BASS 2013: Alice Munro, “Train” from Harper’s, April 2012

Harper's art by Raymond Verdaguer

Harper’s art by Raymond Verdaguer

The train is out of sight; he hears it putting on a bit of speed, clear of the curve. He spits on his hurting hands, getting the gravel out. Then picks up his bag and starts walking back in the direction he has just covered on the train. If he followed the train he would show up at the station there well after dark. He’d still be able to complain that he’d fallen asleep and wakened all mixed up, thinking he’d slept through his stop when he hadn’t, jumped off all confused.
He would have been believed. Coming home from so far away, from Germany and the war, he could have got mixed up in his head. It’s not too late, he would be where he was supposed to be before midnight. But all the time he’s thinking this he’s walking in the opposite direction.

I love train symbolism, though I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been on a train (not counting the many, many hours spent on Boston subways). Something about the echoes of the past; of watching the world go by; of being close to yet separate from the world at the same time. They’re a natural match for Munro stories – especially this one (available online).

We get hints right from the start that Jackson is avoiding something, some place where it wasn’t too late until he starts walking back the other way, but we don’t find out for quite some time just what that is. When we do find out, we discover that, too, is a symptom of another place he’s avoiding, a place he’s avoided most of his life. Jackson is given neither to memories, nor to introspection; he’d rather light out when things get messy.

And of course with Belle not a thing had to be spoken of. She was — he had found this out — sixteen years older than he was. To mention it, even to joke about it, would spoil everything. She was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man.

I love the way the passage of time is handled in this section: one minute, he’s staying for supper, then he’s staying until December, then he realizes he’s aged and suddenly it’s twenty years later. It takes somewhat close reading to stay on top of it, but it’s a story best read closely anyway.

Given his penchant for avoidance, for moving on, it’s interesting he stays for so long. We don’t need to know the details of what went on between them, because we can imagine it: absolutely nothing, beyond fixing up the dilapidated house and getting through another day. He and Belle are both damaged goods, damaged in ways that we don’t really understand yet, but we come to realize their particular flavors of damage make them ideal companions for each other. That damage is most clearly revealed and emphasized in the suddenness with which he picks up and moves on; the precipitating event doesn’t seem like enough to disrupt a successful twenty year coexistence, which emphasizes its importance even more: she ruined everything.

In the next phase of the story, Jackson performs the same kind of caretaking duties at a small apartment building in the city; a completely different environment, yet the same self-imposed isolation.

Things could be locked up, it only took some determination.

Once more, this stability is disrupted, again by the past, and we finally find out what he was avoiding when he first jumped off that train at the beginning of the story – and we find out where that came from. The roots of Jackson’s damage go deep, which is why the branches spread so wide.

The story begins and ends with trains. I’ve sometimes thought of complicated situations in life, situations so complicated I don’t feel up to dealing with them, as trains: you don’t have to know exactly how to get from one town to the other, you just have to get on the train, and it’ll take you there. Sometimes you must jump off in the middle, though; sometimes your past forces this.

Alice Munro: “Amundson” from The New Yorker, 8/27/12

New Yorker illustration by Paul Rogers

New Yorker illustration by Paul Rogers

On the bench outside the station, I sat and waited. The station had been open when the train arrived, but now it was locked. Another woman sat at the end of the bench, holding between her knees a string bag full of parcels wrapped in oiled paper. Meat — raw meat. I could smell it.
Across the tracks was the electric train, empty, waiting.

I’m developing a much deeper appreciation for Alice Munro, thanks in no small part to Professor Charles May and his blog, Reading the Short Story. As I did when I posted about “Corrie,” I’m going to draw heavily from his expertise and extensively quote his post on this story. Happily, the story itself is available online as well. I love it when the Internet all comes together like this.

[I]n the short story, realistic details are often transformed into metaphoric meaning by the thematic demands of the story, which organize the details by repetition and parallelism into meaningful patterns. – Charles May

We’re introduced to the story with lots of details but little context: the first-person narrator and “another woman” (so we know the narrator is a woman) wait at a train station. Two strong details emerge: the smell of raw meat, and the “empty, waiting” train. I don’t know about you, but I was disoriented. Meat? Who are these women? Is one “empty, waiting” and the other raw meat? Where are they going? Why is she carrying so much raw meat – enough for the narrator to smell it?

