Alice Munro: “Gravel”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Alice Munro’s “Gravel” was originally published in the June 27, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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It’s always a good way to start the week: a new story by Alice Munro, who obviously hasn’t slowed down much.  This one may be one of my favorites of the recently published (and I have a lot of her back catalog to go through).  “Gravel” is a masterful piece that showcases simple style and complex structure so nicely done it looks simple too. 

Our narrator is an older woman looking back on something terrible that happened when she was only five years old, something she feels guilty about even though she can’t really remember that much (“I barely remember that life.  That is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture.”).  When she was five and her older sister Caro was nine, her mother became pregnant, allegedly by one of the actors who moved into town with the new professional summer theater. 

My mother and father had been among those in favor, my mother more actively so, because she had more time.  My father was an insurance agent and travelled a lot.  My mother had got busy with various fund-raising schemes for the theatre and donated her services as an usher.  She was good-looking and young enough to be mistaken for an actress.  She’d begun to dress like an actress, too, in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces.  She’d left her hair wild and stopped wearing makeup.  Of course, I had not understood or even particularly noticed these changes at the time.  My mother was my mother.  But no doubt Caro had.  And my father.  Though, from all that I know of his nature and his feelings for my mother, I think he may have been proud to see how good she looked in these liberating styles and how well she fit in with the theatre people.

After she becomes pregnant, she moves herself and the two girls into a small home by a gravel pit.

My mother was the one who insisted on calling attention to it.  “We live by the old gravel pit out the service-station road,” she’d tell people, and laugh, because she was so happy to have shed everything connected with the house, the street — the husband — with the life she’d had before.

Through much of the story, the narrator’s five-year-old self has no real idea what is going on.  When she visits her father and her mother asks if she had a good time, she simple says yes, “because I thought that if you went to a movie or to look at Lake Huron or ate in a restaurant, that meant that you had had a good time.”  At nine, Caro is much more bothered by the whole situation (indirectly, this story is her story rather than the narrator’s); she said yes, too, “but in a tone of voice that suggested that it was none of our mother’s business.”

The story develops wonderfully.  Through small details, we get to know these people very well, even if our narrator is someone who is only piecing together poorly remembered moments.  Amazingly, it accomplishes this though the story is very short, and nearly half of it dwells on one particular moment. 

In the way “Gravel” deals with memory and guilt, and the way it is structured to do so (and not to simply tell a story from start to finish) reminded me a great deal of William Maxwell’s masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow (see my review here).  Incidentally, I think such a connection is purposeful.  After Maxwell died in 2000, Alice Munro said of So Long, See You Tomorrow, “I thought: so this is how it should be done. I thought: If only I could go back and write again every single thing that I have written.”  Certainly she has accomlished something similar but about a very different tragedy than the one Maxwell recounts.  I loved it.

Take advantage of the fact that this story is freely available through the link above.

16 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Gravel””

  1. First, an apology — while I have been lurking on the New Yorker short story discussions here, I have not been commenting. I don’t get my paper copy until at least 10 days after the post here. I find the New Yorker a frustrating on-line read when it comes to fiction and, by the time I have read the hard copy, I don’t have much to add to what is already here.

    Alice Munro is different, since she is Canadian and someone whom I have been following for decades. So I fought my way through the online version (is the New Yorker ever reader-unfriendly when it comes to e-versions) and will jump ahead of the crowd here.

    In many ways, this story is typical Munro — it is set in her territory between Stratford and Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario. It also has Munro “tragedy” — a look back at a traumatic event in the past and how it has played out into the present.

    It has some traditional Munro tensions, most noticeably between the parents, but also the lovers, and, perhaps most importantly, the children. And finally (at least for my observations), the defining event of the story has obscure motivations which the reader is left to contemplate.

    While I think the story works — why did Caro jump? why did it create such a lasting imression on a five-year-old? why can the parents successfully ignore it? — I don’t think it ranks with Munro’s best work. It is an interesting set of observations, and certainly a successful story, but it doesn’t leave you much to contemplate tomorrow, as so many of her stories do.

