I read this story this morning and found it interesting for how it handles time. It’s actually a fairly plain-jane story, by Munro standards, but it’s serviceable for a meditation on technique.
The story, told in the first person, opens with the narrator’s father coming out of the woods carrying a boy, the narrator’s friend, who has drowned. The funeral is at their house, and in the crowd the narrator begins to feel some kind of disgust with her parents that she can’t explain: “It could not be understood or expressed, though it died down after a while into a heaviness, then just a taste, an occasional taste–a thin, familiar misgiving.”
After a space break, the story jumps twenty years. The narrator is married to a lawyer and they have two young daughters. The family embarks on a long road-trip from Vancouver, down across Montana, and up to visit their old home in Ontario. Along the way, the narrator and her husband bicker over something small, her not packing lettuce for sandwiches, and they laugh over it. Then this paragraph:
I haven’t seen Andrew for years, don’t know if he is still thin, has gone completely gray, insists on lettuce, tells the truth, or is hearty and disappointed.
That is our only jump forward into the future. Another space break, and we get some back story about their childhoods, enough to know the narrator grew up on a turkey farm, and the husband had a wealthy benefactor, which has created some class friction, both between him and his home and between husband and wife.
They pull over in Miles City, Mont., so the children can go for a swim in a local pool. The narrator thinks about going to a store for a cold drink, but she has a flash of intuition, runs back to the pool and discovers her youngest kid in the deep end while the lifeguard makes out with her boyfriend. The husband jumps over a fence and pulls the kid out–no harm, no foul, though everyone is shaken.
The narrator ruminates on the boy who drowned in the beginning, and comes to define the feeling of disgust as being rooted in the idea that parents sanction death. Once they bring a child into the world, they are sanctioning its death. The story ends with the husband and wife going over the near-drowning, again and again.
What struck me here is that the story could have been written all in the present: road trip, near drowning, safety. It would have been 15 pages and could have made for a lively workshop. Fix this, tighten that. But with the back story of the drowning boy in the beginning, Munro adds another layer altogether, something you would never think to recommend in a workshop discussion. And she bravely jumps from a triggering incident twenty years to a completely different story. The story returns at the end, which gives it some unity (and is perhaps not as bold as, say, “The Bear Comes Over the Mountain,” which I’m remembering makes the same kind of jump without returning at the end).
The heart of the piece seems to have something to do with what the narrator can’t articulate in her childhood, but through an incident later, she gains insight. Unlike the traditional epiphany, the insight here is linked to an earlier incident. Whereas the narrator in Joyce’s “Araby” just needs one moment, Munro’s narrator needs two (at least). I like that complexity, and the further complication of how that insight is related to the narrator’s marriage. We know the marriage is doomed, and we know its downfall is related to unresolved issues from her childhood–maybe something about her inability to connect with people, something about her being cut off. Throughout the story, she looks on life with an ironic remove, and maybe the triggering incident is a way of showing where she developed that ironic remove.
That’s all I really have. Just wanted to note a fine example of an author making a bold leap in time; and to note a story with multiple layers that you couldn’t just inject following a workshop critique. Those layers seem like something you have to discover–maybe you get bored and make a leap, or maybe you have two stories you decide to combine. However it’s done, it seems worth shooting for.