Raymond Carver | Critical Review by James W. Grinnell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Raymond Carver.
This section contains 1,020 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by James W. Grinnell

SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 71-2.

In the review below, Grinnell praises Carver's writing, arguing that he has improved on his old style and added new elements.

Things are finally looking up for Raymond Carver. In a way it is entirely fitting that this, his third volume of short stories is entitled Cathedral and that the collection ends with the title story, for in both Carver's life and writing, as in a Gothic cathedral, all signs are pointing upward.

Such was not always the case. Married at eighteen and burdened at that early age not only with the responsibility of a wife and children but also with a succession of dreary jobs, it is a wonder that he wrote at all. Raised in poor neighborhoods in Yakima, Washington, he somehow was able to attend college, to graduate with a B.A. from Chico State in California, to find his way to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop where he spent a year just barely surviving financially. He then took to drinking, wasting most of his thirties. He makes no excuses; he did not drink to escape nor for inspiration—he "was into the drinking itself."

Prior to 1983, he produced two books of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Only the titles of the collections are long; the stories themselves are short, averaging fewer than ten pages each. Despite his poverty, which sometimes forced him from an overcrowded apartment to write while sitting in his car, and despite his drinking, he was a careful craftsman. The stories of the first two books are hard, austere little vignettes restricted to the viewpoints of their hard, austere and not-very-articulate characters. It is to these qualities that the stories owe their appeal and to which Carver owes the considerable reputation that they won for him.

And now comes Cathedral a book with a one-word title and a dozen, more fully fleshed-out stories. They are still hard little gems of fiction but they are a few carats heavier than those of the earlier books. Six of the twelve are first person narrations; all are restricted to their characters' stunted perspectives, which is to say, to Carver's tight control. He does not mock his people nor does he suggest that their lives would be improved if they examined them, if they were to expect, inspect and introspect more. A kind of literary minimalist, Carver simply presents his people and their stark lives as if there were nothing richer out there, no American milieu of affluence, of new horizons, of hope. We readers have to carry our own emotional baggage to and from these stories because Carver will not porter for us.

For example, in the opening story, "Feathers," the lethargic routine of the narrator and his wife is broken when a coworker invites them home for dinner. And a strange home it is, furnished with a T.V. upon which sits a plaster of Paris cast of crooked teeth, and before the television a La-Z-Boy chair for the host. This host has an odd little wife, plump and retiring, to whom the crooked teeth once belonged, and together they have a pet peacock and a fat ugly baby. Says the narrator, "Bar none, it was the ugliest baby I'd ever seen. It was so ugly I couldn't say anything. No words would come out of my mouth."

This was not the only time words failed him. As the evening wore on, it became very special for him despite the almost grotesque assemblage. Because he could not quite articulate that special quality, he closed his eyes to freeze a picture of it forever in his memory. It worked but ironically, because that evening was the beginning of an even drabber life for the narrator and his wife. They went home and conceived a child who later developed "a conniving streak in him." They never return the invitation and now "mostly it's just the TV."

So it goes with Carver's characters. Often they experience a special moment which almost affords them a glimpse of something elusive—a better life perhaps. But they cannot quite fathom the experience and so they retreat to drink or to dull routines made somehow even duller by the missed chance.

One of the stories, "The Compartment" is set entirely on a train in Europe and concerns a failed father-son reunion. Another, dedicated to one of Carver's former drinking partners, John Cheever, is entitled "The Train" and is set entirely in a suburban New York train station. In this story Carver seems to be paying tribute to Cheever by using Cheeveresque elements in a way not entirely unlike what John Updike did in the "Bech Wed" section of Bech Is Back.

But for the most part, Raymond Carver sticks with and refines familiar territory and people. Using these familiar elements, he reaches new heights in a story called "The Bridle" and peaks in the title story, "Cathedral." This little masterpiece concludes with its first person narrator trying to describe to a blind man a cathedral that he sees on television. When words fail, he tries to express the experience by holding the man's hand while sketching a cathedral. The blind man, really more perceptive than he, has the narrator close his eyes. He achieves a new dimension of perception. He tells us, "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything! 'It's really something,' I said."

Raymond Carver's life is coming together and his art is blooming. He recently received a grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters that will provide a tax-free income for five years. He also won a 1983 O. Henry Prize Story Award. It is more than coincidental that he gave up alcohol in 1977. It would seem that much of what was is no more. It would also appear that much of what was not is now beginning. Cathedral, I think, is a major part of that beginning.

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This section contains 1,020 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James W. Grinnell
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