    Alice is aging and someone somewhere says every book, or story, is her last — and she keeps writing them. I would offer another interpretation, based on her most recent work. More and more, in the important background of her stories, we are seeing examples of the breakdown of a marriage, something that happened to Munro herself. I can’t help but wonder whether these final stories are exploring that aspect of her own life.

  2. Trevor says:

    I finished this one on the way home from work, Kevin, so I’ll get my thoughts up soon. A quick word: I thought it was excellent. Perhaps not up to Munro’s best, as you say, but since I have most of Munro’s work in front of me, that is good news :).

  3. Trevor: Munro is one of the few writers where an “excellent” short story could provoke the comment that it is not one of her best — and there is no contradiction in that opinion.

  4. Smithereens says:

    Thanks for the link! So glad I can read the story for free this time. I’m a huge Munro fan.

  5. Betsy says:

    Alice Munro’s “Gravel” is interleaved with ideas about memory and the stories people tell about themselves. The stories we hear, especially from our parents, shape the memories we think we have, so that memory is really a loose “gravel” of all these interwoven stories and events.

    Presumably, a family story can be somewhat cohesive, and often, even if it is not “true”, it creates a ground for an identity that works. The trouble comes, the tragedy, is when the stories are not complete or are not true, and this fragmented, incoherent and distorted truth gets re-ordered and cemented into a belief.

    We do this to ourselves, we create the cement around the particulate of incoherent experiences, things heard, and things seen. Sometimes this constructed sense of self works because it’s more true than not; sometimes it doesn’t work at all, because there’s so little truth in it. The tragedy is, though, the whole thing has set. Even when the truth bubbles up, we resist it. Our story of our life is as set the house that’s built, in the end, atop the filled in gravel pit.

    Toward the end of the story, Neal, who once played Banquo in a regional theater, reveals how he now prepares students for exams, and that he helps them write their essays. “Sometimes, you might say, he wrote their essays.” A man who once played Banquo’s ghost, Neal now ghost-writes student work, essays that are an illusion floating out there, big as life, as reality. Perhaps these are their college essays, the “story” of some important moment in their lives, stories that other people now believe and act upon.

    Ultimately, “Gravel” is a story about a woman who has a ghost written self, different parts written by her mother, her father and her parents’ lovers. In part the ghost writing is in their spoken word, but like ghosts, they also speak in silences.

    Upon first reading, Neal as ghost writer appears to be the completely unambitious failure you suspected him to be. But the idea is also planted – we sometimes have our ideas about ourselves “written” unwittingly by other people’s stories.

    “Gravel” revolves around a child who believes she has caused her sister’s death, and who builds her “truth” with threads she’s gleaned from her mother and father and their lovers. Because this mother and father have many silences and secrets, what the daughter makes out for her truth seems to be actually be a distortion, and what she hears about the truth reveals to us a tragedy – that she is someone whose life interests her parents not at all. So she lives with “demons”. The girl has managed to survive into adulthood without it ever occurring to her that her sister’s death is first and foremost her parent’s responsibility, not hers, so powerful are their silences and stories. After all, she was only five.

    (Munro also plays with the “stories” people tell their confessors. The narrator tells us she once went to a “professional person”, who must, in fact, create yet another story line. The narrator rejects the therapist’s take, and yet the reader wonders if the therapist’s take, if overly sex-determined, was nevertheless, headed in sort of the right direction. The narrator’s belief about herself is so powerful, that she could be “satisfied” with the therapist’s story line for only a while. While the therapist may have been technically wrong – that the trailer door was locked so the mother and lover could have sex, she may have been right that the mother is blinded by loneliness and desire. And the daughter is blinded for life by her idea that her mother has done no wrong. She accepts without comment that her father does not blame her mother for Caro’s death. She adopts this story line in the manner of a five year old – without elaboration.

