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Critical Essay by Mark A. R. Facknitz
SOURCE: "'The Calm,' 'A Small Good Thing,' and 'Cathedral': Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 287-96.
In the following essay, Facknitz compares "The Calm," "A Small Good Thing," and "Cathedral," arguing that these stories represent unique attempts by Carver to create acceptance, closure, and connection among his characters.
Raymond Carver is as successful as a short story writer in America can be. The signs of his success are many: prestigious and ample grants, publication in the best literary quarterlies and national magazines, and, from all appearances, an unperturbed ability to write the kind of stories he wishes to write. By contrast, the causes of his success are ambiguous. Carver's writing is often facile, and one might argue that he has chanced upon a voice that matches a jaded audience's lust for irony and superficial realism. Whatever the proclivities of his readers, Carver knows their passions and perversions well. In story after story, in language that babbles from wise lunatics, Carver's penetration of characters is honest and fast. But they compose a diminished race—alcoholics, obsessives, drifters, and other losers who are thoroughly thrashed by life in the first round. Only recently have his characters begun to achieve a measure of roundness, and as they have, the message of his work has shifted considerably. Once all one could draw from Carver's work was the moral that when life wasn't cruel it was silly. In several key stories since 1980, he has revealed to readers and characters alike that though they have long suffered the conviction that life is irredeemably trivial, in truth it is as profound as their wounds, and their substance is as large as the loss they suffer.
In their essay on Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1977), Carver's first major collection of stories, David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips call Carver's world one of "unarticulated longing, a world verging on silence"1 in which people speak with the "directionless quality, the silliness, the halting rhythm among people under the influence of marijuana," (80-81) and they rightly call such speech "realistic language of a different sort—a probe stuck beneath the skin of disassociation itself" (81). Indeed, it is hard for Carver's characters to say what they mean under any circumstances. Often they try to rephrase their ideas for inattentive listeners, who are as likely as they to be dulled by drugs, alcohol, and overeating. Thus speech is stuporous and communication far from perfect. However, for Boxer and Phillips "passivity is the strength of this language: little seems to be said, yet much is conveyed" (81) and they compare the simplicity of Carver's dialogue to Pinter's and write of "emotional violence lurking beneath the neutral surfaces." One could go further and assert that in his early stories Carver's obsessive subject is the failure of human dialogue, for talking fails in all but the title story of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and that story's message is that sometimes the best thing we can say is nothing.
The theme of failed speech is only slightly less domineering in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). An important exception is "The Calm."2 In the story, the narrator watches and listens from a barber chair while a drama unfolds. Its cast is composed of two pairs. In the first pair is Charles, a bank guard, who tells the men in the shop of having wounded a buck the day before, and old Albert, dying of emphysema, who is offended by Charles's brutality. Opposite them is a pair of men without names, the barber and the man with the newspaper. As the owner of the shop, the barber represents order and tranquility, while the other man is a nervous type who exacerbates the tension that develops between Charles and Albert. In allegorical terms the story combines Cruelty (Charles) and Disruption (the man with the newspaper) and makes them the antagonists of Humanity (Albert) and Order (the barber). The plot, then, is very simple: Disruption meddles in the inevitable conflict between Cruelty and Humanity and then step by step Order re-asserts itself. Thus calm is bestowed upon Order's client, the narrator in the barber chair, the witness or internal audience who has played no part in the drama but for whom the moral comes clear.
