Book Review: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

I just had to read this short story collection from Raymond Carver for my grad school postmodern literature class. Like many of the pieces of literature in that class, I was skeptical about Cathedral going in, but like most of them–I was wrong. This is an example of Dirty Realism, a gritty look at reality, often chronicling broken homes, unhappy marriages, alcoholism, estrangement, and death. And yet, despite this bleak outlook, hope always lies on the horizon. Most of his stories have non-endings–a lack of resolution. Almost all of them could be developed into longer stories or have sequels. This lack of resolution is often somewhat optimistic, or at least with a slight upturn. I really enjoyed them. I will offer a brief commentary on each:

“Feathers” is about a dinner party, crooked teeth, a peacock, and a terribly ugly baby. There is a distinct contrast between the two marriages present at the event. Neither is perfect, but one seems to be a bit happier, despite its imperfections.

“Chef’s House” is short and sweet, yet melancholic and tragic. The fleeting peace before the end of a relationship as they try to recapture what had been lost long ago in the haven that is their rented house.

“Preservation” is a slice of life which could have taken place today–a man abruptly finds himself unemployed (canned) and decidedly sits on the couch for three months. That is, until the icebox breaks.

“The Compartment” is a story of thwarted reconciliation between an estranged father and son. He travels all the way to Italy, then takes a train to Strasbourg where his son is at University. A small theft changes his perspective.

“A Small, Good Thing” is grievous. There is the death of a child and the impending hopelessness of the family’s future, yet it ends with a ray of hope from an unlikely place. Really, really good.

“Vitamins” is another that captures what could be the spirit of today. Hard times have fallen and affect everyone, forcing people to reconsider their lives and choices.

“Careful” is another in a line of stories about marriages on the brink of failure. Lloyd has separated from his wife due to his drinking, which he swears he cutting down on by only drinking champagne. However, he drinks 3 or 4 bottles a day, and he and his wife cannot seem to communicate. Ironically, she literally pulls wax out of his ear so that they can begin to communicate, and then she leaves.

“Where I’m Calling From” is about a man who has been in and out of rehab for alcoholism, usually making light of the situation, leaving and then coming back. It seems as though he comes to the realization that this cannot continue. Pretty good.

“The Train” is an odd story about three people waiting at a train station. Two are older than Mrs. Dent and are having a conversation and they drag her into it. Essentially, time catches up with everyone, everyone is on the slow moving train…

“Fever” is a story about catharsis–moving on from a tragedy and remaining strong. This story is excellent, personal to me in some ways, and inspiring.

“Bridle,” the penultimate story in this collection, sees a family moving into an apartment after the husband has just lost his job as a farmer. They soon move on, leaving the bridle he brought with him in the apartment, symbolizing the aimlessness in his life.

In “Cathedral,” the final story of this collection, a blind man comes to visit and teaches the narrator something about sight, reality, and conception.


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