T. C. Boyle has never written the same book twice. Across 15 novels and well over 100 short stories, he's consistently shifted genre, historical epoch, and narrative approach. ("I exclude no form or mode," he once told the Paris Review).
But there’s at least one thing Boyle looks for consistently: an ending that opens the work up with a new, almost magical sense of possibility. In our conversation for this series, he analyzed how Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral" pulls off an uncanny sleight of hand by bringing the story to a place readers never dreamed it could go. We discussed how Carver opened up Boyle's stylistic palette, why he never knows the ending of his works until he gets there, and why art can be a comfort in a chaotic world.
Boyle's latest novel, The Harder They Come, was inspired in part by a quote from D. H. Lawrence: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." From there came a meditation on American violence. The main character's act of self-defense—killing an armed man who threatens to rob his family on a trip to Central America—is juxtaposed against his son's slow descent into an anarchist, revolutionary cult, which leads to subsequent bloodshed.
T. C. Boyle has won the PEN/Faulkner and PEN/Malamud awards, and his stories have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic. He teaches fiction at the University of Southern California, and he spoke to me by phone.
T. C. Boyle: I knew Ray Carver when he was hanging around in Iowa City in the 1970s—I lived there for five and a half years, getting my MFA from the Writers’ Workshop and then my PhD. He’d just published his first book, Would You Please Be Quiet, Please? Before that, no one paid him much attention except us: we all knew how great the stories were, and we followed them in the little magazines.
All the writers whom we revered would come through town at one time or another. Most of them were jerks and drunks and drug addicts who had just been released from the mental hospital. But still, to see them reading was a great thing. Ray, after he became well-known, came and gave a reading. Of course, he was very shy and didn’t want to give readings. It was in the horrible lounge on the third floor of the English department building, and he just had one little lamp, and his face was shaded, and he just kind of mumbled. But it was great—it was Ray.
He is definitely a great favorite. When I first began to read Ray’s stories, I was doing something very, very different—something with much longer and more rhythmic sentences, certainly nothing that had to do with working-class people or realism or anything else. I had never paid much attention, at that point, to realism. Ray opened my eyes to a different mode of storytelling.
“Cathedral” is a wonderful point-of-view story in which the narrator, a working-class guy, talks straight to us. He’s extremely jealous because a good friend of his wife’s is coming to visit. She knew this man, Robert, before the narrator and his wife were acquainted; she knew him in the capacity of reading to him, because he’s blind. Our narrator—who isn’t even named in the story—is prejudiced against the friend and makes detrimental comments about him. For instance: how preposterous it is that Robert had never seen his wife (who has since died). Whether she was beautiful or not—and whether she was wearing purple or red or mismatched clothes—the friend would never have known.
The narrator is groping towards an understanding of what being blind might be like, but in a very crude, antipathetic way. He depersonalizes the friend by referring to him as “the blind man” throughout the story. Of course, underneath it are his own fears and uncertainties about his relationship with his wife, the extent of her relationship with this other man—who is now no longer married—how close they’ve been, and how much this man means to her. And now, of course, our narrator will meet him for the first time: He’s coming for a visit, and to spend the night.
The narrator is baffled by the man who shows up at his door. The blind man has a beard, and he’s surprised by this. How could a blind man have a beard?—as if a blind man were a completely different species altogether. The blind man lifts his beard and sniffs it, one of his little quirks. The narrator notes this in the way he’d notice a wild animal in the zoo doing something.
And yet, the blind man, even though we’re getting him from a prejudicial first-person point of view, seems like a very natural and likeable kind of person. He speaks in a big rumbling voice, and calls him “Bub.” He has no problems with the heat he’s feeling from the narrator. Ultimately, he disarms him—which is the beauty of the story.
After seeing a special on European churches on late-night TV, the blind man has an idea. “Why don’t you find us some heavy paper? And a pen,” he says. “We’ll do something. We’ll draw one together.” Then they hold the pen at the same time and start to draw a cathedral:
“Close your eyes now,” the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”
“They’re closed,” I said.
“Keep them that way,” he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
The story ends with the narrator refusing to open his eyes—he doesn’t see the drawing. And the drawing probably isn’t that great, from the perspective of putting it on the wall in the art museum. But that’s not what matters. The narrator, by keeping his eyes closed, is finally seeing the way the blind man does. What matters is the union between the two, and the fact of making it—of making art, the way art can transcend their differences and make us mutual in some way. It’s very complex, what is said in such a stripped-back and simple form.
At the same time, it’s not like the world is suddenly a happy place, and we make a musical out of the end, and everyone gets up and sings and dances. After all, Robert is never referred to by name. He remains “the blind man” even to the end of the story, and there’s always a distance between them. The narrator has an experience he could never have dreamed of having—but, for all this, the blind man remains “the blind man,” not “Robert.” And yet, what matters is—that anybody, especially somebody as prejudiced as this, can have this wonderful moment.