This primary narrator at moments gives way to a secondary narrator, the guard Charles, as he tells the story of the hunt which he undertook with his hang over son, a young man with a weak stomach and a worse aim. Scarcely a nimrod, Charles is defined by his doltishness and vulgarity. He tells of wounding the buck:
It was a gut shot. It just like stuns him. So he drops his head and begins this trembling. He trembles all over. The kid's still shooting. Me, I felt like I was back in Korea. So I shot again but missed. Then old Mr. Buck moves back into the bush. But now, by God, he doesn't have any oomph left in him. The kid has emptied his goddamn gun all to no purpose. But I hit solid. I rammed one right in his guts. That's what I meant by stunned him. (117)
In fact, the hemorrhaging animal has plenty of oomph left in him. Though father and vomiting son follow a gory track, by nightfall they haven't caught up with the wounded deer and abandon him to slow death and scavengers. Inept and immoral, the two renounce an obligation, one that a man of Albert's fiber would likely call sacred. Charles confuses hunting with war, and in doing so he travesties the deepest symbolism of the hunt and idiotically confuses the archetypes of violence and necessity. Yet one sees a measure of perverse respect in his assumption that a bullet in the intestines amounts to nothing more than stunning. This offends Albert, and he tells Charles "You ought to be out there right now looking for that deer instead of in here getting a haircut" (119). In other words, Albert asserts a principle that ought to be self-evident to an American man: hunting is not war; the animal is not an enemy to be loathed and tortured. Albert reminds him of his duty to administer a coup de grace and then, by butchering and eating the animal, justify the creature's fear and death.
That such a message is implied by Albert's straightforward statement is clear from Charles's retort: "You can't talk like that. You old fart. I've seen you someplace" (119). In a way his indignation is appropriate. Albert breaks a cultural rule as surely as the guard did in letting the wounded buck wander off. Moreover, in an American barbershop an egalitarian law inheres, and on entering one accepts a kind of truce similar to the set of restraints entering a church entails as one puts aside particulars of class and values. American males in their unspoken codes have reserved parking lots, alleys, bars, committee rooms, and the margins of athletic fields for physical and verbal violence, and they are likely to find arguments in barbershops as unsociable as spitting in a funeral parlor. Thus, the greatest deviant is the stranger with the newspaper, for his motive is malicious delight in causing trouble, in particular the disruption of the conventions of order. He is an "outside agitator" who brings out the worst in Charles and Albert, makes them breech the truce implied by the setting, and finally is more culpable than they for theirs are crimes of passion rather than malice. Albert is overpowered by righteous indignation, and Charles by the humiliation of being accused of breaking the masculine code of the hunt. The stranger defends nothing; rather, he seeks pleasure by provoking others.
The argument ends very soon, for once the barber asserts himself he easily vanquishes the man with the newspaper. First Charles leaves, complaining of the company, and then Albert goes, tossing off the comment that his hair can go without cutting for a few more days. Left with no one on whom to work his irascibility, the man with the newspaper fidgets. He gets up and looks around the shop, finds nothing to hold his attention, and then announces that he is going and disappears out the door. What has happened is not clear but the barber is nonplused. Although he sides with Albert, allowing that after all Albert had provocation, the barber was forced to keep the peace and has lost a line-up of clients. Temporarily in a bad humor, he says to the narrator, who has said and done nothing all along, "Well, do you want me to finish this barbering or not?" (121) in a tone that suggests to the narrator that the barber blames him for what has occurred.
The ill-feeling does not last. The barber holds the narrator's head and bends close and looks at him in the mirror while the narrator looks at himself. Then the barber stands and begins to rub his fingers through his hair, "slowly, as if thinking about something else," and "tenderly, as a lover would." The story is close to its end, and suddenly the reader has material before him that in no manner impinges on the events of the story and which, at first glance, appears irrelevant:
That was in Crescent City, California, up near the Oregon border. I left soon after. But today I was thinking of that place, of Crescent City, and of how I was trying out a new life there with my wife, and how, in the barber's chair that morning, I had made up my mind to go. I was thinking today about the calm I felt when I closed my eyes and let the barber's fingers move through my hair, the sweetness of those fingers, and the hair already starting to grow. (121)
Much was transpiring in the heart and mind of the narrator—who is also the internal audience—but in the long run only the general fact that he was coming to an important decision matters. Revealing the particulars of his life that bear upon the decision would shift the focus of "The Calm" from how we receive blessings from others to the use such blessings are to us. This would trivialize and demystify the story, for Carver means to imply that while important gifts can only be given to those ready to take them, we cannot give them to ourselves. They come from outside of us from barbers whose names we never learn, or, as "A Small, Good Thing" and "Cathedral"3 will show, from bakers and blind men whom coincidence brings into our lives. Once we read the final paragraph of "The Calm," we assume that the narrator was in a turbulent state of mind while making an ostensibly objective record, and though we see nothing of the process except the external sequence, we guess that what he witnesses makes him better able to bring order into his life. Hair grows out, and calm does not last, but the barber proves to the narrator that he cannot create order by himself, though, like Albert, who has developed a sour temper and has trouble breathing in old age, he can always let the matter go a few more days.