My disorientation is perhaps a reflection of the narrator’s (“at first I thought… I couldn’t tell…” as she observes other passengers and the train ride to her destination:

Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark…. And the building, with its deliberate rows of windows and its glassed-in porches at either end. Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds. So still, so immense an enchantment.
But the birch bark not white after all, as you got closer. Grayish yellow, grayish blue, gray.

Nothing looks the same up close, does it?

We finally find out she’s the new teacher at the TB sanatorium. At last, I’m a little oriented in time, space, and purpose – just as the narrator is when the woman with the meat directs her to the appropriate place to check in.

“When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure…” “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.” Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.” – Alice Munro interview with Geoff Hancock, quoted in Reading the Short Story post by Charles May.

I think she’s accomplished that quite handily so far. Disoriented, austere – in a few paragraphs, add dark and windowless – little human warmth; yes, there’s a definite mood here. And, lest we forget – raw meat.

We find out a few other details – the narrator’s name is Vivien “Vivi” Hyde (what an interesting name – “vivi” connoting life and energy, Hyde bringing something entirely different to the party); she meets Mary, teenage daughter of the kitchen manager (presumably the woman with the meat, though I don’t think this is spelled out) – and then we meet Dr. Fox. He has the smug self-importance of the petty bureaucrat, and makes it clear he views Vivien as more of a baby-sitter than a teacher:

Usual notions of pedagogy out of place here. Some of these children will reënter the world or system and some will not. Better not a lot of stress. That is, testing, memorizing, classifying nonsense.
Disregard grade business entirely. Those who need to can catch up later on or do without. Actually very simple skill set of facts, etc., necessary for going into the world. What about Superior Children, so called? Disgusting term. If they are smart in academic way, they can easily catch up.
Forget rivers of South America, likewise Magna Carta.
Drawing, music, stories preferred.

Vivien is not that easily dissuaded (“In the janitor’s cubbyhole, I had seen a globe. I asked to have it brought out. I started on simple geography. The oceans, the continents, the climates. Why not the winds and the currents? The countries and the cities? The Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn? Why not, after all, the rivers of South America?”) but Dr. Fox visits her class and makes a mockery of her. It’s painful to read. Again, I think of the mood being created.

As I see it, Fox’s interference with Vivien’s role as teacher is merely a specific instance of his view that women in general as not quite worthy of their humanity. This becomes one of the major themes, this division between men and women. It’s introduced in the first scene, when Vivien is first on that train: a group of men, sawmill workers, board, and get off a short distance away: “it wouldn’t have been more than ten minutes’ walk,” she notes at the time. It’s one of those little touches that’s easy to overlook on first read (it’s through Prof. May’s blog entry on the other Munro story I read recently, “Corrie” that I discovered this way she has of writing stories that beg for multiple reads).

This pattern plays out between Vivien and Fox – he demeaning her, she accepting it. He invites her to dinner at his house (and a least-effort-possible dinner at that), and they begin an odd affair. Mary, the meat lady’s daughter, is also crushed under Fox’s power-grabbing pettiness when she shows up during a second dinner, vying for attention (Vivien had missed her performance in a school play for the first dinner with Fox, most likely a deliberate scheduling conflict on his part). My thought was that Mary was behaving as the woman scorned, though she’s only 15, and Fox is playing the role of squelching her yet enjoying her continued pursuit. I could easily be wrong about this; it’s kind of outlandish. But there’s something very creepy about the scene. Mary in general is a character laden with significance.

I noticed another men-and-women scene right off the bat:

The coffee shop didn’t have a ladies’ room, so you had to go next door to the hotel, then past the entrance to the beer parlor, always dark and noisy and giving out a smell of beer and whiskey, a blast of cigarette and cigar smoke fit to knock you down. But the loggers, the men from the sawmill, would never yelp at you the way the soldiers and the airmen in Toronto did. They were deep in a world of men, bawling out their own stories, not here to look for women. Possibly more eager, in fact, to get away from that company now or forever.

This creates that “mood” to which Munro referred above, with the male condescension as thick as the cigar smoke. Vivien seems to see the men in two varieties: yelpers, and ignorers. Neither seem particularly fun to be around.

The romance, if that’s what you want to call it, proceeds to a secret engagement that Fox breaks in another stunning scene of details and encounters important not for the events but what they allow to happen in Vivien’s mind and thus in the narration.

