This year I am reading The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn. There are 52 stories and essays from 52 writers, and I am focusing on one each week.
This week’s story is Cathedral, by Raymond Carver.
Carver is said to be a master of the craft, and this story does display craftsmanship. The main story takes place on one evening. But the main character provides just enough back story to help the reader understand the current actions and conversations. And it’s not a data dump either; it’s timelyservings in satisfying portions.
The main character is a husband waiting for his wife to come home. She is picking up a dear old friend of hers. A friend who happens to be blind. Here, the character goes off on how he feels about blind people. Part of me wonders if this was Carver’s way of addressing racism, as “Bub” does not have a very high view of the blind. He has a weird obsession, actually that reminded me of the movie In Bruges. In the movie, the younger assassin has a strange obsession with what he termed as dwarves or midgets, and spends a great deal of the movie talking about them and what they can and cannot do.
In Cathedral as well, there is speculation: will he have a cane or a seeing eye dog? Dark glasses? Aren’t those required? By hearing Bub’s thoughts, you can see that he does not have a lot of understanding nor empathy. Maybe what he is dealing with is actually jealousy. Here is a man that his wife was sending audio tapes to throughout their marriage and he is only now meeting him.
Carver lets the whole cast drink and smoke weed, then presents the change of heart. This is a masterclass in showing, not telling. Rather than have Bub talk through his awakening, if you will, the blind man asks Bub to describe a cathedral. Bub cannot do it, not to either of their satisfaction. Finally, the blind man asks for Bub to get a pen and heavy paper. He instructs his host to draw a cathedral and places his hand over Bub’s. In this way, the blind man can see the cathedral. Then they change places and in this way, the host can see the blind man.
This all works because Carver really piles on the low expectations Bub has about the blind man. While reading the story, one of my thoughts was, “What has a blind person done to you to make you so suspicious?” But it wasn’t what a blind person had done; it was that he had absolutely no experience around someone who was blind and just focused on stereotypes.
This really does seem to be a story about racism, the more I think about is and the time of its publication in 1983. Googling about what the symbolism means, the real blind person to most reviewers was Bub, who suffered from the inability to understand others or find meaning and joy in his own life. Hence the heavy drinking and the smoking a joint every night just to get to sleep.
This story was originally in a book of stories by the same name, and I may need to get a copy and read a few for the A to Z blogging adventure next month. I am taking recommendations!