Saturday, February 26, 2011

Alice Munro's "Axis"

Alice Munro once said that originally she planned to write a few stories to get some practice and then to write novels, but “I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way.”

I have always argued that there is a short story way of seeing “reality” that is different than the novel’s way of approaching “reality.” But, as my current research on authors’ views of the short story suggests, the only ones who seem to agree with me are short story writers. Readers, by and large, especially academic readers, seem reluctant to make generic distinctions between the two forms.

Frank O’Connor once suggested that the short story does not deal as the novel does with problems of the moment, but with what John Millington Synge calls “the profound and common interests of life." The short story, claimed O’Connor, is a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.”

I have suggested in other places that one of the reasons for the short story’s focus on the “profound and common interests in life” is the form’s origins in myth and folklore, which Mircea Eliade has argued, narrates, “primordial events” in consequence of which human beings became what they are today. Myth, says Eliade, teaches human beings the primordial stories that have “constituted them existentially.”

I argued in my previous post that Stephen Millhauser’s story “Getting Closer” was quite clearly a story that dealt with a primordial, universal event about the nature of “happening,” not just a story of the moment about an obsessive young boy who goes on a outing with his family.

My colleague Lee commented on my previous post that he thought “Getting Closer” was a poor story because, as he says:
1. It blasts its message at us.
2. The sensibility at the heart of the story is inauthentic. Nine-year-olds don't perceive the world in this way, seeing death under the 'shining skin of world' (ugh - trite!).

I would agree with Lee if Millhauser meant the story to be a realistic account of the boy’s mind and experience. However, as I tried to show by referring to Keats’ Ode, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (as well as Millhauser’s own opinions about the nature of the short story form), “Getting Closer” is a profound and subtle exploration about the basic notion of things taking place in time—something human beings, both through religion and through art—constantly combat.

Alice Munro’s story seems much more realistic than Millhauser’s. The characters think and act like real people in the real world; the story moves along in time quite naturally, once we move back in time to an event that occurred fifty years before. On a realistic level, “Axis” seems simple and straightforward, recounting an event of some consequence experienced by the two young women in the story.

However, it is my opinion that Munro’s story, in spite of its realistic appearance in contrast to Millhauser’s fantasy, is also about a primordial, universal event that constitutes human beings existentially. One of the things the story is about is the primordial experience of “time,” of which Munro has said:

“Time is something that interests me a whole lot—past and present, and how the past appears as people change.” “Memory,” she says, “is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of.”

“Axis,” which appeared in The New Yorker on January 31, 2011, is, in my opinion, a good example of what Alice Munro calls a “short story way” of perceiving reality; it is also a good example of Munro’s typical short story concern with “the profound and common interests of life,” a primordial event, as Eliade says about story that constitute human beings existentially—a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.”

The story begins by locating two young farm girls—Grace and Avie--in space and time--fifty years in the past, waiting for a bus to take them home from college for summer vacation. They are defined by their gender and their social class—young women, who have enrolled to find a husband, but who may become teachers, which would be a defeat. Grace is fair and voluptuous; Avie is lively and challenging

On the bus Avie tells Grace about a dream in she had a baby that cried and cried until she took her down in the basement and forgot about her; she then has another baby who is easy and delightful. When grown, the second child knows about the abandoned one, but can do nothing about it because the first child has known no other life.

Whereas Avie wants to have sex with her boyfriend Hugo because she thinks it would make him more manly, Grace keeps her virginity intact in order to keep her boyfriend Royce interested in her. Grace is in love; Avie is not. Avie is more interested in Royce.

During the summer, Royce visits Grace on her parents’ farm. On the bus he goes through the town where Avie lives and sees her on the street. She has quit college and Hugo has graduated and got a teaching job; they plan to marry. Royce sees her as lively and pretty and has the urge to get off the bus and not to get on again. But he knows that would get him in a lot of trouble.

Grace has told her parents that Royce has graduated, but the truth is, he walked out on his last exams because he through the questions idiotic.