The story ends with a flash-forward and a chance meeting a decade later. Vivien is married by then, and enthusiastically claims to be happy though she’s troubled: ” I was having some kind of dragged-out row with my husband, about our paying a debt run up by one of his children.” It’s not uncommon to claim to be happier than one is when one runs into a former love, but the interesting detail here is the phrase, “one of his children.” Not one of her children; we can infer she’s married an older man with children by some other woman, at least one of whom is of sufficient age to be running up significant debts. I’m not sure of the significance of this. Another Fox? Another man who puts her last simply because she is a woman? The best she could do? This would have taken place in the mid-50s, when blended families happened (I was part of one) but were politely discreet. It’s an interesting little detail to throw in so casually – it’s almost hidden – so I think it must have great significance. But of what, I’m not sure.

There’s much more in the story; every paragraph seems to contain a detail that adds a new level to the mix. I should go back and read some of her earlier stories. I’ve always struggled with Munro. Until I started blogging, which forces me to do some research. And, in the process, learn how to truly read. So it’s worth the time spent.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Munro, “Corrie” from The New Yorker

Stonework by Lew French

Stonework by Lew French

“It isn’t a good thing to have the money concentrated all in the one family, the way you do in a place like this,” Mr. Carlton said. “I mean, for a girl like my daughter Corrie here. For example, I mean, like her. It isn’t good. Nobody on the same level.”

Corrie was right across the table, looking their guest in the eye. She seemed to think this was funny.

“Who’s she going to marry?” her father continued. “She’s twenty-five.”

Corrie raised her eyebrows, made a face.

“You missed a year,” she said. “Twenty-six.”

Here’s another one that should be read, not read about. Yet, it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

On first read, I was disappointed: it’s a simple story, and even allowing for that, there’s what seems to be a cheat. But that’s what second reads are for, as explained by Prof. Charles May’s first blog post on this story:

[A]s I have said many times, the real reading of a story occurs the second or third time, not the first—which is merely an internalizing of the plot and character configuration to make the important second reading possible. “What happens next” is not so important in the short story. “What it means and how it means” is everything.

(I’m going to rely extensively on Professor Charles May’s other two blog posts about this story as well. The comments are well worth reading, too.)

It doesn’t always work this way, but in this case, my second read opened up a treasure chest I simply did not recognize the first time I’d read it.

The dinner guest is Howard Ritchie, a (married) church architect Mr. Carlton has hired to fix the Anglican church steeple: “No hope looking to the Anglicans to do anything – they were a poor class of Irish Protestants who would have taken the tower down and put up something that was a blemish on the town.” How that leapt out at me on second read. In fact, there’s a great deal of symbolism about religion in this piece, as well as literature. I don’t believe it’s by accident Corrie has a lame leg, and is reading The Great Gatsby at a crucial point in the plot; Munro alludes to this in her Contributor Notes, in fact. I need to read Gatsby again.

Corrie shows Howard around the estate – her father is pretty much the lord of the fief, owning the shoe factory where everyone works – and tells him she’s about to tour Egypt. She’s ambivalent about the trip; does he think that would be fun?

“I have to earn a living.”

He was amazed at what he’d said, and, of course, it set her off giggling.

“I was speaking in general terms” she said grandly, when the giggling finished.

“Me, too.”

Some creepy fortune hunter was bound to snap her up, some Egyptian or whatever. She seemed both bold and childish. At first, a man might be intrigued by her, but then her forwardness, her self-satisfaction, if that was what it was, would become tiresome. Of course, there was money, and to some men that never became tiresome.

This, too, turns out to be foreshadowing. Or, perhaps more accurately, the germ of an idea.

On her return, Corrie drifts into an affair with Howard, and we learn she is a sort-of-virgin: at fifteen, she took piano lessons, and “had gone along with what the piano teacher wanted because she felt sorry for people who wanted things so badly.” Again, this leaps out on second read as an important aspect of her character.

Then comes the cheat. I’m still undecided; Professor May discusses it at length in his second blog post on secrecy and POV. Howard tells Corrie that Sadie, a former maid at her house, saw him attending a dinner with his wife, and was now blackmailing him:

She said this in a letter…Would his wife be interested in getting this information? was the way she had put it.…

Corrie decides she will pay the blackmail; after protesting too much, Howard agrees, and reveals further details about the arrangements:

[H]e remembered another thing from her letter. It had to be in bills, he said…A postal box was to be taken in Sadie’s name. The bills in an envelope addressed to her, left there twice a year. The dates to be set by her. Never a day late. Or, as she had said, she might start to worry.

