Monday, March 12, 2012

"Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta:" An Analysis

This story is, to say the least, off-putting to a casual reader. I know I was thrown by the seemingly inexplicable behavior of Lenny and the nameless female protagonist. To focus specifically on the narratological aspects of this work, it is a highly frenetic and multi-faceted piece, where Lenny's crisp, staccato conversation only occurs in short bursts, rapid-fire like one of the guns he used in the Mekong Delta; by comparison, the narrator has long, flowery, vivid descriptive passages that abound with references to color and flowers. They are opposite in their analysis of the world around them, with the woman playing the role of the cautious, careful recovering addict and Lenny playing the chaotic force of addiction attempting to enter her life. In the end, of course, he succeeds on a literal and symbolic level. Literally, she allows him into her life and gets caught up in what he calls "the other side" (91), and symbolically he is ultimately the demon of addiction who sends the narrator back to the bottle. As they drink just before he disappears (because his work is done and manifesting itself independently within the protagonist) she thinks to herself "when this glass was finished she would pour another. When the bottle was empty she would buy another" (107).
The story is heterodiegetic, in that the narrator is not directly involved in the story, which allows for an impartial view of the two characters, though it is also limited in only being able to follow the female protagonist's thoughts. This works well with the idea of Lenny as an avatar for addiction; his behavior is erratic and unpredictable, which would not be possible if the narrator were able to describe what he was thinking or feeling at any given moment. From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, the story would not operate as well as a homodiegetic piece, from the point of view of the woman or Lenny, because it would detract from their relationship and from the powerful descriptions given throughout. Were the female protagonist the narrator, the reader would have a hard time believing she were actively thinking and describing everything with the same intensity that we see here; even a creative writing teacher wouldn't go around describing the afternoon as "absinthe yellow and almond, burnt orange and chrysanthemum," with the sky filled by "a litany of kites" (93). Similarly, Lenny's narration of the story would become grating and hard-boiled, like a James Cain novel, very pulpy and not attractive to the same audiences that "Tall Tales" is.

Ultimately, "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" is, to me, a parable about the perils of addiction and its inexplicable power over an individual. The protagonist gives no real reason for following Lenny as she does, and every time she stops to think about her actions he tells her "You want to." He coerces her into doing these things, just as a formerly addictive habit still lurks in the back of one's mind. The unfortunate thing for the protagonist is she is unable to get away. She can't fight back the encroaching addiction, and at the story's end it finally overwhelms her as an "infected blue enormity [...] that knows you and where you live and [is] never going to forget" (107).

Monday, March 5, 2012

Raymond Carver's "Cathedral:" An Analysis

Carver's short story is an intriguing piece in the way it is written. There are slow moments of dullness, reflecting the lives of the main character and his wife, followed by brief yet blazing verbal illustrations of high-energy moments e.g. eating dinner at the table or the end of the story with the narrator drawing a cathedral. What significance is there in having a story arranged in this way? Is this a cyclical pattern, going from high to low several times to show the ebb and flow of domestic life, or a series of events gradually increasing in intensity until reaching a final, near-religious revelation? What can be made of a story where so much (indeed, almost all) of the description is very literal and there are almost no references to the abstract? Does that affect the narrator's realization of his first true religious experience with the blind man? What is the importance of the blind man? Is he supposed to be a Biblical figure, standing ironically against a very secular household?

This story raised a lot of questions, but I'd like to focus specifically on some of the questions raised above. I think that, rather than the story being a cyclical piece (though there is evidence of that) it is instead acting much like a graph of exponential increase, which is to say the events become more heightened in their intensity as the story progresses, reaching a peak with the narrator's decision to keep his eyes closed while drawing, as though he has achieved some profound realization. This increase in tension is tied to the narrator discovering more and more about himself, his wife, and Robert the blind man. He realizes something profound may occur after the three of them voraciously inhale their suppers, which is described with very vivid imagery.

The imagery is almost entirely descriptive, as said before; there is little abstraction. This reflects the narrator's tone as a very literal, down-to-earth individual. He is no-nonsense and finds himself literally at a loss when attempting to describe the cathedral to Robert. One of the only moments where his descriptions aren't either of something physical within or outside of him is at the very end, when he says, regarding having his eyes closed, "I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do." (124) Does this revelation mean that the narrator has transcended the literal interpretation of the world he previously had? By keeping his eyes closed he is blocking one of his most significant portals for sensory exploration and has to rely instead on guesswork, on faith.

Speaking of faith, there are of course multiple references to the blind in the Bible, which may or may not hold significance to "Cathedral." One is reminded in the final pages of the phrase "the blind leading the blind" which becomes rather overt when Robert instructs the narrator to draw a cathedral and leads him, even without the capacity of sight. This would be an ironic inversion of the original intention of the phrase "blind leading the blind" because in this case both parties gain from such leadership: Robert learns what a cathedral looks like (which has obvious religious connotations) and the narrator has a religious experience of self-realization.

A very dense, yet effortless-to-read story.