A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.
Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.
Today’s story, for day fifteen – Train, by Alice Munro
Read it online here:
There is no greater master of the short story than Alice Munro. I’ve pretty much read everything she has written (more or less) and, although I didn’t remember specifically reading today’s entry, Train, once I was a few paragraphs in, I remembered reading it – though it, like all of her work, is complex and subtle enough it was as good the second time around.
As a matter of fact, it is a story that I think needs to be read twice… with a gap of time in between. It is a story that is told in the details – details conveyed in otherwise throwaway lines of text, lines you won’t notice the first time through.
I have been thinking about one aspect of the story – one that bothers me a little. That’s the idea of a coincidence.
A lot of stories have coincidences – old friends meet, an important item goes unseen until it is needed, disparate paths cross…. That’s fine – you can always say, “the coincidence is needed, without the coincidence there is no story.” Coincidences happen.
However, I think that by this rule, you are limited to one coincidence. One coincidence makes a story – two or more make a manipulation by the author trying to drive a plot.
And I think this story might have two.
There is the big, obvious one. Jackson is working at the apartment building when Ileane comes by looking for her daughter. Read the story to find what the connection between the two is – it’s the relationship that drove the opening scene in the story. This sort of time-shifting and echoes happening across entire lifetimes are specialities of Alice Munro.
But, earlier in the story, Jackson stumbles across Belle. They are two of a kind and end up in a strange relationship that lasts decades. The two of them meeting like that might be a second coincidence.
Or maybe not – because if they were not so oddly and tragically well-fitted for each other Jackson would have simply passed by. I guess that is good enough.
Still, that second coincidence stuck in my craw a bit – a tiny flaw in an otherwise wonderful tale. I shouldn’t think about it so much. No use picking nits in the presence of a master.
There was a road running by. A small fenced field in front of the house, a dirt road. And in the field a dappled, peaceable-looking horse. A cow he could see reasons for keeping, but a horse? Even before the war people on farms were getting rid of them, tractors were the coming thing. And she hadn’t looked like the sort to trot round on horseback just for the fun of it. Then it struck him. The buggy in the barn. It was no relic, it was all she had.
For a while now he’d been hearing a peculiar sound. The road rose up a hill, and from over that hill came a clip-clop, clip-clop. Along with the clip-clop some little tinkle or whistling.
Now then. Over the hill came a box on wheels, being pulled by two quite small horses. Smaller than the ones in the field but no end livelier. And in the box sat a half dozen or so little men. All dressed in black, with proper black hats on their heads.
The sound was coming from them. It was singing. Discrete high-pitched little voices, as sweet as could be. They never looked at him as they went by.
It chilled him. The buggy in the barn and the horse in the field were nothing in comparison.
He was still standing there looking one way and another when he heard her call, “All finished.” She was standing by the house.