What Can We Steal From Alice Munro’s “Axis”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Axis,” short story
Author: Alice Munro
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the January 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. You can read the story here if you have subscriber access to the publication. The story was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2012 by Heidi Pitlor and the incomparable Tom Perrotta.
Bonuses: The awesome web site The Millions put together “A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro.” Here is the Alice Munro coverage NPR has done. The New Yorker loves Ms. Munro. Can you tell?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Guidance
Grace and Avie were friends fifty years ago. Both were farm girls and somewhat isolated during their college years. Ms. Munro uses flashback to describe the stress Avie experienced in the run-up to her marriage and the story of the way Grace lost her virginity to Royce, a young man whose patience had limits in this arena. There’s a great scene in which Royce and Grace have finally arranged for some alone time. Unfortunately, the episode is interrupted in the most unpleasant and expected manner. Royce takes off and never looks back. Ms. Munro fast-forwards to the present, depicting Royce and Avie’s coincidental reunion on a passenger train. Their lives didn’t end up the way they had expected, but whose does?
I love the way that Ms. Munro so successfully imbued the story with youthful passion. The author has many decades on me and has accumulated more literary accolades than I’ll ever even hear about, but she is still able to inhabit the mind of a horny young man through her hummingbird-like third person narrator. About halfway through the story, Ms. Munro turns a very impressive magic trick. After months of denying him the gift of her virginity, Grace has made a plan to have sex with Royce. Grace’s mother has given Royce a day’s reprieve from doing farm chores and believes he will be alone. Instead, Grace will ride her bike away from home…then immediately return to enjoy a couple hours of solitude with her boyfriend.
Put yourself in the place of the characters. It’s going to happen! You’re going to get what you’ve been waiting for! Only you have to wait until the day after tomorrow to get it. The reader and the characters are in the same position; they both want to see what happens when the love is made. The characters must wait a day in “character time,” and Ms. Munro makes you wait a page as she briefly describes what happens on the penultimate day of Grace’s life as a maiden. Sharing the anticipation with the characters puts you on the edge of your seat during the climactic scene (no pun intended). Even better, Ms. Munro uses that day to add characterization and depth to the looming sexual encounter. When Grace’s mother points out that “Royce here is the type to spoil a woman,” she means that Royce will be very generous with his eventual wife. The reader, of course, knows what Royce is planning to do and thinks of the word “spoil” in a decidedly different sense.
“Tense confusion.” Many beginning writers…and some intermediate writers…and even some advanced writers have occasional trouble keeping using the proper tense in a sentence. The real reason why it’s so important to use the proper tense is because goofing up can make our stories unclear. Ms. Munro’s story is bookended by sections that take place in the dramatic present; the middle of the story jumps around between different times in the past. As the reader works his or her way through the story for the first time, they probably have an idea that the end of the story will return to the present. There’s no way of knowing exactly when this will be on the first read! Just before Ms. Munro returns to the dramatic present, she notes the following about Avie:
In the summer, when he was working at Labatt, they’d had one of their pregnancy scares, but it had turned out to be all right. So they’d gone camping on Civic Holiday weekend, to celebrate, and for the first time it had seemed that they were truly in love. It was also the first time that they had really gotten pregnant, and they had announced that they would be getting married in Kenora very soon, before she began to show.
They were not unhappy about it.
You’ll notice that Ms. Munro used a number of “was”es and “had”s and “were”s. Look at what happens after a line of white space:
In what was once called the club car, on the train from Toronto to Montreal, Avie is on her way to visit one of her daughters.
Ms. Munro specifically points out that the previous events are in the past. (The club car is not even called that anymore, apparently!) Then she very quickly uses the present tense. (Avie IS on her way.) You are your reader’s tour guide through the world you have created; make sure you drop enough bread crumbs to ensure they can follow you!
What Should We Steal?
- Structure your work in such a manner that your characters share experiences with your audience. If your protagonist is waiting for Christmas morning, allow your reader to share that heightened sense of anticipation.
- Escort your reader through your manipulation of the time/space continuum. Your reader will follow you anywhere; you just need to hold their hand a little!