Gravel by Alice Munro, 2011
The magic trick:
Changing the tenor and tone of the story with a startling section of confused memory from the narrator
I read “Gravel,” in Munro’s final story collection, Dear Life, with a sinking realization: Oh, wow, she was slipping. This was published in her 80s. It’s just not as sharp. It’s not as good.
Add this train of thought to the list of the dumbest opinions I’ve briefly held in my life.
It was as wrong as it was insulting.
This story is amazing.
In my defense, the first few pages do feel a little bit like Munro-by-the-numbers. We find a family drama in rural Canada. Their problems aren’t unique or even particularly interesting. The crumbling marriage. The sibling relationship.
Then we get the gravel pit scene.
Put simply, it’s among the most effective sequences of writing that I know. I’m serious. It’s that good. That startling.
I don’t want to ruin it for those of you who haven’t read it. But I will at least note that it blurs memory, rationalization as self defense, therapy, psychology, fear, guilt, and a search for truth. It confuses the reader just as the memory itself continues to confuse the narrator.
It changes the whole tenor of the story. The remainder of the text finds the narrator further exploring the meaning of that memory, attempting to put together the pieces of her life. The reader, shaken after that section too, is doing the same.
And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
When we got outside, the first thing we did was loosen and let trail the scarves our mother had wrapped around our necks. (The fact was, though we may not have put the two things together, the deeper she got into her pregnancy the more she slipped back into behaving like an ordinary mother, at least when it was a matter of scarves we didn’t need or regular meals. There was not so much championing of wild ways as there had been in the fall.) Caro asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I didn’t know. This was a formality on her part but the honest truth on mine. We let the dog lead us, anyway, and Blitzee’s idea was to go and look at the gravel pit. The wind was whipping the water up into little waves, and very soon we got cold, so we wound our scarves back around our necks.
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