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Aping Carver: The Pull of "Cathedral"

Of the short stories I have read, the one with the greatest sense of reality for me is Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." From the start, I felt transported into the mind of the nameless first-person narrator. The intimacy of this point of view remains intact throughout the story, and the voice rings familiar. I felt as though I were in the presence of a dear friend sharing a story with me about something interesting that really happened. For the duration I was the narrator's confidant.

I most appreciate writers whose work illuminates the human condition in a realistic and accessible way, addressing the simple daily struggles of working-class people. These writers honor the concerns of ordinary people and use uncomplicated structure and vocabulary to render their lives unforgettable.

Stories that appeal to me in this way include Tillie Olsen's "As I Stand Here Ironing" and James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," but Carver's stories stand out for their poetic economy and flow. His aim is not to impress with vocabulary or cleverness, but to communicate with realism and clarity. It's the absence of pretense that earns my trust, lowering my defenses so that I am open to receive what the story has to offer.  "No tricks," Carver once said. Tricks are easy to spot and a distraction.

If I were to imitate a writer it is Carver's style that comes to mind, as well as his preferences for character and situation. When I read his work I feel that I've learned something useful about how people get along in life, how to understand life, not how to escape, distort or avoid reality. Carver's stories approach pure realism within a culture where escape predominates to the point of near addiction, exemplified in drugs fantasy, and surrealistic action heroes.

Avatar, a recent film grossing in the billions, is a glimmering example. How is world going to improve if instead of facing reality, people leap to escape it? Maybe reality is too bleak to face sometimes, but super-heroes don't exist and therefore can serve little use except as a  temporary escape. I accept that relief can be necessary but I want to provide something more useful.

If humanity can't face and understand the difficulties of history, we are doomed to repeat our worst. Realism holds a potential in literature to shed light on mankind's darkest truths. Writers like Carver, Baldwin and Olsen did that; they addressed deep challenges of society in an open and honest way that laid bare troubling truths for all to see and understand.

Presenting reality requires access to clean unadorned truth. Clarity of expression is of paramount importance in order to reach the broadest audience. Carver's writing style enabled him to do this in a powerfully effective way. Sometimes when I read a Raymond Carver story I feel as though I'm reading my own thoughts. I don't consciously try to imitate him, but I am learning by studying his work, and if something rubs off, well..., thanks, Ray.