Something about this scene struck me as off. The phrasing is odd. Prof. May calls it “free indirect discourse;” I really need to buckle down and do some study on point of view. Whenever it crops up, it’s crucial, and I only have a slippery grasp on the concept, not enough to really think in terms of what kind of discourse a passage is written in. However, I did notice the passive voice, having been scolded so many times for that sin.

Here I will invoke a quote by James Cary from the New York Times Book Review of April 30, 1950, used by Prof. May, who, at age 9, wrote it down on an index card as it seemed important to him (dang, I was reading the Jim Kjelgaard series about anthropomorphic Irish setters when I was 9):

Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’ – Joyce Cary

She wrote a clumsy passage because it needed to be clumsy. What seemed irritating on first read later became evidence of intricate craftswomanship, the touch of a master. I still think it’s a cheat; but I’m only about 53% convinced of it, and even if it is a cheat, I greatly admire the skill it took to pull it off. I don’t have the command of the topic to explain it, so I urge anyone who’s interested to check out May’s second post on secrecy and POV where the passage is examined in detail. I can follow his reasoning; I’m just not at the place where I can own it yet.

I call this a cheat because it feels to me the letter is presented to the reader, as well as Corrie, as fact. Again, I defer to Prof. May; I have some work to do before I can fully grasp the intricacies of narration at work here. In the meantime, I can still admire it, now that I’ve looked at it closely.

Move forward twenty years: two decades of meeting when possible, of Corrie hearing of Howard’s trips to Europe with his family, of his beginning piano lessons (oh, really? Piano lessons, eh?), of the collapse of the shoe business and further isolation of Corrie, of changes to the town (the Anglican church is gone, and another has sprung up) – all of these events are important, each and every one in itself and as an aggregate – and what must be forty or so payments of “ill-gotten gains” to the evil Sadie. Corrie is now working in the library a few days a week, and she’s reading Gatsby when she hears that Sadie has died at age 43. That night she starts several letters to Howard, to tell him the news, that they no longer have to worry: “The days of the Blackmail are over. The sound of the cuckoo is heard in the land.”

She falls asleep, and wakes up.

There’s always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone.

She knows something. She has found it in her sleep.

There is no news to give him. No news, because there never was any.

She’d been set up by Howard as his human ATM, handing him envelopes of cash every six months, never questioning that he passed them to Sadie via postbox… Sadie had nothing to do with this.

This would seem to be the end of the story, but there is yet another twist:

But then there is a surprise. She is capable, still, of shaping up another possibility….She could say a thing that would destroy them, but she does not have to.

What a time it has taken her, to figure this out….

[I]f what they had – what they have – demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay.

May’s view is that Corrie and Howard are not to be seen as individual people, but as paradigms for adulterers; the story itself is a paradigm of adultery. With that in mind, when I read that line about paying, I get chills. Corrie, with no family, no friends, no standing in the community, really has little to lose, whereas Howard, with his family and his career, would indeed pay more dearly.

I’m reminded of a news item I saw about stonemason Lew French (photo of his work shown above), who fits stones together in exquisite harmony; how he would distinguish between the right stone and the almost-right one, between a beautiful one and a nothing stone, when they look the same to anyone else, and ends up with glorious fireplaces, walls, passageways, even a stone cottage, held together by nothing but stones gripping each other like they were created to do so. That’s what this story is, with words, sentences, images, themes, threads, symbols, instead of stones.

But only on second (or more) read.

Alice Munro – “Dolly” from Tin House #52, Summer 2012

Octavio Ocampo: "Forever Always"

Octavio Ocampo: “Forever Always”

There had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Jackson being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time, we had naturally made plans for our funerals (none) and for the burials (immediate) in a plot already purchased. We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out or up to chance.

What a great opening. I’m particularly fond of the use of passive voice in the first sentence – a big no-no – which means it’s very important. And it is, in what it says about this woman, whose name we never learn – an interesting choice, since the other two characters get two names apiece.

She’s 71, a retired math teacher who now writes biographies of Canadian authors who aren’t all that famous. Jackson, to whom she’s technically not married, is a poet and sometimes-lecturer who describes himself as a horse trainer. She isn’t crazy about what she calls his “‘aw-shucks’ persona”, but she understands it: “When you’re busy with horses, people can see that you are busy, but when you’re busy making a poem, you look as if you’re in a state of idleness and you feel a little strange or embarrassed having to explain what’s going on.” I love that; I suspect Alice Munro came up against that all the time, back before she was famous. Maybe even now. Just sitting and thinking isn’t all that respected any more.

