Thursday, June 26, 2008

The New Yorker: "Deep-holes" by Alice Munro

I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that only diehard Munro-heads are going to love this one. That doesn’t include me, as much as I usually admire her work. Here we have Sally, married to Alex, and they are parents to Kent, Peter and Savanna. Most of the action of the story involves a family celebration—Alex is a geologist and he’s just published his first solo paper—in some landscape that is geologically significant. Alex is odd—he doesn’t like that Sally is still breast-feeding Savanna because he is somehow embarrassed by it. There is an accident that injures Kent severely and although Alex rescues him, their relationship, which probably wasn’t going to be good anyway, is affected for years. Time speeds up: Kent goes to college and is rarely heard from; Alex dies; Peter and Savanna go to college also. And then suddenly, by accident, Sally and Kent are in touch with one another again. They meet, Sally gets a glimpse into his life, but she refuses to blame herself, or anyone else, for the way things have turned out. She even has some hope for the future.

And good for her. I like Sally a lot and her attitude at the end of the story is admirable. But wait, how did we get there? First, Peter and Savanna have disappeared from the story as much as Kent did from Sally’s life. They were, it seems, plot devices, and otherwise unnecessary to the story. And then why is Kent the way he is? Because of the accident? Because of what Sally taught him about remote islands while he was recovering? I believe that Kent might have disappeared the way he did, but I can’t imagine Sally wouldn’t have done more to try to find him. Or, having failed at that, wouldn’t have had a greater internal conflict about what caused him to take the road he did. In the end, she’s mostly thinking about herself—which is exactly Kent’s point about people—although is that who she was as a younger woman? It didn’t seem that way to me. Was she over-protective for her own good, or for the boys’? Did she breast-feed for her own sake? Or Savanna’s?

On a technical note, what’s the deal with the tense shifts? The story begins in simple past tense—story present, basically: “Sally packed devilled eggs . . .” They go on their picnic and that’s still in past tense. Then, suddenly, we shift into present: “But here she is, still letting Savanna and the milk jugs dominate the picnic. The Kool-Aid is poured, then the champagne.” And we stay in present tense through Kent’s accident, until we shift back: “He was alive.” And we stay in past tense then through the fast move through time, the discovery that Kent is in Toronto and Sally’s going there to meet with him, their tense reunion. Until the end of the story, when she leaves him in the city to go back home, and then we shift back into present: “Sally gets lost, then finds her way.” (Some nice irony in that line, since Kent appears to have been lost and, maybe, has found his way.) And then we’re in present until the last paragraph.

I could concoct some explanation about the turning points of the story—Sally’s moments of self-realization—being in present tense in order to make them more immediate. And I’ll accept that explanation or some other because I’m sure that Munro—possibly the greatest living short-story writer—did this on purpose. But whatever the reason for these tense shifts, I think they detract from the story’s impact.

I could go on and so why not. I also don’t like the story’s structure. Maybe it is too trite to say, but I think it covers too much time. I think (although maybe I’m being too much of an MFA here) that the story would be far more successful if it began at the moment that Sally is watching the Toronto fire on TV and Savanna calls to ask if she’s seen Kent. We could then hear all about Kent and Alex and the picnic (also, I’d ditch Peter, who serves no purpose in the story) in flashback. Because the real story is the meeting between Sally and Kent. That’s where the tension is and that’s where I’d like to see the focus. Hah. I can’t believe I’m telling Alice Munro how to rewrite her story. But, seriously, that’s what I would do.

One more thing. I looked at the title (DEEP-HOLES) and I asked myself, “Why the hyphen?” So I laughed out loud when Sally sees the sign at the geological site that says “Caution. Deep-Holes,” And then: “Why the hyphen? Sally thought. But who cares?” And really, who cares?


June 30, 2008: “Deep-Holes” by Alice Munro


Elizabeth M. said...

I started to read it, then just kind of skimmed to the end to see how it came out. Alec was the character who intrigued me -- why so much needless conflict with his family? Why so rigid? But then he died and I didn't care after that.

Elizabeth M. said...

Sorry -- Alex, not Alec.

Mark Richardson said...

I found your analysis interesting. I really enjoyed the story. One of the things I liked about it was the long time span. I think your suggestion is too "MFA." Do all the stories these days have to be the same? The shifts in tense are curious. Finally, in my book, Tobias Wolff is the greatest living short story writer.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm afraid you're right about my suggestions being too MFA! I worry about this now. On the other hand, editors seem to approach submissions in the same way. I also published a story that covered a long time span, but not everyone liked that aspect of it.

Wolff definitely is a great short story writer. I think I share your preference for him.

Anonymous said...

You're wondering why Kent turned out the way he did? First look to the father.

The father in the story, Alex, is cold and heartless. Munro gives us lots of clues in his thoughts and speech: The time Alex starts to say he wishes Kent had died the day he fell, but his wife, Sally, stops him from saying it. The way everything to do with human emotion "gets on his nerves," especially Kent's way of revering him as a hero. And his response to his son's admiring love: "Christ, I'd have rescued anybody." Alex's perspective that if a man (in this case his son) has no interest in sex, then he has no reason to earn a living, and thus be able to "pay for your steady sex and the consequences." It's clear that "the consequences" are family. (Kent is a man of stone, a geologist.)

After Kent disappears, Alex is able to predict what's become of Kent because they are so much alike. [Alex having already implied he would not have had a family if he'd had no need for steady sex. He says it, instead, of Kent.] His whole life, both before and after the accident, Kent received nothing that resembled love from his father; he got a combination of low-grade revulsion and what used to be called 'benign neglect'. Kent does not feel loved by his father until the accident. He tells himself that his father loves him enough to save him. Of course Alex puts that theory to rest, at least with his wife, and would have with Kent has well if she'd not intervened.

Yet Kent so reveres his father that he wants to be like him -- he wants to "save" people. He refers to himself as "reborn" (resurrected?) and takes a biblical name. [The story of Jonah is pretty revealing as far as his character is concerned, if you get beyond the belly of the great fish and read about Jonah's bitterness at fulfilling God's plan for him.] But he cannot change his nature. He saves people without loving them -- or anyone. Kent, now Jonah, says to his mother, whom he now calls Sally, "I'm not saying I love you. I don't use stupid language." He then tells his mother that he rejects not just love, but personal relationships (he avoids them). It is here his mother finally sees her son's behavior as Christ-like, not in his efforts to save people, but in his denial of her as his mother. She quotes Jesus saying, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" It's an often ignored passage in the bible, Jesus's heartless denial of his own mother, one that doesn't jibe well with the all-loving Savior image most people have of Jesus, but Sally knows it by heart. She knows exactly how cold men can be, even ones that claim to love you enough to marry you, even the ones you give birth to and raise with love and compassion, even the ones who are supposed to be the light of the world.

As an aside: I disagree with you, Clifford. This story is amazing, on par with any of the great short stories of the last 100 years.

Anonymous said...

Correction: In my previous post I wrote that Kent is a geologist, but of course I meant Alex.

Heather said...

The story was okay, but it seemed to peter out at the end. I was still reeling from the article about itching and the woman who scratched through her skull. Ewww.

Cezarija Abartis said...

Yes, Cliff, you're right about the tense shifts, though I wasn't much bothered until my husband pointed them out. I was probably skimming, like Elizabeth.

My problem with the story was that it felt like it was right there on the surface. I wanted something deeper to this "Deep-holes." I wanted surprise as well as inevitability. I felt that what I experienced was obvious and inevitable--here are people in a family and they fall into deep holes of separation and lack of communication.

Maybe Elizabeth is right to wonder about Alex's character, to want more. Or maybe more about Kent and Sally as, I think, Cliff suggests.

I don't know what would have made the story work for me in a more profound way.

Unknown said...

Paul E. wrote to ask about the "Blanche" reference in the story. Kent writes to his parents that he, like Blanche, is "just passing through." Blanche, of course, is Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire and the "passing through" line is a famous line in the play (although I had to look that up to confirm it). The father, Alex, doesn't get the joke. Sally pretends to, or maybe she actually does. Paul doesn't think she gets it and although at first I thought she did, I think Paul is probably right. Any other thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

Initially, I did not like the story, mostly because I did not like the family. Anonymous makes some very good points, especially Alex being a man of stone. However, I found Sally to be compliant with Alex's detachment and need to control to the detriment of her family. I must confess that I was married to someone like Alex, their self-absorption does not make for good fathers.

Anonymous said...

We've been talking about this story on another forum. One of the other people reminded us of the similar theme in a story from Munro's collection, Runaway, entitled "Silence." There are actually 3 stories in that collection dealing with the same characters, "Chance", "Soon", then "Silence." Together, they could be a novella and, because of the length, perhaps give more clues.
I am probably one of those diehard Munro-heads. Once again in this story she is a master at describing the small details of interaction in relationships, the ones that cause you to look away in reality. But, she never flinches.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a great story. I don't know why exactly. I was very curious about Kent and and his mother-- in the end I think they had a relationship that was very poignant and I felt the mother cared very much for Kent. Maybe she knows somehow that she can't help him and that it is like he is on one of those remote islands. I can't say I understand it. It made me think and I like that.

Anonymous said...

Despite being an avid Munro fan, this story disappointed me. Found myself skimmming in the hopes of being yanked back into the story's suspension of belief, but all the way to the end this never happened; the story never quite held me. For me, the story's unfolding, inner logic, and charcterizations were filled with deep-holes.

Anonymous said...

I just read this story and don't quite understand. I wonder if it is possible that since the accident Kent has had some kind of wield phobia to holes. To him, everybody is in the hole. So he escaped the family, lived "in present", and tried not to touch all the "meanings" in the life. During the picnic his father descibed how erosion caused the formation of the crevasses in the long geological time. He is tring to keep himself out of all the holes. (Is that reasonable? )

Clasico said...

This brilliant story is obviously about King Oedipus.

Anonymous said...

I just read this story and have to say that I agree with just about everything in the Anonymous comment on 6/28/08 at 9:03 am. Another Anonymous asked on 8/6/08 about the holes. I think that it's pretty clear that Kent's accident (falling into the hole and then being pulled out of it) is a symbolic rebirth. Munro even notes that some of the holes are "the size of a coffin." And of course Kent reveals at the end of the story that he wanted to call himself Lazarus. The change in his personality only occurs after his "rebirth" (i.e., the accident).

Some people asked about the change of tense, which I think is very noticeable. My only additional thought there is that Kent claims to live in the present, not the past, so Munro apparently wants us to be aware of temporal relationships and especially how they affect our perception of events.

Jimbo said...

I'm super late to the party. I loved this story! I'm going to reread it because I read it a couple years ago in Munro's Too Much Happiness collection. I'm not a die-hard and that was the only Munro I have read although I'd like to read more of her.