    The narrator’s partner Ruthann senses that there is more to the truth than anyone has yet revealed, and although she occupies only three sentences in the text, we need to notice her. My dictionary tells me that “gravel-blind” is an intensifier for the archaic word “sand-blind” which was a corruption of “sam-blind” which was further a corruption of “semi-blind”. “Gravel” is such an odd title, and Alice Munro so particular, and the main character so blind to her own history that these connections of gravel and gravel blind make sense to me, especially since Munro so pointedly reminds us that this is a tragedy we are reading. Of course, gravel reminds me of grovel and drivel, part of the tragedy being that the narrator’s story is made up of her groveling to other people’s drivel. At any rate we should not dismiss Ruthann. She sees that there is more to the truth. But it is important that we notice how peripheral to our stories that we make anyone who “sees”.

    Another way in which Munro circles around the idea of truth and half-truth and re-constructed reality is in the idea of twins. The mother thinks she is having twins, she has twin husbands, twinnish daughters, an actor lover who has a twin reality in his roles and in his lies. The domestic dog, Blitzee, has her wild twin wolf. In fact, all of the characters have a wild side for a twin. Somehow, we tell stories that make sense of these two sides of our nature.

    Of course, Munro is saying that it is in the nature of being human to make up these stories, believe them, and be unable to see when our stories are misleading us.

    There is so much I would say about these parents. What parent purposely chooses to live next to an unenclosed gravel pit? “Make Way for Ducklings” happened to be my reading at the same time as I was reading “Gravel”, and I noticed that Mrs. Duck instructs her husband that they cannot bring their children up just anywhere. There are to be no foxes. Tragically, the mother in “Gravel” only notices the “”wolf” at the mailbox long after she has made her fatal decisions, and even then, she does not really see how this ghost-wolf is silently speaking to her. (The wolf seems to be another story a character creates, dream-like, in order to make sense of her life; by the time the mother “sees” the wolf, she must have begun to sense the danger she was in, but seems unwilling to see it for what it really is. We see it; Neal, her lover, has given nine year old Caro some weed to smoke, and the younger sister “tells”. The story we are left to tell is what would provoke him to do this? That she is annoying him?)

    The mother may have had very good reason for leaving her husband, but she made several fatal (semi-blind) decisions that led to her daughter’s death: to live with this particular irresponsible man, to have her daughters’ lives be so constricted that television is their main companion and play diet, to live beside a gravel pit, to allow the girls to play near it, unsupervised and out of sight, even when the pit is swollen with the spring snow melt. It is as if she wills herself permission to neither see Neal as he is, a danger to her daughters, or to see the gravel pit as it is – a danger to them all.

    And finally, after Caro’s death, the mother does not talk about her responsibility.

    Later, much later, the gravel pit is filled in and new houses spring up. It mirrors the mother’s belief that she can cover up the truth and still survive, regardless of the damage she will do her surviving daughter, who believes she has killed her sister.

    No one seems to have ever said to the girl: you were only five. No one seems to have ever asked her how she was feeling, how she was doing…

    As for the father – the girls see almost nothing of him for nine months, and later, the surviving daughter recalls him saying that good has come of “the shake-up”. He has a new marriage that is happy. He seems blind to his daughter’s demons.

    Well – I loved this story. I was totally caught up in the story part, and also caught up in all the echoes and reverberations of the art. (Who among us has not a story of irresponsibility or guilt? Who among us does not make up the story of our life as we go?) I thought all the art worked: every sentence, every image, every bit of dialogue, every evidence of the daughter’s blindered point of view, every omission, every appeal to tragedy.

    There is so much more to say about this story. How, for instance, does Munro made these people so real? Given that Munro makes every sentence pay, each paragraph is a starting place.

    And Neal’s remark – “Accept everything and then the tragedy disappears.” That is a whole other discussion – a wild twin to mine, that the parents are guilty of abandoning both their daughters.

    Most important, the five year old should actually share some of the guilt, in five year old terms. But she, too, evidently has her silences. If this is true, it should weigh on the reader and on her parents. I wonder what Carol Gilligan would have to say about this.

    I would feel bad about thinking so hard about this story – except for what you pointed out, Trevor, about Munro, that perhaps she reads the same way. That after she read William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow”, she wanted to rewrite everything she had written.