This story—like Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing”—makes a kind of metaphorical leap into a place that you could never imagine the story going. A lesser story might not have seen this, or imagined this. Is it believable? Would it actually happen that these men would put their hands together and trace something? The author takes his care to convince us, and I buy it—fully. And yet, if you think about it logically in terms of the world we know, maybe it’s unlikely. That makes the story all the more amazing and all the more unexpected. It would not have worked as well had he been sympathetic to the blind man from the beginning. “Cathedral” makes a leap that might not be entirely credible—and yet it seems perfect, it seems right, it transports the story into another arena.
Every story is organic, and every story finds its own ending. And Ray’s stories—like anyone else’s—are varied in terms of how they find their endings. Personally, I love to find an ending that invites you back into the story rather than closes the story completely. That’s what the last line does, here. When the narrator says “it’s really something,” it tells us that he’s feeling deeply, but it doesn’t tell us what he’s feeling. That’s the beauty of the story: It’s up to us to know what he’s feeling. The reader wonders, well—what does that mean? How is that? And it draws you right back in.
I think the best endings bring you back in, rather than close things off with absolute finality. I’m not saying they necessarily have to be ambiguous, but we don’t always need to know what happens when everyone wakes up tomorrow morning. “Cathedral,” in particular, couldn’t go a beat beyond this. Maybe tomorrow, the narrator will continue to be kind of a jerk. Or maybe he’s going to found the Friends of the Blind Society—it doesn’t matter. It remains mysterious. We don’t know, and that brings us back in.
When I start a story, I don’t know what the ending will be in advance. I very much believe in working organically—that is, I don’t know what the story will be or what’s going to happen. As Flannery O'Connor said, she didn’t know that [in her story “Good Country People”] the Bible Salesman would steal Hulga’s leg until she got there. Even with an author whose work is as uniform as Ray’s, each story is going to work in a different way, find its ending organically, and its structure organically.
This is the beauty of the art of fiction, as opposed to laying out an essay or writing a thriller. You remain open to the possibilities throughout the entire story. When they’re lucky, the artist finds one line, one moment that brings it all together. It’s hard to say how certain stories just punch us in the heart and the brain at the same time at the end. I suppose that’s what we’re all looking for. But each story has its own valence, its own way of saying goodbye to you.
For my new book, The Harder They Come, I had the title and the epigraph before I began writing. I discovered those in the process of research of thinking and reading and seeing things. These bare essentials give me a little framework, just enough structure to hang something on. From there, I just see something and translate it into words and just follow it. I’m not saying that it’s a mystical experience necessarily—although there is certainly that element. At any juncture, you have a thousand different choices as far as word choices, sentence choices, structure, the entrance of character, what characters will do.
We’ve all had days when we’re rewriting and rewriting and it’s frustrating and nothing happens. And then there are days when gloriously it all comes together and just flows out. Over time, your conscious brain discovers—line by line, day by day—where it’s going and what it is and why you’re doing it. And if you’re very lucky, and very happy, you get to the ending of a story like “Cathedral”: You make a magical leap which opens the story out, and then brings the reader back in to wonder about its themes and its characters and what it means.
I only do one draft of everything, and that’s it—though it’s a draft that’s been gone over in the process of writing over and over and over, so that it builds gradually in increments while I make discoveries until the end. I’m not the sort of writer who would shift structure or write scenes out of sequence or anything like that—it just kind of flows as one organic thing. When I’m done, I give the novel a re-read in two or three days, push the button, and send it off.
Each time it’s different. Each story and each book finds its own way I have a questing curiosity—stylistically, and in terms of subject matter—although I think you could look back and see what my themes are and how they keep replaying in various books. While my natural line is longer than Ray’s, I don’t mind taking it up a little bit and trying different things. There are scenes in my first novel, whole chapters, in which I write short, declarative sentences—that can be very, very powerful. Certainly Ray had an influence on me in that way. I had never thought of writing a realistic story in that way, before I read him. But I like to push myself to do different things. In my case, it’s a mixed bag: I do anything I like. While Ray had his own territory and that’s where he stayed and he was great at it.
There are no rules. You do what you do. All we can do is look at a story like “Cathedral” and have a long discussion over what it means to us and how it’s put together. I think that’s what art is about: to provoke you. It helps me make sense of a senseless universe because I become the god of the story. I create it and I see it in all its lineaments in my own way, and can control it—in a world in which everything else is out of control. I’m sure all of us artists feel the same way about art, and this is why it’s so vital to us.