Royce is obviously not in love with Grace. When she tells him that the Acacia is her favorite tree, he sneers, thinking, does she have a favorite fence post? He is primarily interested in getting her to bed. Royce wonders why she is willing now when earlier there were many opportunities and she drove him crazy with her “vaunted virginity.”

When the family is away from the house, Grace goes to bed with Royce.” He plans to be easy and gentle with her, but, “This notion was on the point of being left behind. She didn’t seem to require such care. When they were “far enough advanced” not to have heard the car, the mother comes into the bedroom and is shocked, but Royce tells her to shut up, gets dressed, and leaves. Grace asks him to take her with him, but he acts as if he does not hear her.

On the road, Royce thinks of what he calls the “insanity” of Grace’s family and how he let himself be drawn into it. He sees a tower of ancient looking rock, which he later learns is the edge of the Niagara Escarpment and is captivated by it. “Why had he never been told anything about this? This surprise, this careless challenge in the ordinary landscape. He felt a comic sort of outrage that something made for him to explore had been there all along and nobody had told him.” At that moment he decides to forgo philosophy and political science and take up geology. Later, he tells people how the sight of the escarpment had turned him life around and only vaguely remembers he had been there to see a girl.

In the Fall, Avie comes to school to pick up some books and runs into a young classmate named Marsha. Both Avie and Marsha had sent Grace letters but had heard nothing from her. Marsha says: “Somebody said she had colitis. That’s when you get all swollen, isn’t it? That would be miserable.” Hugo and Avie had gone camping on Civic Holiday during the first week in August, and she has become pregnant.

Now the story shifts to the present fifty years later. Avie, now in her late sixties, is on her way to visit one of her six grown children. Hugo has been dead a year and a half. Avie has led a domestic life, having skipped all the women’s liberation movement and the liberation of the sixties. “She was what she was, and reading Leonard Cohen wouldn’t be any help to her.”

She runs into Royce on the train. He has never married, is retired, and is on the way to a little fort, about which has written a book. He tells her he remembers that bus trip on the way to see Grace when he saw her on the street and she looked “irresistible.” When he tells her he wanted to get off the bus, Avie keeps repeating, “I never knew.” Royce asks her if she had known, would she have agreed to meet him, and “without hesitation,” she says yes. He asks, “With the complications and all?” and she says yes. His response is: “So it’s a good thing? That we didn’t make contact?” She does not even try for an answer. He says “water under the bridge.” He says he wants to show her something and to wake him up before they reach Kingston. “Not so far off from giving her automatic orders, like a husband.”

As they leave Kingston, Royce tells Avie that there are great slabs of limestone one on top of each other like a grand construction. But in one spot, this gives way and you can see something else. “It’s what’s known as the Frontenac Axis. It’s nothing less than an eruption of the vast and crazy old Canadian Shield, all the ancient combustion cutting through all the limestone, pouring over, messing up those giant steps.” He tells her to remember to watch for it when she comes this way. She says “Thank you. I’ll remember.” He nods again and doesn’t look at her. “Enough.”

In the last section, we move briefly back in time to when Avie’s first pregnancy was well advanced, and she got a brief letter from Grace. In the letter Grace says she has heard that Avie is married and pregnant. Grace says that she dropped out of college, “due to some troubles I have had with my health and my nerves.” She says he remembers the dream Avie told her about the cast-off baby: “It still scares the daylights out of me.”

Avie remembers the conversation with Marsha and the story about Grace’s colitis. “The tone of Grace’s letter seemed off kilter, with some pleading note in it that made her put off answering. She was feeling quite happy at the time”

She asks Royce if he has heard anything from Grace, and he says, “No, why should I?” She says she thought he might have looked her up, but he says “Not a good idea.”

The last paragraph reflects Avie’s understanding of Royce’s response:
“She has disappointed him. Prying. Trying to get at some spot of live regret right under the ribs. A woman.”

I apologize for summarizing the story in such detail, but unless you subscribe to The New Yorker, you may not have read it.

Alice Munro does not title her stories randomly. So after reading the story five times now, I have tried to understand how the title reflects the significance of the story. The usual dictionary definition of an “axis” is a straight line through a body on which the body turns. The axis mundi would, therefore, be the center of the world.

