The characters in Cathedral, [1]Raymond Carver’s recent collection of stories, labor under many burdens: a watch is stolen, a refrigerator breaks, a drunk gets out of hand, a child dies. And when things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way. Some dark and awful force descends on these characters like doom. But the biggest burden of all is the one Carver has imposed. He’s saddled them with his idea of a desperate lower-middle-class fate, gutted their sensibilities, and then flattened them out in a deadeningly sparse, stylized prose. They are so flat that they are like morbid caricatures. Their tragedies can inspire an easy kind of pathos without our ever having to take them seriously. (After all, Carver doesn’t seem to.) Carver is famous for his terse and gritty realism—his stories leave Irving Howe with tremors that resemble the...


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