Procrastination is occasionally impossible. In "A Small, Good Thing," one of the best stories in the most recent collection, Cathedral (1984), Ann and Howard Weiss confront the destruction of well-being. Because they dare to confront the catastrophe of their son's death, they are rescued, in this case by their principal malefactor.
One Saturday Ann orders a birthday cake for a party for her son which will take place Monday afternoon. Monday morning the boy is struck by a car while walking to school. At first he appears little hurt, and walks home, but suddenly he loses consciousness and over several days his condition worsens as sleep subsides into coma and at last he dies. Meanwhile doctors, nurses, and technicians come and go, offering encouragement to the parents and looking for clues to why the boy won't wake. Each time the doctor revises his opinion of the boy's condition, Ann guesses the truth, and the discrepancy between what she is told and what actually happens broadens as the story advances. Yet the doctors are not lying. Their reason and their tests are deceiving them, and all the hypotheses, diagnoses, X-rays, and scans fail to reveal "a hidden occlusion," a "one-in-a-million circumstance," (80) that kills the child. Thus, while all the rational and objective ways of making sense are defeated, the truth persists in the mother's worst intuitions. When the boy dies, the doctors need an autopsy because things need explaining, and they must satisfy the need to know why their minds and machines failed. The parents must make sense in another way. They must voice an unspeakable grief, and they accomplish this by listening to someone else's suffering.
Early in the story Ann goes to the baker, a man who will torment her more than he can guess. Carver develops the scene:
She gave the baker her name. Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child's party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn't like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he'd ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. (60)
Much later in the story, while Ann sits by the phone after having called relatives to tell them of the boy's death, the baker phones. He has made several calls in the last few days—it was impossible to say precisely how many—and Howard and Ann have taken the calls as perverse jokes on the part of the hit-and-run driver. Through misapprehension, the cake and the boy come to have the same name, and the baker speaks in malicious metaphor when he says to the desperate woman, "Your Scotty, I got him ready for you. Did you forget him?" (83) This is language of an extraordinary kind. No longer "minimum exchange, or the necessary information," such an utterance is a linguistic perversion for it means most when misunderstood.
When it occurs to Ann that the baker is her tormentor, she and her husband rush down to the shopping center and beat on the back door in the middle of the night until the baker lets them in. There she lights into him:
"My son's dead," she said with a cold, even finality. "He was hit by a car Monday morning. We've been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn't be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can't know everything can they, Mr. Baker? But he's dead. He's dead, you bastard!" Just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders rocking back and forth. "It isn't fair," she said. (86-87)
Nothing here can be misunderstood. The facts are plain and the steps in her understanding of what bakers can and cannot know are clear and logical. Her anger is pure, and purifying: it is as physical and overpowering as the nausea that succeeds it, and the emotion and the sensation are as honest and undeniable as her recognition that her son's death was not fair.
