I’ve been waiting to find another short story in the New Yorker that generated interest in doing some more writing analysis. After going back to some older issues as well as keeping up on the semi-regular delivery of new issues in the mail I finally found an interesting story to look at. Unfortunately, it’s a story by Alice Munro. I say “unfortunately” because it’s intimidating to select the master of the genre to be studying.
As always, this is not a review of the story as a story, but an analysis of how the story seems to me to have been put together, from a writers perspective.
“Axis” appears in the January 31, 2011 issue.
“Fifty years ago, Grace and Avie were waiting at the university gates, in the freezing cold.” This is the opening sentence. We now know 1) that the story may include sections from different points in time, 2) the general time placement of the opening scene, 3) the names of two central characters, and 4) their education situation. But the tag at the end gives a physicality to the setting, some discomfort, and a bit of interest.
The next few paragraphs define the attitudes of Grace and Avie. They are in university to find a husband, and it is understood that to get a job afterward would be a disappointment. When the bus arrives they move to the back so that they can smoke their last cigarettes for the weekend. This emphasizes the separation between their young adult/student life and their home life, something which is always an important issue at that age. It’s odd that their focus at university is to get married because that means heading into their own version of home life. Maybe they expect that their version of married/home life will be different.
The last two paragraphs of the opening are massive in terms of what they establish. When writing fiction it’s important to generate tension and conflict to drive the story forward. In these two paragraphs we learn the following conflicts/sources of tension:
- Sex or not? Grace thinks no, and she believes it keeps her boyfriend Royce interested.
- Grace is in love with Royce, but we suspect that he is not in love with her because it is not explicitly stated and because she is afraid of losing him.
- Grace makes jokes to keep Royce from giving up on her because of her refusal to have sex. She fabricates jokes about Hugo (Avie’s boyfriend).
- Grace doesn’t tell Avie about the jokes, and hopes that she will never find out
- Avie is not in love, but wants to be.
- She thinks that sex might cause her to fall in love so she does have sex with Hugo, but instead she becomes worried about getting pregnant.
- Avie would rather have Grace’s boyfriend
That’s a lot of conflict. Doled out in just two paragraphs.
After the first jump in time it is summer and we see the world from Royce’s perspective. He’s never met Grace’s parents or been on a farm before. We get some direct thoughts from inside his head. His description of Grace’s mother:
… Grace looked nothing like her, thank God. Scrawny, cropped gray hair. She scurried around so, she didn’t ever seem to get a chance to straighten up.
We get to experience his ambivalence toward Grace:
Favorite trees. What next? Favorite flower? Favorite windmill? Did she have a favorite fence post?
And his general ambivalence, just before his epiphany:
One farmer at the end of a ride said to him, “Say, can’t you drive?”
Royce said sure. “Just recently I’ve been driving taxis.”
“Well, aren’t you getting a bit old, then, to be hitching rides? .. aren’t you of the opinion that you should be getting a real job?”
Royce considered this, as if it were a truly novel idea.
He said, “No.”
And another great section, this time from the mother, defining her position as a hostess trying to play up to her guest.
“Royce here is the type to spoil a woman,” she said. “Anybody with him around would be getting the work done whiz-band and then be enjoying ice cream every day. We’d be spoiled.”
# # #
Often when an author chooses the name “Grace” for a character, references to that name pop up. Her description as “fair and stately”. The description by Royce of her house as “so impressive from the outside, had not a scrap of grace or comfort within.” And her eventual fall from grace when caught in bed with Royce by her mother. And then she is bumped around ungracefully. “His movements kicked Grace away from him. He could not help that, hardly noticed it. She had her head buried in the sheets, her bare buttocks now somehow exposed.”
# # #
One last observation.
As always, I did some research and discovered this article by Daphne Merkin from the October 24, 2004 issue of the New York Times. She met with Alice Munro to interview her about her life and her writing. After reading this article and then re-reading the story two links jumped out at me. First, Avie tells Grace her dream about the difficult crying baby that she locks away and then she discovers a second nicer baby. This reminded me of a quote from Munro talking about her own oldest daughter’s portrayal of Alice as a distant mother. She says of her daughter: ”She wasn’t the utter joy of my life she might have been. I was emotionally more open to the second.” I’m not implying that this is the only or even the primary reason for the use of the dream in the story, but the parallel is interesting.
More direct is this one. Royce tells Avie about seeing her on his way to visit Grace. At the time he thought about getting off the bus and stopping to talk to her. Now, fifty years later, he asks,
“Well, if you had known, would you have agreed?” …
Avie doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, yes,” she says.
“With the complications and all?”"
Munro met her second husband when just engaged to her first. She says about with her future second husband,
… “what she really hoped he would do, apparently, was ask her out. ”I wanted him to say something like, ‘When I laid eyes on you . . . ,”’ she explains, her voice trailing off, sounding like one of her own multilayered characters, about to revise the course of her destiny on a dime, without so much as a goodbye to her former life. When I ask whether she would have gone off with Fremlin then and there, she says, simply and unhesitatingly, ”Yes,”
Write about what you know. Avie is not the only one of Munro’s characters to feel this way or to contemplate such things. There’s a lot of Alice Munro in a lot of her characters.
If you’re more interested in reviews of the story as a story, see here.