Alice Munro: “Gravel”

07/25/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 27, 2011. (Available for free.)

SUMMARY: “I barely remember that life,” says the narrator, of the kindergarten days in which her mother, in the early days of her third pregnancy, left her husband for Neal, an actor, and his countryside trailer (by a gravel pit) and took up (and subsequently abandoned) a free-spirited livelihood. But certain scars are freshly remembered, particularly those regarding her sister, Caro (“Nothing that the strangely powerful older child does seems out of the ordinary”), and Caro’s rebellious, life-changing choice.

STYLE: First-person, close retrospective, in which an older narrator adapts the language and tone of their younger self. The narrator is so present (in the past), that no event is too overtly foreshadowed, though one could argue that “Gravel,” both in the title and its introduction, suggests too much. The short, clipped sentences and uncertain tone are necessary, too, for we’re talking about sharp memories, and Munro’s greatest success comes from the literal questions the narrator struggles with, asked by an unseen and intruding “professional”:

She told him that the baby was Neal’s.

Was she sure?

Absolutely. She had been keeping track.

What happened then?

My father gave up weeping. He had to get back to work.

CONS: The style can be disorienting, as the narrator’s remembrances are so familiar to her that she often forgets to catch the “reader” up until a later point. We often do this when we tell stories, but in a published work, certain sentences “ring badly out,” like so: “My mother was the one who insisted on calling attention to it: ‘We live by the old gravel pit out the service-station road,’ she’d tell people, and laugh, because she was so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street–the husband–with the life she’d had before.” From which house did they move? In what are they living now? With whom?

Additionally, Neal comes across as a caricature, from his anti-Vietnam gun policy to his “poison Rice Krispies crap” spiels and his penchant for loafing about smoking pot. The mother’s behavior is at least tempered by the ways in which she has changed from her previous, tightly-wound self, to he way she regresses: “The deeper she got into her pregnancy the more she slipped back into behaving like an ordinary mother, at least when it was a matter of scarves we didn’t need or regular meals.” And the father’s absence is part of the story, reflected in Caro’s “tone of voice that suggested that it was none of our mother’s business.”

PROS: Everything else. This is a Munro story, and it’s hard to find a paragraph that’s not telling you something, though you may not realize it at first. Consider the opening description:

At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. Not a large one, hollowed out by monster machinery, just a minor pit that a farmer must have made some money from years before. In fact, the pit was shallow enough to lead you to think that there might have been some other intention for it– foundations for a house, maybe, that never made it any further.

“At that time” gives us the narrative style, “just a minor pit” hints at the innocence of the object, and this whole bit about “some other intention” is a perfect parallel to the mother’s attempts to reinvent herself. There’s a small hole within her, and she’s attempted to make something out of it, but instead ends up stuck, never going any further. To say nothing, of course, of the foreshadowing that occurs when Caro is appalled by the way her dog, Blitzee, goes about hunting squirrels. (This is subtly paired with an encounter with a wolf, later.) She insists “I’m not going to disappear, and I’m always going to look after her,” which could be a dig at either of her parents, and when Neal begins to talk about the inevitability of death, the mother’s deflection — she “didn’t think we were ready for that yet,” and she’s partially right, for our narrator misinterprets gossip as being about the “atomic bun” — seems naive.

There are also a lot of clever divergences between intent and result, beginning with the gravel pit, but extending to the divide between Neal and the mother’s interpretation of “acting”: he enjoys “the giving yourself over, blending with others,” while she wants nothing more than to stand out. He finds everything to be “a gift,” whereas she feels as if she must walk out on “her silver and her china and her decorating scheme and her flower garden and even on the books in her bookcase. She would live now, not read.” (In parentheses, a few pages later, we find out that “She had not given up reading for very long” and note that while “children get used to changes,” adults rarely do.)

The best example, of course, stems from the climax of the story, which sneaks up us thanks to the narrator’s struggles to remember things — especially tragic things:

After a while, I realized that I was being given instructions.

I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and our mother something.

That the dog had fallen into the water.

The dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she’d be drowned.

Blitzee. Drownded.

But Blitzee wasn’t in the water.

She could be. And Caro could jump in to save her.

What does she remember? Not much. “In my mind I can see her picking up Blitzee,” goes one paragraph; “When I dream of this, I am always running” goes another. “What I really did,” however, what she knows, “because it’s a fact,” is that she “sat down and waited for the next thing to happen.” And though a professional person once convinced her — “for a time, she convinced me” — that she must have tried to warn her mother, must have found the door to the trailer locked because — shifting the blame here — the mother was having sex with Neal, she is haunted by the lack of details, the lack of action, the lack of knowledge. This is why the narrative must be from the point of view of a child: if she were older, wiser, this would’ve killed her.

Nor does Munro leave it there. In one more clever twist, our now grownup narrator, encounters Neal, and asks him — “the third person I’d asked” — why Caro had done what she’d done. And in an instant, an accidental drowning in a gravel pit changes into a deliberate cry for help (or a depressed person’s suicide): although the pit seemed shallow, echoes that opening paragraph, there was another intention for it all along, though it wound up never making it any further. “In my mind,” concludes the story, ending where it has begun, in the haunted past and tragic thoughts of the narrator, “Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself, as if in triumph, and I’m still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash.”

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