Her speech abolishes the social conventions, suspicions, and errors that brought them to the point of confrontation. Ann, Howard, and the baker are tangled in a subtle set of causes, and Carver suggests again, as he has in many stories (e.g. "The Train," "Feathers"), that through imperceptible and trivial dishonesties we create large lies that can only be removed by superhuman acts of self-assertion. In response to Ann's overwhelming honesty, the menaced baker puts down his rolling pin, clears places for them at the table, and makes them sit. He tells them that he is sorry, but they have little to say about their loss. Instead they take the coffee and rolls he serves them and listen while he tells them about his loneliness and doubt, and about the ovens, "endlessly empty and endlessly full" (89). They accept his life story as consolation, and while eating and listening achieve communion. Carver ends the story at dawn, with hope, and pushes forward symbols of sanctified space and the eucharist:
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They are what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of lights. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving. (89)
Carver's characters rarely achieve a transcendent acceptance of their condition as does Ann Weiss. Indeed, more commonly they resign themselves without struggle or thought. They are rarely attractive people, and often readers must work against a narrator's tendency to sound cretinous or Carver's propensity to reveal characters as bigots and dunces. As the story opens, the first-person narrator of "Cathedral" appears to be another in this series of unattractive types. He worries about the approaching visit of a friend of his wife, a blind man named Robert who was once the wife's employer. He has little experience with the blind and faces the visit anxiously. His summary of the wife's association with Robert is derisive, its syntax blunt and its humor fatiguing:
She'd worked with this blind man all summer. She read stuff to him, case studies, reports, that sort of thing. She helped him organize his little office in the county social service department. They'd become good friends my wife and the blind man. How do I know these things? She told me. And she told me something else. On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this. She told me he ran his fingers over every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it. She was always writing a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important happened to her. (210)
Clearly he is jealous, and so emphasizes the eroticism of the blind man's touch. But she was leaving the blind man's office to marry her childhood sweetheart, an officer in the Air Force whom the narrator refers to as "this man who'd first enjoyed her favors" (210), and much of his jealousy toward the first husband transfers to the blind man Robert. Thus Robert sexually threatens the narrator, with his blindness, and by virtue of being a representative of a past that is meaningful to the wife. The narrator is selfish and callous; however, he is one of Carver's heavy drinkers and no reader could be drawn through "Cathedral" because he cares for him, and perhaps what pushes one into the story is a fear of the harm he may do to his wife and her blind friend. Yet Carver redeems the narrator by releasing him from the figurative blindness that results in a lack of insight into his own condition and which leads him to trivialize human feelings and needs. Indeed, so complete is his misperception that the blind man gives him a faculty of sight that he is not even aware that he lacks.
The wife and blind man have kept in touch over the years, a period of change and grief for each, by sending tape recordings back and forth. The life of a military wife depressed the young woman and led to her divorce from her first husband, but the narrator's view of her suffering is flat and without compassion:
She told the blind man she'd written a poem and he was in it. She told him that she was writing a poem about what it was like to be an Air Force officer's wife in the Deep South. The poem wasn't finished yet. She was still writing it. The blind man made a tape. He sent her the tape. She made a tape. This went on for years. My wife's officer was posted to one base and then another. She sent tapes from Moody AFB, McGuire, McConnell, and finally Travis, near Sacramento, where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She balked, couldn't go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine cabinet and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got in a hot bath and passed out.
But instead of dying she got sick. She threw up. (211)
Suicide is mundane, for him merely a question of balking at life, and dying is roughly the equivalent to throwing up, something one might do instead, much as the narrator stays up nights drunk and stoned in front of the television as an antidote to the "crazy" dreams that trouble his sleep. To his credit, he does not claim moral superiority to his wife, and sees the waste of his drinking and the cowardice of staying in a job he can neither leave nor enjoy. He is numb and isolated, a modern man for whom integration with the human race would be so difficult that it is futile. Consequently he hides by failing to try, anesthetizes himself with booze, and explains away the world with sarcasm. He does nothing to better his lot. Rather he invents strategies for keeping things as they are and will back off from even the most important issues. When he wisecracks that he might take the blind man bowling, his wife rebukes him: "If you love me, you can do this for me. If you don't love me, okay. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I'd make him feel comfortable" (212). Each ignores that she says him, not her, and the emotional blackmail of "if you don't love me, okay" appears not to register. He responds that he hasn't any blind friends, and when she reminds him that he hasn't any friends at all, much less blind ones, he becomes sullen and withdraws from the conversation. What she has said is aggressive and true and to respond to it would imply recognition of the many and large insufficiencies of his life. Instead, he works away at a drink and listens while she tells him about Beulah, the blind man's wife who has recently died of cancer. There's no facing this subject. He listens for a while as she talks about Beulah:
"Was his wife a Negro?" I asked.
"Are you crazy?" my wife said. "Have you just flipped or something?"
She picked up a potato. I saw it hit the floor, then roll under the stove.
"What's wrong with you?" she said. "Are you drunk?"
"I'm just asking," I said.