She and Jackson have put their plans on hold, however, since he thinks she’s too young to die just yet. They’ll talk about it again in four years.

I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore, in our lives.

He said that we had just had an argument, what more did I want?

It was too polite, I said.

We leave this little scene, which at the time disappointed me. I should’ve trusted Alice Munro.

Months later, Gwen comes to the door selling cosmetics. She’s not exactly the poster girl for the business: “If she hadn’t told me she was wearing makeup, I would have thought her face was a bare as mine. Bare, sallow, an amazing mass of wrinkles.” She’s invited in, and the two women have coffee and a pleasant conversation. There’s an interesting observation around Gwen’s smoking: “Now that she had her cigarette, she appreciated everything.” I quit smoking three years ago, but I understand that entirely; like the idle poet, it’s a tiny, perfect observation.

The woman orders skin lotion, more from sympathy (Gwen’s family is in disarray) than a real desire to look younger. She’s surprised when Gwen actually delivers it some time later, and they have another nice chat about one of the earlier biographies.

When they’ve finished and it’s time to go home, Gwen’s car won’t start, and the garage doesn’t answer the phone; the woman invites her to stay for dinner, of course, and figures she’ll need to stay the night. Jackson arrives home, and is also unable to get the car started.

And then the twist:

She and Jackson were struck at the same time.
“Oh my Lord,” Gwen said.
“No, it isn’t,” said Jackson. “It’s just me.”
They stood halted in their tracks. How could they have missed it? It would not do to spread their arms and fall upon each other, so instead they made some strange disconnected movements, as if they had to look all around them in order to be sure this was reality. They said each other’s names with tones of mockery and dismay. Not the names I would have expected them to say, either.
“Jack.”
“Dolly.”
After a moment I realized that Gwen, Gwendolyn, could indeed by teased into Dolly.
And any young man would rather be called Jack than Jackson.

Notice the “young man.” There’s no question, in the woman’s mind, this is someone from Jack’s youth. Everyone has an ex, several exes; running into one in your own living room sixty years on is a pretty strange event. But that isn’t the half of it.

But I did know, in a highly celebratory way, about her two weeks with Jackson, and so, as I have said, did many others. At least if they read poetry. They knew how lavish she was with her love, but they did not know how she’d believed that she couldn’t get pregnant because she’d been a twin and wore her dead sister’s hair in a locket around her neck. She had all kinds of notions like that….This wasn’t all in the poem, of course. I had badgered him into telling me things, and was privately unenthralled. I knew how men are charmed by stubborn quirks, by idiocy, if the girl is good-looking enough. Of course that’s long gone out of fashion. Or I hope it has. All that delight in the infantile female brain.
But the girl I had teased out of Jackson might, of course, be his creation, as much as the girl in the poem. Somebody Gwen or Dolly wouldn’t recognize.

It isn’t exactly Dante and Beatrice, but it’s a pretty cool setup. A bit of craziness ensues as the woman comes unhinged, and the next day, runs away from home. A different kind of Runaway. She mails a letter to Jackson – one of those letters one should write but never send, alas – but comes to her senses soon after and returns home.

Strange. In the middle of my rage, it had seemed as if we had gotten time back, as if there was all this time in the world to suffer and complain. Or make rows, if that was what you wanted to call it. Whether or not we could spare the time for that had never come into it, no more than it would have done if we were thirty….
I would have to be on the lookout for the letter I had written him. What a joke it would be – well, hardly a joke – if I should die in the meantime.
That made me think about the conversation we’d had earlier in the fall, and our notion of being beyond all savagery and elation.

Some of the story lines didn’t quite make sense, but then again, that’s how people are sometimes. As I read, it all felt completely authentic; even as I marvelled that the woman overreacted the way she did, I never for a moment doubted that she did exactly that. And of course her overreaction was, perhaps, more of an affirmation of the promise that life might not yet be completely over, that surprises can still await us even at 71 years of age.

Even though it’s slightly forced, I greatly appreciated how the circle was closed at the end by bringing it back to the beginning; I’m very fond of circular structure. I’m also fond of the writerly details, such as the notion that it might do to consider carefully who gets immortalized in one’s work.

