In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Michael Keaton plays a former superhero actor attempting to make the jump to serious actor on Broadway. The play within the movie is an adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” details a night’s conversation between four friends as they discuss, of all things, love. While the movie only makes passing mention of the source material, it is very much a Carver story, complete with snippets of dialogue taken directly from the text. I’ve long been a fan of Carver and after watching the movie I decided to revisit one of my favorite stories of his, “Cathedral,” from his collection of the same name.
Carver shares a trait with another famous American short story writer, Ernest Hemingway, in that they both write in an extremely direct and sparse manner. In the very reasonably titled essay, “On Writing” Carver remarks of his writing that “that’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.” Reading “Cathedral,” one is left with the impression that Carver not only found the right ones, but but them in about as perfect of an order as possible. I’ve read a lot of great short stories throughout the years and can easily mark “Cathedral” as one of the most complete from start to finish.
Covering only a single evening, “Cathedral” is the story of the narrator welcoming his wife’s blind friend, Robert, into into his house. His wife having worked for Robert when she was a young woman, has been keeping in touch with him through and they had kept up a correspondence through tape in the intervening years. Our unnamed narrator is at first uncomfortable with the thought of Robert staying at his house as “he was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me.” In typical Carver fashion the narrator seems to be of the alright sort, but hardly anything special. He drinks too much and is largely ignorant of the outside world. It is with noticeable hesitation that the narrator interacts with Robert. In essence, this is a story about a blue-collar man experiencing something new.
But, like all great short stories, “Cathedral” is never really about what it’s about. One of the overriding impressions of the narrator is of a man that is confident of his place in the present as long as the past stays gone, specially the his wife’s life prior to when they met.
There is a certain undercurrent of insecurity in our narrator as he makes mention of his wife’s first husband, “her officer — why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?” It was in the summer of his wife’s engagement to “her officer” that she first met Robert. Throughout the years of sending tapes to him, she kept the blind man abreast of all that was going on in her life, from her happiness at being married to her suicide attempt as her marriage devolved. For our narrator, Robert represents another man with intimate knowledge of his wife, and while not completely threatening, still manages to leave the narrator feeling uneasy.
To his credit, the narrator does his best and even begins to admire Robert in the way he eats and, of all things, smokes. However, it’s not until his wife falls asleep on the couch that the narrator and Robert spend anytime alone. Forced to engage with Robert, the narrator begins tying to describe the somewhat vapid late-night TV show about cathedrals.
Robert, perhaps finding the narrator’s descriptions somewhat lacking, suggests that the draw a cathedral. Robert, using the same hands that once felt the look of the narrator’s wife’s face, follows along as the narrator traces on an old shopping bag. As the TV show ends and carries on to the next late-night filler, the two men sit on the floor, hand-on-hand, drawing a cathedral that one has no real connection to and the other will never see.
It is somewhere in the midst of the collaborative drawing that the narrator is able to let go. First, he closes his eyes and leaves them shut as something he “ought to do.” Then, he becomes unmoored from the world around him. It seems that, for the first time, he is able to move into something larger and more comforting than himself.