The Frontenac Axis that interests Royce in Munro’s story links the Canadian Shield with the Adirondack Mountains in New York. The Canadian Shield is part of a huge area of water, forest, and igneous rock that occupies 50 percent of Canada’s total land area, stretching in a huge crescent from the Labrador coast, through Québec and Ontario, into the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. The most notable topographical feature of the Great Lakes Lowlands is the Niagara Escarpment, a high ridge of limestone cliffs that runs about 250 miles north from Niagara Falls through the Bruce Peninsula to the Manitoulin Islands in Lake Huron.

Archeology is, of course, concerned with spatial layers that reflect temporal events. Stories are temporal actions that reflect spatial significance. As C. S. Lewis once said, for stories to be stories, they must be a series of events; yet at the same time it must be understood that this series is only a net to catch something that has no sequence, but rather something more like a state or quality. As Victor Hugo once said, "Nothing sequential is applicable to God."

Munro is too smart not to be aware of the contrast between time as being marked by a series of solid layers stacked on each other in space and time being something that constantly moves. The paradox of this stillness that continually moves reminds us of the paradox of the word “still” in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Thou still unravished bride of quietness.” The literary critic Murray Krieger in a famous essay entitled “Ekpharasis and the Still Movement of Poetry” has pointed out that the word “still” means both “not moving” and “still going on.” In the artwork, a “here-and-now” unique concrete action, by means of aesthetic pattern, echo, and repetition, becomes a "forever-now motion." Thus, in the artwork, we perceive both motion and stasis at once.

Although we are temporally caught up in the turn of time, we are trapped like fossils in the spatial layers of the past. It is the short story, in the hands of great artists such as Alice Munro, who, like Stephen Millhauser, takes her cue from William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” As Millhauser says, “think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.


Lee said...

I'm happy to reread the Millhauser short story a third time in order to understand and try to appreciate your view of it, but I'm having trouble ignoring the boy's voice. It is too down-to-earth for me to accept it as essentially symbolic - or perhaps I mean primordial. Obviously, it's possible for a story to function on multiple levels simultaneously, but I would tend to argue that there is too much that is concrete, childlike, and individual about this particular voice which makes it hard to see beyond it. But convince me, do!

And the last paragraphs, with their breathless rhythm, try to rush us forward into a form of epiphany in what I find has become, on the one hand, trite, and on the other, unlikely - again - for a child. Furthermore, why does Millhauser then have to tell us what he means, as though he doubts we'll get it? No matter how symbolic the Boy is supposed to be, he still shouldn't - especially in first person - be inauthentic.

It's a delicate balancing act, moving from the specific to the general, or carrying them both simulataneously, and I don't see that Milhauser is quite up to it here.

Lee said...

Oh, and thank you for the far too generous compliment of calling me a colleague, but I'm really only a novice reader of the short story and a sadly flawed apprentice at writing them. There is no comparison between us!

Anonymous said...

"Profound and common interests of life" and "primordial events" require close reading (as you've suggested). Yes, those guys are right. Ah ha moments that make up a life--that's right too. Those concerns free readers and writers from plots. Dex

Hiroshi Matsuoka said...

I enjoyed reading your comment on "Axis." I am a Japanese and had difficulty understanding "Axis." Thank you. You helped me a lot. Now I can connect Grace's "colitis" and Avie's awful dream. I also understand why Munro used the Niagara Escarpment in her story. It is layers of time and space.

Jerri said...

With this post you just answered the question I would have asked you in "Puzzle the Prof": What on earth was "Axis" really about? Alice Munro stories always annoy me. I have the feeling when I read one that either the characters and their stories are as cold, flat and empty as the plains of Saskatchewan in February -- or a little old hillbilly from West by God is just not bright enough to "get" something written by a leading lady of short fiction like Alice Munro. Although I can't stop reading an Alice Munro story until the last word, I always wonder afterwards why I spent so much time on it. Your post gave me some tools to try again (though "Axis" went into my recycling bin less than a minute after I finished it, so I'll have to find it again to reread it). Thanks for the help!