As we are in the ninth inning, the home stretch, of my month of short stories we come across Alice Munro. She is the master – the best of the best.
I have been voraciously reading Alice Munro for decades now… and she should be in my list of writers that I have read everything – but she writes so much (all short stories) that there is always more. Most of what she writes shows up first in the New Yorker – she is the quintessential New Yorker fictioner.
What she does is magical. Read her stories and pay attention to how she plays with time. There is usually several different time planes going on – complex, yet made clear by careful attention to detail. The story is often told by illuminating subtle changes in a character between fictional scenes that take place on different sides of a shift in the story. Often times this shift is never actually shown or described… merely inferred from what has scarred or uplifted (or both) the characters before and after. There are subtle connections across time and place – you have to look closely to figure them out – but they resonate deep in your mind as you read.
Today’s story, Passion, is pure Munro. A woman is looking back over a critical period of her life – how critical it was and in what way isn’t clear until the final sentence.
I didn’t do this on purpose – but it is very interesting to compare this story to yesterday’s – The Garden Party. Both are tales of class differences. But Passion – the Munro story – is the opposite… a mirror image, of Mansfield’s The Garden Party.
In this one, the protagonist is a poor girl that stumbles into contact with the wealthy. However, as occurs in yesterday’s tale – once in the other’s camp she is exposed to death, and is changed in complex and subtle ways. Both women (both about the same age) are smart, resourceful, and perceptive beyond their years and expectations and are relied upon to help keep things going smoothly. However, both learn that the world is a harder, more complicated, and dangerous place – with darkness, passion, and beauty all wrapped up and twined, twisted, and knotted together.
The wealthy Traverse family in today’s story is not as isolated or as heartless as the Sheridans in yesterday’s – but they are every bit as flawed and are quietly doomed.
Munro spells out this doom without embellishment or symbolism – she simply tells the story – with great skill. It’s perfect. It’s why she is the best.
She had thought that it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what she’d been working toward at all. She had seen deeper, deeper into him than she could ever have managed if they’d gone that way.
What she saw was final. As if she were at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing that it was all there was.
It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction, like everything else, from the thing that was waiting, no matter what, all the time.
—-Passion, by Alice Munro