Cathedral Stories by Raymond Carver
The Writers as Readers book club met Tuesday, August 5th at B&N to discuss Cathedral by Raymond Carver. I selected this book because it seems that whenever I tell someone I write short stories, they always ask if I’ve read Cathedral. WaR book club was a good excuse to do so. (Upon hindsight, I think they were asking if I’d read the story, not the collection, but either way, I have since complied.)
Cathedral is a collection of short stories by author Raymond Carver, one of several writers credited with revitalizing the genre in the mid-80s. Of the twelve titles in the collection, the book club agreed that “A Small, Good Thing,” “Fever,” and Cathedral,” were the most enjoyable to read. Not everyone appreciated this author, his style, or his stories, but as always, great discussion ensued.
I believe the stories in Cathedral are thinking stories. I found very little reward in the reading. It was upon reflection, the lingering absence of what he had not said partnered with the details he chose to share, that haunted me.
Carver is considered a minimalist, but the term “post-modernism” came up several times during our discussion. I wanted to know more about the definitions of minimalism versus post-modernism. Minimalism is characterized by an economy of words with focus on the surface description. Post-modernism tends to be “slice of life,” to not exactly end. Check and check. Both eschew detail and tend to have characters that aren’t usually protagonist material. While doing research I also came across the term, “dirty realism,” which is described as “spare, unadorned language written with a certain detachment.” I also agree that the stories in Cathedral fit this description, despite, or perhaps because of, their autobiographical nature.
Carver died at the age of fifty at the height of his career. A long-suffering alcoholic, he dabbled in drugs and women, and was a prolific speaker, teacher and poet.
The subjects touched upon in Cathedral include alcoholism, broken relationships, unemployment, and death. Real downer issues. And yet, there seemed to me, to be an air of hope. One of the descriptions I found about Carver’s style was this, “The idea behind minimalism is that by giving the reader a bare minimum of information, he or she will be able to figure out what’s underneath, according to his or her unique position.” This comment leads me to believe that it is my own optimism I bring to the reading. Since the author didn’t tell us what happened, I chose to believe they ended well, or at least tried to. This “unique position,” was repeated throughout the book club conversation. Many members identified with or interpreted characters and scenes based on personal experience. What we got out of the stories was much more than what the words on the page offered.
No one in attendance said they were in a hurry to read anything else by Carver, but several were inspired by the book to try their hand at writing short stories or to put together their own collection. Perhaps it’s time for another resurgence of this genre.
The next WaR meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, September 2, and the title to be discussed is William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace.