Friday, January 28, 2011

Short-a-Day: Alice Munro's "Axis"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 31, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 91.

One of the many nice things about Alice Munro as a writer, beside her effortless ability to sculpt recognizable characters, is that she welcomes surprise. "Axis" is only a seven page story, and yet in that span, she covers fifty years in the life of Avie, detours to explore the relationship between Avie's friend, Grace, and her brief relationship with Royce, and also throws in a bunch of details about what it was like for farm women to attend college (where most simply looked for a good husband) and adds a cryptic dream sequence involving the entombment of a troublesome baby: "'Nothing to be done,' this lovely, kind girl [the second daughter] said. The abandoned daughter knew no way of life but the one she had and, anyway, she did not cry anymore; she was used to it." There's the sense that, while Munro is grounded enough to always stick with the small dramas, such as a parent catching you in flagrante delicto, the story itself might veer off in any direction, at any time, while at the same time maintaining that these departures will not merely be scenic; indeed, the end of the story, a chance encounter between Avie and Royce, braids all those supposedly loose ends together. 

He remembered whispering to Grace the day before when they were doing the strawberries, kissing under the rush of cold water when her mother's back was turned. Her fair hair turning dark in the stream of water. Acting as if he worshipped her. How at certain moments that had been true.

Munro understands, ultimately, that life is a collection of moments, and a story is merely a subset of a life, the odd linkage of several disparate moments and whatever conclusion we might draw from all that. The title of the story, "Axis," refers to the Frontenac Axis: "It is nothing less than an eruption of the vast and crazy old Canadian Shield, all the ancient combustion cutting through the limestone, pouring over, messing up those giant steps." It is an image, best seen while traveling via train, and gone all too fleetingly, and one which Royce shares with Avie; it can change your life and send you veering in a new direction, as one breathtaking sight suddenly turned Royce into a geologist, or you can blink, sleep through it, miss it forever. No wonder, then, that Munro chooses to slow down, to consider what may have been in yet another view from a speeding vehicle, this time, fifty years earlier, as Royce sees Avie:

"The bus had to pass the town where Avie lived, and by chance from his window he saw Avie, standing on the sidewalk of the main street, talking to someone. She was full of animation, whipping her hair back when the wind blew it in her face.... She looked carefree, and in immensely good spirits--prettier, more vivid, than he ever remembered seeing her before. He had an urge to get off the bus and not get on again."

No wonder, then, that the story ends with Royce asking Avie, fifty years later, if she would have agreed to go on a date with him, even though he was dating her best friend, even though she was dating the man she would later marry and have six children with. She would have. And in that moment, everything changes.

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