Monday, 4 February 2019

Nineteen in '19: Cathedral

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

4/19: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

The blurb: Raymond Carver said it was possible 'to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language and endow these things - a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring - with immense, even startling power'. Nowhere is this alchemy more striking than in the title story of Cathedral in which a blind man guides the hand of a sighted man as together they draw the cathedral the blind man can never see. Many view this story, and indeed this collection, as a watershed in the maturing of Carver's work to a more confidently poetic style.

The review: well, this collection is certainly a watershed. Carver's earlier work, the stories that had made him famous like What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, had been sparse and unsentimental. The tales in Cathedral are less concise and more overtly emotional. At the time, reviewers credited this change to a more confident, mature writer but in hindsight it's easier to see this as a result of editor Gordon Lish no longer having such a tight rein. The impact of Lish's editorial style is well documented in the Carver Chronicles and, more concisely, in this article from the Standard. So do Carver's much-lauded short stories stand up without Lish cutting and rewriting swathes? Well, for the most part, yes. Cathedral comprises bleak tales of alcoholics, the unemployed, cheaters and adulterers, and who doesn't like to read about characters like that? And even if these tales are not subject to Lish's editorial magic, they still work, with tales like Vitamins, Where I'm Calling From and Fever particularly standing out, for me. And then, most interestingly, there's A Small, Good Thing, the tale of a boy who is knocked down in a hit and run on his eighth birthday and subsequently falls into a coma. In the Lish-edited version, the reader doesn't know whether the boy ultimately lives or dies, but in the unexpurgated Carver version, included here, it is spelled out. Is it a better story for that? Maybe, maybe not. It's certainly longer, and more obvious in its story telling. You'll have a preference, no doubt. Critics at the time praised Carver's more expansive style, but was Carver ever as good as Carver/Lish? I'm not so sure.

The bottom line: bleak but real, these short stories are well crafted, however edited, and especially recommended as an object lesson for aspiring writers.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. I used to love Carver but not read any in years. Should probably correct that soon.

    1. Well, this may not be his greatest hits but it's a fine collection.