Alice Munro: “Haven” from The New Yorker 3/5/12

New Yorker photograph by Grant Cornett

New Yorker photograph by Grant Cornett

I had not approved of my parents’ going to Africa. I had objected to being dumped – my word for it – with my aunt and uncle. I may even have told them, my long-suffering parents, that their good works wer a load of crap. In our house we were allowed to express ourselves as w liked. Though I don’t think my parents themselves would ever have spoken of “good works” or of “doing good.”

In some ways, this is the mirror image to Claire Keegan’s “Foster” from two years ago. Instead of a girl sent from a cruel home to a kind one where she learns what it is to be loved, the unnamed girl in Munro’s story is sent from an “open” 70s home – expressing yourself, self-determination and freedom, chili in clay pots – to a restrictive and regulated place with her Aunt Dawn and Uncle Jasper. She doesn’t see her aunt as being particularly burdened by this atmosphere, however:

She was used to holding back until she was sure that my uncle had said all that he meant to say. Even if I spoke to her directly, she would wait, looking at him to see if he wanted to do the answering. What she did say was always cheerful, and she smiled just as soon as she knew it was O.K. to smile, so it was hard to think of her as being suppressed. Also hard to think of her as my mother’s sister, because she looked much younger and fresher and tidier, as well as being given to those radiant smiles.

My mother-in-law was like that. I had no trouble at all thinking of her as suppressed. Then again, I was older.

The girl doesn’t really think of herself as being subjected to any kind of restriction:

When I got better acquainted with my new school and with the rules about what girls there did after they reached their teens, I realized that biking was out of the question….

She was right, both a bout my acquiring a few friends and about the way that that would limit the things I could do.

In fact, she find it quite nice to live in a house nicely kept by Aunt Dawn, and to sleep on sheets hung out in the sun to dry rather than being sent to the Chinese laundry – or, as Uncle Jasper bellows, “Chinks.” My father was like that. Children, even thirteen-year-olds, have a remarkable way of adapting to pretty much anything as normal. And there is a theory that adolescents long for structure and limits, which is why they rebel, to be sure those limits are in place. She comes to enjoy living in the haven Aunt Dawn has created for Uncle Jasper:

“Haven” was the word. “A woman’s most important job is making a haven for her man.”
Did Aunt Dawn actually say that? I don’t think so. She shied away from statements. I probably read it in one of the housekeeping magazines I found in the house.
Such as would have made my mother puke.

The events turn around Jasper’s estranged sister, Mona, a violinist touring with a trio. She’s giving a concert on the night Jasper has a medical association meeting, so Dawn invites her, and the neighbors, over for dessert. She doesn’t want Jasper to know. To the girl, she seems to be having a grand time – “..it certainly looked as if she were excited about something. Perhaps just about being personally responsible for these moments, this spread of delight…” – when Jasper arrives home. There’s an awkward scene where he noisily eats a bowl of pork and beans as they leave. I’m guessing he has some resentment towards his estranged sister for pursuing a musical career. Or, most likely, any career. For not being controllable. He punishes Dawn for some period of time:

After our conversation about music, Uncle Jasper’s attention to me became more respectful…. Once, he said that it was a pleasure to have an intelligent person to talk to across the table. My aunt said yes, it was. …Life was hard for her, but by Valentine’s day she was forgiven…

A few months later, Mona dies, and the funeral is to be in the family church. Dawn, looking radiant in lilac – “A thorn had been removed. A thorn had been removed from Uncle Jasper’s side, and that could not help but make her happy” – drives up with the girl, who’s never been to a funeral and has some trepidation about “the Last Look.” Jasper comes later and creates a scene rearranging things to suit him – substituting his own organist and hymn, which Dawn does not sing – then finds himself cornered by the altar as the choir comes in. Hoisted by his own petard, as it were. Out of control, and unable to punish anyone for it. It hardly seems like enough.

But that’s just the story. The way it’s told is another matter.

The unnamed girl, the narrator, is both observer and participant. She’s affected by the change in her living situation, yet the story is mostly about Jasper and Dawn. I suspect the girl’s degree of participation is necessary to establish that she is not a fully reliable narrator, that her interpretation of events is naive as she does not understand the passive-aggressive and narcissistic uncle’s methods. It’s quite annoying to see her take the role of her uncle in some ways, enjoying the fruits of Dawn’s labors without contributing anything to those efforts. If she had to do the work to maintain the house she comes to enjoy, maybe she’d feel differently about it. Chili in clay pots might not look so bad once she’s had to bake the delicate cookies and wash the multitudes of flatware and linens.