  6. Jon says:

    Oh, God. I am afraid to read this story. Thank you for warning me, Besty.

  7. Trevor says:

    Jon, you won’t regret reading it. It’s one of the best they’ve published for some time.

    Betsy, I’ve been anxious for your thoughts, and I agree that, even though you do a thorough job going down one trail, Munro shows us many more we could take for a different yet just as interesting and engaging discussion.

  8. Betsy says:

    Jon! If you ever read any of my remarks – I’m assuming you’ve already read the story! So sorry to have given it away. I’d better put up an alert.

    I struggle over the fact that writing about a story tries to “pin it to the board”. I hate to think that anyone would read what I have to say before reading the story. On the one hand, you have the author’s gorgeous living creature, and on the other, you have the essayist’s clunky awkward wooden dummy! But thinking and writing about the story prolongs the pleasure of reading it. Somehow, thinking about art frees life up from its clutter. But don’t read me first!

  9. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    Trevor,
    This is an interesting story, told with an unsettling flatness of tone that betrays the narrator’s state of mind. She is obviously tortured by the mysterious tragedy and her own part in it: this comes through complete with chills and a desperate sadness.
    Perhaps it’s only proximity in time, but having just finished Port Mungo, by Patrick McGrath, I have the feeling that this story – like McGrath’s – must be seen, primarily, as a castigation of a generation and the facile theories of liberation and self-fulfillment that were current in the 70′s. Both the novel and the story each detail the fatal result of neglect and/or abuse of children at the hands of feckless, foolish, ultimately selfish parents. It is a rebuke to the “Let it be” philosophy of that (MY) generation.
    With due respect to Betsy’s excellent analysis, I can’t quite agree that Munroe’s focus is on memory, or the stories we tell ourselves, though this has to be a part of it. This poor narrator is damaged (like her sister) psychologically, emotionally–by a neglect that is/should be criminal. Her quandary is not epistemic: she knows her sister is dead and will remain dead; just as her parents will remain guilty. The problem is: how can she face it? How make sense of it?
    The adults in this story do not bequeath to her any coherent sense of responsibility; indeed, quite the opposite. No surprise, then, if the child grows to adulthood without a clear sense of her own place in this tragedy. What Munroe does exceedingly well here is present the mind of such a victim. Her main question to Neal (as to the therapist) is: ‘What was Cora thinking? Why did she do it? It is not ‘What happened?’, but “Why?”
    I wonder if modern writers aren’t simply reflecting the sense that we live in a time of crisis and peril; a peril which has been brought on by someone close to home and inflicted on the innocents. The characters in the story are spokesmen for the various ‘themes’ of the 70′s generation: e.g.the mother’s bid for ‘naked’ freedom, the father’s self-deprecating acquiescence (A major psychoanalytical talking point back then! Health and happiness by way of resignation.) and, of course, Niel’s “principles”.
    I think Munroe makes this point clear to us, if not to Cora’s damaged sister: Cora did only what her elders had done: viz.
    “running at the water and throwing [themselves], as if in triumph, and I’m still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash.”
    It is a powerful indictment, all the more so as it is so utterly believable and chillingly told.
    An excellent story; thanks for the tip.

  10. Betsy says:

    Kevin, nice the way you link the nameless narrator’s “unsettling” flat tone with how Munro conveys the adult woman’s inability to understand her own childish part in Caro’s death. I found this story so difficult to negotiate; your points are very helpful.

  11. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    Thanks Betsy,
    I’ve been thinking alot about the title, too and what to make of it: It occurs to me that it is not a bad metaphor for what is left of the narrator’s psyche after the tumult. Gravel is, after all, disjointed pieces of once solid rock riven by violence and scattered. The putatively, once solid family structure is rendered in pieces. It occurs to me that she bears witness to, at least testifies to, NO surviving relationships from that time. Her own family members are just names and categories to her (Mother, Father, Step-mom, therapist, etc.)
    It is telling, I think, that it is Ruthann, her partner, who encourages some sort of reaching out.(Too bad Ruthann can’t have known how useless and callow a guy Niel was/is. She might have said, “Nevermind!”
    Thanks, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. If you like the story, check out McGrath’s “Port Mungo”.

