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Critical Essay by Eugene Goodheart
SOURCE: "Raymond Carver's Cathedral," in Pieces of Resistance, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 162-66.
In the following essay, Goodheart analyzes Carver's moral code, arguing that he is at his best when his characters adhere to it.
The affectless narrative voice of a Raymond Carver story defends itself against surprise or shock or pain. The most banal situations propose inexplicable signs of menace that require, in response, a discipline of unemotional terseness. Nothing much happens at the dinner party in "Feathers," the first of the stories in Carver's latest collection, except for the weird appearance of a vulture-sized peacock, which stares at the guests and to which Jack, the narrator, responds at intervals with three "god damns," as if the word were a talisman for preserving equanimity. The peacock, the plaster cast of misshapen teeth on top of the TV, the very ugly baby of the hosts give the story a quality of surreal menace that never quite materializes. Though nothing of consequence happens at the dinner, the friendship between the men (the wives have just been introduced to each other) is significantly altered. "We're still friends. That hasn't changed any. But I've gotten careful with what I say to him. And I know he feels that and wishes it could be different. I wish it could be too." Every detail conspires to estrange the friends from each other, whatever else they might wish.
The threat to Carver's characters lies within. They are vulnerable to their own weakness. Informed by his landlord that he must vacate a house he has rented, Wes of "The Chef's House" refuses to be consoled by his estranged wife. "'Suppose,' [she asks him to imagine], 'nothing had ever happened.'" But Wes, a half-reformed alcoholic, can imagine no such power and freedom for himself. "'I don't have that kind of supposing left in me. We were born who we are.'" Here the narrator is the wife who has imagined such freedom, a freedom that would make it possible for them to get back together, but who at the end acknowledges her husband's incapacity for it. "We'll clean it up tonight, I thought, and that will be the end of it."
Carver's characters are alcoholic, unemployed, occasionally violent to their spouses and children, victims of passion or circumstance. They are characters on the margins of middle-class life with the values and occupations of the middle class: sales people, teachers, business people, who nevertheless seem always on the brink of lumpen existence. They do not quite fall out of the middle class, but the threat of catastrophic failure seems always imminent. They live transient lives in rooms, apartments, and houses which either do not belong to them or to which they do not belong. Neither the utilities nor the furniture can ever be depended on—as if the external world had taken on the emotional uncertainty or inertia of the inner lives of the characters.
Carver writes of a time (the present) when everything seems to have gone wrong. In "Preservation," the breakdown of a refrigerator plunges the husband into despair because he remembers that his folks had one that lasted twenty-three years. Carver, with perhaps a bit too much contrivance, makes the fridge and the thawing packages of frozen food an objective correlative for the moral desolation of the time. Yet he also suggests that it may be an illusion that things have changed for the worse. The wife's parents, after all, were divorced, the father had disappeared from her life, and he had died in a car that leaked carbon monoxide.
Have things changed, or is change an illusion? Carver's answer to such a question is a double perspective, true to our experience of both past and present. The past seems better than the present until we recall the actual events of the past; but such recollection cannot alter our sense of present hopelessness or meaninglessness. Right now, whatever the past was and meant to the people who lived it, there is a general sense that things have not only gone wrong, but that they'll never be right again. America, the land of the future, suddenly seems at the end of its tether. Carver's fiction doesn't explicitly encompass conditions of structural unemployment, incorrigible violence in our cities, the closed frontier, and our sense of baffled manifest destiny, but he has superbly caught the mood generated by these conditions.
Even some of Carver's admirers have found the sad passivity of his characters a limitation of his art. In his review of Cathedral, Irving Howe mentions the judgment of a friend who finds the work "cold" and then goes on to construe the judgment as referring to "a note of disdain toward the people he creates," an impatience with "the resignation of his characters." Howe even hears in this note a wish that "they would rebel against the constrictions of their lives." I for one hear neither the note of disdain nor the note of impatience. The story "Chef's House" knows that Wes's inability to suppose is more authentic than the wife's desire not "to hear him talk like this." He is sorry, but he can't help it. "'I can't talk like somebody I'm not. If I was somebody else, I wouldn't be me. But I'm who I am.'" His wife in effect acknowledges Wes's truth with an economical sympathy that is characteristic of the narrative voice in most of the stories. "Wes, it's all right, I said. I brought his hand to my cheek."