My real annoyance, however, comes from the tense shifts. During scenes of particular intensity, such as the dessert party or the funeral, Munro shifts into present tense – but peppers it with “flashlight voice” recollections that muddy the waters. Here’s an example:

The pianist is sitting with her hands quiet on the keys, and the cello player has stopped. The violinist continues alone. I have no idea, even now, if that was the way the piece was supposed to go or if she was flouting him on purpose. she never looked up, as far as I can remember, to face this scowling man. Her large white head, similar to his but more weathered, trembles a little but may have been trembling all along.

Maybe this serves as a transition to the girl-today, but it’s distracting to me. Assuming the object of present-tense in these scenes is to increase the immediacy and effect of being lost in a recollection of particular power, flopping around like that draws me completely out of the scene, out of the story, and nullifies the effect. Add to that, my annoyance at the girl for acceding so readily to her uncle’s world-view:

Some of my ideas had changed during the time iu had been living with my aunt and uncle. For instance, I was no longer so uncritical about people like Mona….Devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous.
I don’t mean that I was won over to Uncle Jasper’s way of thinking entirely – just that it did not seem so alien to me as it once had.

I found myself annoyed with this story overall. Especially now. And as always, I wonder: is that perhaps the point?

Nah.

Alice Munro: “Leaving Maverley” from The New Yorker, 11/28/11

New Yorker illustration by Jean-Francois Martin

New Yorker illustration by Jean-Francois Martin

He said that he didn’t get too involved in the movies…He seldom followed the plots.
“Plots,” she said.
He had to tell her what that meant – that there were stories being told…He was called upon not to tell any specific story – which he hardly could have done anyway – but to explain that stories were often about crooks and innocent people and that the crooks generally managed well enough at first by committing their crimes and hoodwinking people singing in nightclubs (which were like dance halls) and sometimes, God knows why, singing on mountaintops or in some other unlikely outdoor scenery, holding up the action.

For me, this story was like a train ride during which I was so intrigued by the person I was speaking to when I boarded, then so engrossed in the magazine I had with me, then so amused the tale the conductor told as he punched tickets, then so surprised by the unusually tasty sandwich (Avocado! Westphalian ham! Brie! Mustard greens! Thick crusty multigrain bread!) served in the dining car, and so soothed by the music leaking from the earbud of the kid sitting next to me, that I was surprised when I got to my destination – “What, here already?” And when I go to explain why I enjoyed the trip, it all falls apart, because, well, the pleasures were very small and self-contained, and I find I am not sure how to explain it all.

So many scenes in this story worked beautifully, with details that conveyed volumes, such as in the above quoted scene where Ray explains movies to Leah, who’s never seen one. But as a story, overall, I was slightly disappointed.

At some points I felt it was about sowing what you reap. Ray tempted his English teacher wife away from her first husband, also a veteran of WWII and of higher rank in fact, and ends up watching her die for many years as she contracts pericarditis. Leah, young and sheltered movie ticket-taker, forbidden to watch or listen to any of the movies, suddenly defies her hyperreligious family and runs off with the minister’s son, only to find herself married to a drug addict, and when she fools around with the minister (which she may or may not actually be doing; it’s the perception of the town) she ends up losing her child. Ray and Leah end up in the same place together many years later. So there’s some hint that this is a happy ending, meaning it’s more about “everything will be all right in the end, so if it isn’t all right, it isn’t the end yet.” But the story itself ends before we find out.

It almost has a fairy-tale prosody to it. Not that there’s anything in any way fantastical or whimsical about any part of the story, but it’s pretty much straight plot point after plot point, with little musing or connecting of the dots. I’m usually a big fan of musing, but it worked for me anyway. I was connected to the story telling, and all the little threads accumulated. How interesting that Ray’s wife contracted a heart ailment. Cloistered Leah and the minister’s son who falls from grace. Many details carry the story along and make it more than just a recitation of events.

This story convinced me to get back on the horse and start writing about what I was reading again, so it touched something in me. I don’t really seek out Alice Munro stories, so I’m glad The New Yorker includes one from time to time. And I’m always glad to see actual short stories, a whole string of short stories lately, instead of novel excerpts.

Alice Munro: “Gravel” from The New Yorker, 6/27/11

Photograph: Tierney Gearon, “Untitled” (1999 )

In this new house, which was really a trailer, my sister, Caro, and I had narrow cots, stacked one above the other. When we first moved there, Caro talked to me a lot about our old house, trying to get me to remember this or that. It was when we were in bed that she talked like this, and generally the conversation ended with me failing to remember and her getting cross. Sometimes I thought I did remember, but out of contrariness or fear of getting things wrong I pretended not to.

