Tuesday, November 08, 2016

"Cathedral" (1983)

Read story by Raymond Carver online.

The collection this story headlines was something of a breakthrough for Raymond Carver, and the story is one of his most anthologized. It feels more worked over and literary than the raw naturalism of "Fever," for example. It's a strange story in many ways, with strange people doing strange things, but it has real power. It's told in the first person by a man whose wife has invited an old friend of hers, a blind man who recently lost his wife, to visit and stay with them. The narrator does not like this. He is more or less candid about his discomfort with the man's disability, a theme he keeps coming back to until inevitably his discomfort has made us uncomfortable with his attitude. The blind man, Robert—the husband / narrator and wife remain unnamed—is loose and balanced, able to roll with the situation. Or maybe he has some agenda? It's hard to tell. He calls the narrator "bub," which the narrator doesn't know exactly how to take. They stay up late the first night. Robert is not tired, or doesn't know how to take a hint. Then the story becomes very strange. The wife leaves to change into nightclothes, comes back to the living room, and soon falls asleep. The television is on in the room. Robert says he doesn't mind. The narrator produces some marijuana to smoke. For Robert it's his first time. On the TV is a documentary about European history. Presently it begins to discuss and show historical cathedrals. The narrator seizes on this as a way to relate to Robert. "Something has occurred to me," he says. "Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they're talking about?" Robert dryly responds with recitations of facts they have both just heard. The narrator seems impossibly selfish and self-centered. He cannot see Robert as a valid person, and he can't hide it from Robert any better than he has from us. In fact, he is so candid in his narration about his prejudices and ignorance that it brings you up a little short as the reader. He tragically believes himself a solid man of common sense, and easygoing and humorous too. He is an everyman we have all met. He is the cast of Seinfeld, including supporting players. Carver puts him into the middle of a cunningly conceived situation—a blind man who calls him "bub"!—winds him up and lets him go. What follows is remarkable, when the blind man presses the issue of what a cathedral looks like.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

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