Right then my wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know. I made a drink and sat at the kitchen table to listen. Pieces of the story began to fall into place. (212-213)
Death is a subject they touch on often but never pursue, and they go on as married couples do in Carver's stories, never forcing a point because each hurt touches on another hurt. Thus, because each serious effort risk the destruction of a stuporous status quo that he maintains by various strategies of denial, they never touch each other.
The narrator inadvertently makes a friend of the blind man. At the end of an evening of whiskey and conversation that bewilder him and leave him sitting alone in his resentment, he is left with Robert when his wife goes upstairs to change into her robe. Together they sit, the narrator watching the late news, Robert listening, his ear turned toward the television, his unseeing eyes turned disconcertingly on the narrator. After the news there is a program about cathedral architecture and the narrator tries to explain to Robert what a cathedral looks like. They smoke some marijuana and he blunders on, failing to express the visual effect of a cathedral's soaring space to a man who, as far as the narrator can tell, has no analogues for spatial dimension. When Robert asks what a fresco is, the narrator is at a complete loss. The blind man proposes a solution, and on a heavy paper bag the narrator draws a cathedral while Robert's hand rides his. He begins with a box and pointed roof that could be his own house, and adds spires, buttresses, windows, and doors, and at last he has elaborated a gothic cathedral in lines pressed hard into the paper. When Robert takes his hand and makes him close his eyes to touch the cathedral, he "sees." Even when he is told that he can open his eyes, he chooses not to, for he is learning what he has long been incapable of perceiving and even now can not articulate:
I thought I'd keep them that way a little longer. I thought it was something I ought not to forget.
"Well?" he said. "Are you looking?"
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house and I knew that. But I didn't feel inside anything.
"It's really something." I said. (228)
The cathedral, of course, is the space that does not limit, and his perception of something—objective, substantial, meaningful—that cannot be seen with ordinary sight depends on his having to perceive as another perceives. In fictional terms, he learns to shift point of view. In emotional terms, he learns to feel empathy. In the moment when the blind man and the narrator share an identical perception of spiritual space, the narrator's sense of enclosure—of being confined by his own house and circumstances—vanishes as if by an act of grace, or a very large spiritual reward for a virtually insignificant gesture. Following the metaphor of the story, the narrator learns to see with eyes other than that insufficient set that keeps him a friendless drunk and a meager husband.
In a reminiscence on John Gardner, his late teacher, Carver pauses to reflect that at some point in late youth or early middle age we all face the inevitability of our failure and we suffer "the suspicion that we're taking on water, and that things are not working out in our lives the way we'd planned."4 For a time there is nothing anyone can do against the debilitating effect of such a recognition. But in "The Calm," "A Small, Good Thing," and "Cathedral," protagonists are taken from behind by understanding. When it occurs, understanding comes as the result of an unearned and unexpected gift, a kind of grace constituted in human contact that a fortunate few experience. Of course, Carver does not imply a visitation of the Holy Ghost, nor does he argue that salvation is apt to fall on the lowliest of creatures in the moment of their greatest need as it does, say, in Flannery O'Connor, whose benighted Ruby Turpin in "Revelation" is saved in spite of herself when shown the equality of all souls in the sight of God. Grace, Carver says, is bestowed upon us by other mortals, and it comes suddenly, arising in circumstances as mundane as a visit to the barber shop, and in the midst of feelings as ignoble or quotidian as jealousy, anger, loneliness, and grief. It can be represented in incidental physical contact, and the deliverer is not necessarily aware of his role. Not Grace in the Christian sense at all, it is what grace becomes in a godless world—a deep and creative connection between humans that reveals to Carver's alienated and diminished creatures that there can be contact in a world they supposed was empty of sense or love. Calm is given in a touch, a small, good thing is the food we get from others, and in the cathedrals we draw together, we create large spaces for the spirit.
1. David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Raymond Carver," The Iowa Review, 10 (1979), 84.
2. "The Calm" is collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981).
3. Both stories appear in Carver's most recent collection of fiction. Cathedral (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).
4. "John Gardner," The Georgia Review, 37 (1983), 418.
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