This story (available online) snuck up on me. Several times, in fact. I love the way things were revealed. We’re given the fact that Neal is an actor and a few sentences later that Mom liked to usher and we know it’s just a matter of time before we found out about the baby. Then we have a lot of stuff about Caro and the dog – Blitzee hunting hedgehogs, her taking him back to her old house – before we get to the main event at the gravel pit. Still, I was surprised how it played out; I didn’t know Caro was dead until the narrator talks about what she may or may not have done at the time (if Caro had been alive, she would’ve found out before now). Partner Ruthann is likewise a surprise, as is Neal getting back in touch, but it makes sense. I think this is what they’re talking about when they say that every step of a plot must be surprising but seem inevitable at the same time.

I get the narrator’s patchy memory. Confused child narrators are a favorite thing of mine – though I tend to stick to teenagers who are confronted with events they don’t think are quite normal but can’t ask anyone about without looking stupid (they think). I have a patchy memory myself (I’ve tried to convince many therapists I wasn’t abused, I just had a confusing childhood with lots of moves and changes and parents who believed that no explanation was the best explanation). So it’s easy for me to see how this little girl might have missed a few things. And of course the day of the drowning, she had a lot going on in her head. And there’s the monster-under-the-bed theory, that preference to not look too closely at something that is probably dark and slimy. She’s been taught avoidance all her life, though she’s convinced she’s being pretty honest. And I believe her – as far as she has the volition.

I like the title, too. “Gravel” of course refers to the gravel pit where the central action of the story takes place. It’s a word that contains a lot of other words. “Grave,” for instance. And “gavel,” a little symbol of judgment. And “ravel,” which happens when the warp and woof come undone and loose ends turn into a mess. I’m probably over-reading here. Chances are it’s just a gravel pit.

I’ve always been a little leery of Alice Munro, but this is the second New Yorker story I’ve enjoyed. Maybe it’s time to give her another chance.

Addendum (before the fact addendum, since I have not published this yet but it has been “cooking” for a couple of days): I just read a wonderful article by Marko Fong on the use of first person past tense in fiction and how it can effectively use a memoir voice to keep the timeline straight – by acknowledging two characters in two different time periods. As soon as I read his article, I thought of this story, as well as Tessa Hadley’s “Clever Girl“, Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cat’s Table” to name just a couple of recent reads. In fact, the Ondaatje story starts out in third person, with even the first person narrator regarding him as another character, illustrating Marko’s point exactly.

Alice Munro: “Axis” from The New Yorker, 1/31/2011

I’m giving this short shrift. There are reasons. Never mind what they are.

Two couples. One Escarpment, one Axis. Coitus interruptus. A strange dream. And a strange shift of POV in the last paragraph.

Royce is so traumatized by Grace’s mother walking in on their inaugural shtupp that he changes his field of study from philosophy to rocks, and never marries? And 50 years later he is still bitter about women looking for regret in him.

I see a lot of symmetry in this – Royce hitchhikes and explains to the truck driver his lack of a car and first sees the Niagara Escarpment which changes his life’s work, then later takes the train and again explains himself as wanting to see the Frontenac Axis. He sees Avie unexpectedly on both trips. Both halves end with bitterness towards Grace’s mother, which baffles me; it’s one of those things, but it enrages him. He treats Grace and her family rather poorly, ignoring her after her mother walks in on them, and treats Avie the same way when he sees her later. Symmetry is part of some definitions of an axis.

Much is unexplained. Grace disappears from the story – why? What happens to her? She drops out of college due to health issues, writes Avie a letter and gets no reply, is she the daughter who is locked in the basement unheard, and Avie the daughter who says “Nothing to be done”? Would Royce have been just as big a boor with Avie as he was with Grace if he’d taken that route? Royce is pretty self-centered; is he his own axis?

An intriguing story, engrossing reading. I’ve always felt Alice Munro was a little tedious but this moved right along.

Addendum: This story appears in BASS 2012. In reading my notes, I find it hilarious that I was still impatient with Alice Munro at the time I read this. I’ve learned a lot since then: “Corrie” and “Amundson” are among my favorite stories (and “Dolly” wasn’t half bad), and I hope to see them represented in 2013 prize anthologies. I’m going to have to stop ragging on Alice Munro. Retroactive apologies.