Alice Munro: “Train”
04/03/2012 § 2 Comments
Originally published in Harper’s, April 2012.
Perhaps I’m just not suited to such long, sprawling short stories, for I find myself once again unimpressed with Alice Munro’s latest, a somewhat non-linear piece that charts the attempts of ex-WWII soldier Jackson to avoid intimacy at all costs. This is really three loosely connected stories; in the first, Jackson jumps off a train and finds himself spending time with an older spinster/farmer named Belle and her pleasant Mennonite neighbors; in the second, nearly twenty years later, a cancer-stricken Belle makes the mistake of revealing the sexual reasons behind her father’s suicide, and so Jackson abandons her in the hospital and becomes the superintendent of a five-story apartment with a predominantly elderly population; finally, after a woman named Ileane drops by, looking for leads on her runaway daughter Candace (who’d skipped out on rent several months before), Munro jumps back to 1940, to reveal that Ileane was Jackson’s first (and only) girlfriend, who, throughout high school and up to Jackson’s enrollment in the military, had managed to “thaw” his shy personality. The overall gist, I guess, is that Jackson is a super-closeted gay man, whose two sexual encounters lead to disaster, and that this is supposed to explain why Jackson chooses to leap from a train rather than return home to unhappily marry Ileane, why he’s so emotionally stunted, but this doesn’t really seem meaty enough to span eleven pages. Making things worse is Jackson’s own comment to Belle, after she reveals that her father was a would-be novelist:
He knew that books existed because people sat down and wrote them. They didn’t just appear out of the blue. But why, was the question…. What puzzled him, though he didn’t intend to let on, was why anybody would want to sit down and do another one, in the present. Now.
Perhaps I’m too critical; part of the reason I stopped writing my own short stories was because I couldn’t justify the need to tell them. But I can’t help wondering, as I read the work of someone as prolific as Munro, why exactly she feels the need to keep publishing. Her voice never really changes — although I enjoy the active present tense she employs here — and her characters, although well-defined, don’t really seem all that different from one another. She writes plausibly, crisply, and knowledgeably, and yet fails to impart any sense of truth, necessity, or knowledge, especially in this piece, which is stripped of almost all metaphor. (This is intentional, I think; there’s an echo of Jackson as “a certain kind of man,” and I think Munro wants to — whether we’ll enjoy it or not — convey this sense of wear on the reader.) There are a few winning lines, here and there (“A soldier and a girl, so suddenly close. Where there had been nothing all this time but logarithms and declensions”), but not a winning plot; Jackson, after all, is a man who has resigned his agency in the world. The train itself, once you get over the wonder of it working at all, is merely a conveyance; the story should be in the destination. In this case, however, there is no destination: the story doesn’t end so much as it makes a fresh stop. “In the morning he got off in Kapuskasing. He could smell the mills, and was encouraged by the cooler air.”
Here’s what I take away from “Train”: (1) avoid the passivity of the passenger, (2) have a solid destination in mind, and (3) endeavor to keep a steady momentum along the way. This latter point is particularly important; feel free to span twenty years, as Munro often does. But if you do, be sure to acknowledge the change in scenery (i.e., character) that so much traveling would do; “Train” stalls out on account of Jackson’s stoic, unflinching demeanor. After all, does the story not begin with Jackson choosing to get off a moving train and to then walk in the opposite direction, cowed first by the sight of a confident snake and then literally by a feisty farm animal?