terrifying vision of ordinary human life in our country” (as Leonard Michaels once described it) has hardened into fashionable despair and mere literary affectation. The criticism is understandable but by no means merited, especially now that Cathedral has appeared, a work which, even as it recalls the earlier stories, marks a distinct advance in both the author’s vision and his narrative aesthetic.
Before discussing this advance, it is necessary to establish the chief object of Carver’s concern, the lives of his characters. These characters are not, as one reviewer has complained, “morbid caricatures”; rather, they are only as monotonous and monochromatic as the featureless, middle-class or lower-middle-class America in which they live—a world, incidentally, that Carver has progressively stripped of particular geographical details in order to focus better and more intensively on the internal lives of his characters. Carver does for his segment of the contemporary American population what Didion has done for her more affluent characters; he has portrayed a world in which the individual has been stripped of all the usual forms of support—family, religion, politics, economic security, shared culture, and so forth. Radically cut off from what once served to preserve and sustain human life, his characters necessarily fall back on themselves and their own meager resources. One dreams of living “in an old house surrounded by a wall”; another believes that she and her husband will thrive within the self-contained world of their marriage, but then the husband-narrator unintentionally makes clear how impoverished their lives actually are: “Some nights we went to a movie. Other nights we just stayed in and watched TV. Sometimes Fran baked things for me and we’d eat whatever it was all in a sitting.” Here is a quiet desperation such as Henry David Thoreau never could have imagined. For these people, transcendence seems less a problem than an impossibility. The simple, seemingly trivial ways in which their uncertainty manifests itself—what, for example, to bring one’s nominal friends when invited to dinner at their house—suggests a deeper dis-ease. They begin to discover the drab truth of certain clichés—time is what passes you by, dreams “are what you wake up from.” What they wake to is a dim perception of the fragility of their lives and of bad situations getting slowly but inexorably worse.
They do not concern themselves with the problems of radioactive waste, the greenhouse effect, or nuclear war; their disasters are not environmental or international but intensely personal. “Without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was immediately knocked down by a car.” In another story, J. P. gets everything he wants: marriage, good job, children, house. Then, slowly and inexplicably, he begins drinking, and his life falls apart. These characters come to realize that their seemingly safe domestic lives have transmogrified into minor, even commonplace tragedies in which, as helpless victims, they can at best hope to endure rather than, as William Faulkner had it, prevail. As Carver explained in an interview, “They’d like to set things right, but they can’t” and so are left just trying to “do the best they can.” Often, the best is not much. In the aptly titled story “Preservation,” husband and wife spend a night discussing what he can do now that he has lost his job as a roofer, “but they couldn’t think of anything,” and so the husband spends the next three months lying on the living-room sofa. The narrator of “Where I’m Calling From” (the “where” refers to a rehabilitation house for alcoholics) adopts a similarly fatalistic view. “I’ve been here once before. What’s to say? I’m back. . . . Part of me wanted help. But there was another part.” In turning to alcohol, he is turning away from the pain of a failed marriage and eventually from all potentially...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Christian Science Monitor. November 4, 1983, p. B4.
Library Journal. CVIII, September 1, 1983, p. 1719.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 2, 1983, p. 3.
The New Republic. CLXXXIX, November 14, 1983, p. 38.
The New York Review of Books. XXX, November 24, 1983, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, September 11, 1983, p. 1.
Newsweek. CII, September 5, 1983, p. 66.
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