“I knew that story was different from anything I’d ever written… and all of the stories after that seemed to be fuller somehow and much more generous and maybe more affirmative… Somehow I had found another direction I wanted to move toward. And I moved. And quickly.”
This is Raymond Carver and he is referring to his story ‘Cathedral’. As I write this, I am listening to my six-year-old daughter Poppy while she pretends to go to sleep listening to the soundtrack from the Coraline movie. She listens to all of it. Not just the pretty bits but the whole thing, including the strange parts. And she takes a couple of soft toys to bed and has them act out parts of the story to the music. She does this almost every night at the minute. One might even say she’s a little bit obsessed. When she first saw Coraline, she watched it about four times in the same week. She clearly had a moment, while watching that movie, that made her believe this was one of the best stories ever.
When I first read Carver’s story ‘Cathedral’, I had that moment too. Joyce called it the epiphany, for Woolf it was a moment of being. I had never read anything like it. I went on and read every other Carver story I could find. I mourned the fact that he was already dead and I would never get to meet him. Then I came back to ‘Cathedral’ and read it over and over, just like Poppy listens to that CD. Why is it so good, I thought? Later, I chose Carver as a key text in a course I taught to English undergraduates. I analysed ‘Cathedral’ with them, and these are some of the things we talked about.
Firstly, I read somewhere that this story was written on a train. I love that. I wonder if Carver had to rush to finish it before he reached his stop. Sometimes the best things are written quickly. The opening is simplicity itself:
“This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.”
The narrator goes on to tell us that his wife worked for the blind man, Robert, one summer, reading to him; and that she kept in touch through sending tapes. When Robert comes, they drink whiskey and eat a large dinner. Back to the sofa, Robert and the narrator’s wife talk about the last ten years. When she goes upstairs to change into her robe, Robert and the narrator smoke a joint together. After the wife has returned and fallen asleep between them whilst the television is on, they ‘watch’ a programme about cathedrals. The narrator explains to the blind man what a cathedral looks like and feels he has failed. Robert tells him to get a pen and some heavy paper. They draw the cathedral together, Robert’s hand over his hand. The wife wakes up and asks what is happening. The narrator closes his eyes and feels like he’s somewhere else.
His spare prose style, peopled by inarticulate characters who struggle to connect, is almost saying – See? Literature can’t do it either.”
The style is colloquial, vernacular and conversational, and it carries on this way throughout the story: “She read stuff to him… that sort of thing.” There is a lack of obvious imagery or metaphor: “In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed.” There is repetition – “this blind man”, “a blind man”, “the blind man”; and overuse of pronouns, with many instances of ‘he’ and ‘she’. It is flat and spare: “His wife had died, so he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives.” There is a sense that the prose is somehow constricted, as is the narrator himself: the restrictive style mirrors the narrator’s restricted views on life. Carver said of his prose style, “Prose is architecture. And this isn’t the baroque age.”
Of the three main characters, only the blind man is given a name. The narrator is ‘I’ and ‘me’, his wife is “my wife” and then there is Robert. He is not restricted by his condition, visiting friends and relations, and uses ham radio to connect with people all over the world. The wife is open-minded and creative: “She was always trying to write a poem.”
The first-person narrator – our window into the story – is insular with a limited world of experience: “I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit.” He is somewhat narrow-minded and selfish – “His being blind bothered me” and rather passive to events surrounding him: “Arrangements were made.” Later Robert opens his mind for him, opens the inner eye: “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.” Symbolically, the narrator is the blind man in his own house.
Through this brief vignette, Carver manages to explore some profound themes. Liberation: the narrator feels secure “in my house”, yet his experience with Robert allows him to be free of the walls of his existence: “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” The vehicle for this expansion is the cathedral itself – a spiritual structure, of course – yet also a large, spacious enclosure, a place flooded with lovely coloured light and big enough to really stretch your legs. It is still enclosed, and therefore safe, but expansive enough to allow the spirit room to breathe.
The story is also about connection – “She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose – even her neck!” – and communication: “But she and the blind man kept in touch”, something the narrator finds it hard to do. But his epiphany at the hands of the blind man transcend talk – it is a physical and mystical moment – “It was like nothing in my life up to now”, experienced with his eyes closed and with no words to truly describe it: “‘It’s really something,’ I said.”
Carver’s characters have ordinary, difficult lives and are trying to see some meaning there, to connect. His spare prose style, peopled by inarticulate characters who struggle to connect, is indicative of this need to communicate. Carver’s minimal, non-literary style is almost saying – See? Literature can’t do it either. He doesn’t see himself as different from these people, just because he’s a writer: “Essentially, I am one of those confused, befuddled people.” Yet, with words – those blunt tools – Carver and his characters manage brief, fleeting moments of transcendence, just beyond our understanding, just out of reach, yet beautiful and transformative.
Rebecca Mascull lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner and their daughter. She has previously worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Her first novel The Visitors, about a deaf-blind girl in late Victorian England, is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 2 January.
‘Cathedral’ is the final story in Raymond Carver’s eponymous 1983 collection, now published in paperback by Vintage Classics.