Wes could be speaking of the moral aspect of Carver's art as well as of his own character. In his first collection of stories, In Our Time, Hemingway presented characters, not unlike Carver's in their terseness, who refused to act up to feelings that they didn't have. The false note for Carver, as for Hemingway, is supposing yourself to be other than you are.
Like Hemingway's characters, Carver's characters possess a code (there is even the code of the alcoholic) which dictates their behavior. There is a right way and a wrong way to be despairing, or ineffectual, or lost. Carver actually gives us an aesthetic of failure. This is why I find Carver's prizewinning "A Small, Good Thing" flawed in its attempt to redeem the "evil" baker, who unknowingly intrudes upon the lives of the grief-stricken parents of a dead child, continually phoning them to remind them of the birthday cake they had ordered and forgotten to pick up. The baker, sullen and dimly conceived through most of the story, suddenly becomes a figure of compassion, who asks forgiveness for the kind of man he has become. "I was a different kind of human being," he says. Perhaps. But the concluding episode in which he tries to console the parents with coffee and freshly baked bread strikes me as a bit of willed Dickensian sentimentality.
There is, of course, the danger that the very limitations of these characters and the medium in which they live will produce monotonous art. The danger is reduced, however, by Carver's resourcefulness in creating a variety of events and effects. How different and yet alike are the two stories of ineffectual husbands, "The Chef's House" and "Preservation." Only on rare occasions does the weirdness of a Carver story fail to emerge "organically" from the situation and seem contrived, an unnecessary turn of the screw. In an early story, "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," the hero's mother is a sixty-five year old swinger, whom her son discovers kissing a man on the sofa of her house, an unusual but plausible scene of our time. But when the son remembers one of her former lovers, "an unemployed aerospace engineer," who walked with "a limp from a gunshot wound his first wife gave him," we seem to have entered the zone of jokiness. The integrity of "The Student's Wife" (a story in an earlier collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?) is also slightly compromised because it introduces the main character as an admirer of Rilke, whose poems he reads to his wife in bed. The rest of the story beautifully unfolds the insomnia and despair of the wife, who loses her husband every night to a heavy "jaws clenched" sleep. Rilke is an irrelevance. Carver's tact, his instinct for the right detail, is usually so sure that the rare failure jars.
One can see in the title story, "Cathedral," which appropriately concludes the present volume, an effort on Carver's part to transcend his medium, or rather to find within the medium the gestures of fancy or imagination that will reduce its poverty. "Cathedral" is told like many Carver stories in a somewhat disconsolate voice, that of a husband bemused by his wife, who has invited home a blind man for whom she had worked as a reader and helper many years before. The disconsolateness disappears, however, in the extraordinary relationship that develops between the two men, in which the husband teaches the blind man to visualize a cathedral by having him hold his hand as he draws it. As in D. H. Lawrence's story, "The Blind Man," blindness becomes a metaphor for imagination: the power of the mind to ascend to the spires. Carver's story risks pretentiousness, but wholly avoids it, for he preserves in the telling the simplicity and authenticity of language that characterize all his stories.
Carver's minimal art achieves maximal effects. Frank Kermode, I think, is right to speak as he did of Carver's capacity to evoke "a whole moral condition" in a seemingly slight sketch. One wonders where Carver will go from here. He is a lyric poet, who writes verse as well as stories. It is hard to imagine him working in the more extended form of the novel. In a revealing autobiographical essay (see In Praise of What Persist, edited by Stephen Berg), Carver describes his career as a short-story writer as a response to the baleful influence of his children, who did not allow him time for the longer effort of the novel. The circumstances of his life produced a "discovery" about the novel.
To write a novel, it seemed to me, a writer should be living in a world that makes sense, a world that the writer can believe in, draw a bead on, and then write about accurately. A world that will, for a time anyway, stay fixed in one place. Along with this there has to be a belief in the essential correctness of that world. A belief that the known world has reasons for existing, and is worth writing about—is not likely to go up in smoke in the process. This wasn't the case with the world I knew and was living in. My world was one that seemed to change gears and directions, along with its rules, every day. Time and again I reached the point where I couldn't see or plan any further ahead than the first of next month and gathering together enough money, by hook or by crook, to meet rent and provide the children's school clothes.
Although Carver's is not the only possible world, it is one in which many people live, and one he writes very accurately about. In the paradoxically lyric way of the minimalist writer, Carver has not only made sense of this world, he has given it value.
This section contains 1,878 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)