  12. jerry says:

    Not much to say…Munro is the master, the chief reason i resubscribed to TNY is to read her stories. She knows how to tell a story, a basic thing one would think, but one which many writers appear to have forgotten.

    At first I didn’t think the story was up to her usual standards but the more I have thought over it, I think my initial impression was wrong. The story stays with you.

  13. Betsy says:

    Another thought about the title: gravel is used as fill and then buried, just like all the secrets in this story. What I like about Munro is that the writing supports a variety of reactions and is all the richer for it.

    There is with gravel also the association of time, being that gravel is formed over eons by glaciation. There is for sure a glaciation going on in this family.

    One other thing: the parents may well be implicitly letting the little girl assume the blame and the guilt, as it lets them off the hook. (There is the associated idea of the generalized blame that children sometimes bear in any divorce – seeing as sometimes the children are a source of friction between parents.)

  14. Ken says:

    I agree, this is a very good story and Munro is without doubt a master at structuring highly complex, symbolically charged stories in a manner which feels effortless. The first paragraphs alone not only tell about a family’s various members and their situation/actions and their inner dynamics but brings up metaphors of the pit (which I think could also represent the unconscious and all that gets buried under the “water” of our conscious minds) and of hunter/prey. A general comment to all the prior readers: just as with Kate Walbert’s story M&M World, many seem to want to find pathology and bad parenting every place they possibly can and act as if any quirky or distracted or imperfect behavior is somehow pathological rather than just living life as it is. Callow as Neal is, I ended up agreeing with his view of things. Yes, people err, sometimes tragedy happens, and yes we need to understand the past but we also need to move on and also understand that very few parents are perfect. The tone I got from readers discussing this story and Walbert’s was of rather judgmental child psychologists ready to go on Oprah and tell everyone how one SHOULD raise children.

  15. Ken says:

    Let me follow up. I also had a quibble about this story being an indictment of a generation. Perhaps some parents were overly permissive in “the sixties” but the time also brought civil rights to ethnic minorities, women, gays, led to a questioning of the automatic rightness of authority, helped stop U.S. military adventurism (for a while), helped create the environmental movement, led to an acceptance of alternative lifestyles etc. The comment reminds me of a book by one Richard Nixon written in the late 1970′s bemoaning how America had been emasculated by the 1960′s policies. Interestingly enough, the seemingly neglectful allowing a family to live near an open gravel pit is actually the kind of old-style parenting in which kids were allowed to run around in the streets, throw rocks etc. It’s before the newer, more worried helicopter parenting of today although whether it’s pre “sixties” (less nurturing and more laissez faire) or post “sixties” (allowing freedom) is an open question.

  16. Aaron says:

    Man, I’ve fallen behind. Finally decided (in this oppressive heat, of all things) to remotivate myself to continue reading through all the fiction on my plate, and “Gravel” was the first story I posted about. (http://bit.ly/qcoxn5)

    What a terrific first story to jump back into things with. Having not been a product of the culture that Munro is in some ways critiquing, I found Neal to be the weak point of this story, though Munro’s a deft enough writer that some of his observations and odd tics are still memorable and effective.

    I don’t want to jump over anything already brought up in the excellent discussion, but I’ll add that the opening paragraph has so many levels to it (much like the “Axis” of Munro’s previous piece in the New Yorker). Consider how their life is *like* the gravel pit they were living beside at that time — is it a major tragedy that occurs, or a minor one? And what is going on with all of these failed intentions — the mother, taking up books again (as an aside!), the sister “calling for attention,” the narrator looking for closure — meanwhile, the pit, the inverse of the home, the inverse of attention-grabbing, the inverse of closure . . . foreshadowing everything, this is a gripping shallowness, a warning against anything less than the strongest foundations (and look how our narrator flounders, her memories inadequately anchored, her structure falling into a black *hole*).

    But I gush and rant. This was great.

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