Alice Munro: “To Reach Japan”

“To Reach Japan” is the first story in Alice Munro’s new short story collection, Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.

The story, about a woman’s desire to explore and the maternal guilt she suffers (and how, in the past and still today, those two things are difficult to reconcile), begins on a Vancouver train platform. Greta and her young daughter Katy are on the train, heading to Toronto for the summer, looking out to husband and father Peter as he waves and smiles. We find out, through simply observations Munro gives us, that this is a happy family, but not all is perfect. Peter is one of those slightly nervous types who will avoid intimacy if it also means avoiding a potential, spontaneous problem, even minor ones:

Once Peter had brought her suitcase on board the train he seemed eager to get himself out of the way. But not to leave. He explained to her that he was just uneasy that the train should start to move.

This is nothing new to Greta. She’s used to her decent husband’s cautious and practical nature. It’s endearing, but it is also alienating. He has no idea she has the slightest twinge of misgivings. They’re married, after all, and that afords him security to the point he doesn’t have to worry at all. Once out on the platform, he can wave and smile with confidence.

The smile for Katy was wide open, sunny, without a doubt in the world, as if he believed that she would continue to be a marvel to him, and he to her, forever. The smile for his wife seemed hopeful and trusting, with some sort of determination about it. Something that could not easily be put into words and indeed might never be. If Greta had mentioned such a thing he would have said, Don’t be ridiculous. And she would have agreed with him, thinking that it was unnatural for people who saw each other daily, constantly, to have to go through explanations of any kind.

The telling word: “constantly.” Time, as it so often does in a Munro story, extends and the train doesn’t depart until the story is already over halfway through. During this period we learn that as a child Peter and his mother escaped from Soviet Czechoslovakia, and he now works as an engineer. In fact, that’s why Greta and Katy are leaving Vancouver for the long train journey to Toronto. Peter is going to work the summer in Lund, up north, and there are no accomodations for his family. Rather than spend the summer home alone, Greta decides to housesit for one of her friends in Toronto who will be spending the summer in Europe. Greta’s choice to go to Toronto is based on more than a desire for a change of scenery.

Greta herself is a poet. She’s not well known and she feels incredibly awkward at publishing parties, drinking way too much and communicating with no one until, at a party the summer before, a kind face offers her a hand. This is Harris Bennett, resident of Toronto. He takes her home that evening and off-handedly expresses his desire to kiss her. They don’t, though maybe it would have been better if they did because now Greta feels a void she cannot stand: “During the coming fall and winter and spring there was hardly a day when she didn’t think of him.” This terrible longing comes mostly during the day, when Peter is at work: “Yet all this fantasy disappeared, went into hibernation when Peter came home. Daily affections sprang to the fore then, reliable as ever.” That’s not strong enough, though. Before she left for Toronto, she sent Mr. Bennett simple note containing the time and date of her arrival.

All of this, in a way, is foundation. At this time, the train jolts onward and Peter is left behind as Greta and Katy take the long cross-continent train ride. For a time, we almost forget about Peter and Mr. Bennett as we focus on what Greta and Katy are doing, particularly as they make new friends on board the train. We remember back to the beginning of the story when Peter is smiling at Katy, both marvelling at the other. Katy, for her part, is young enough not to understand what they are doing. She asks where her father is, assuming they’ll be meeting with him at any moment, causing Greta to think about her relationship with her daughter:

All of her waking time for these hundreds of miles had been devoted to Katy. She knew that such devotion on her part had never shown itself before. It was true that she had cared for the child, dressed her, fed her, talked to her, during those hours when they were together and Peter was at work. But Greta had other things to do around the house then, and her attention had been spasmodic, her tenderness often tactical.

This doesn’t mean, as we may have figured out, that Greta’s feelings toward Peter or Mr. Bennett — or the new friends — aren’t going to lead her to distraction. And just what does Greta have in mind when she reaches Toronto if Mr. Bennett shows up? There is no perfect pathway.

While “To Reach Japan” is not my favorite story in this collection, I was still drawn in and deeply affected. The characters are deep and Munro tantalizes us by giving us a wealth of information in a few gestures. It ends with a question we’ve been asking all along, and we welcome the chance to answer it ourselves.

8 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “To Reach Japan””

  1. I have had my review copy of Dear Life for a couple of weeks but resisted starting it before I got caught up on Giller and other reading. So I welcomed this review and thought I would join you in a read along (it will help me avoid just rushing through the book, always a mistake with Munro collections).

    I do think To Reach Japan has a characteristic that frequently features in Munro stories: the central character’s preoccupation with the gaps between the detailed memory of their current experience and memory (your quotes illustrate that detail) and the uncertainty which seems to always loom behind them — concretely illustrated here by the image of putting a bottle in the sea and hoping it gets to Japan. (Which, if it starts in Vancouver, it won’t — the current flows the other way as the debris now arriving in British Columbia from the Japanese earthquake shows). We all have those gaps — Munro always finds a way of making them concrete.

    Like you, I found she has done that better in other stories, but that does not make this one unsuccessful. Indeed, the device of the cross-Canada train journey creates an isolated three-day-long “world” that brings the whole picture into a compressed focus.

  2. Trevor says:

    Yes, this not being up with her best is hardly harsh criticism :). I’ve read this one again and, as is often (always?) the case with Munro it just keeps getting better as I succeed in seeing more and more of what’s going on. I’m sad I’ve already read most of this collection, but looking forward to the rereads almost as much as I’m looking forward to the ones I haven’t yet read.

  3. Betsy says:

    Alice Munro sets “To Reach Japan” in the decade before North Americans started actively thinking about feminism, which would be about the same period Munro herself was in her twenties and also a mother of young children. (Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 and founded The National Organization for Women in 1966.) The story explores, among other things, how a woman could become a serious writer during this time, somewhere between 1955 and 1965. It is important to note that Munro’s own first book comes out in ’68 when she is 37.

    Munro’s narrator comments upon the struggle a woman would have had to become a serious writer: “…having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia…”

    The situation in the story is complicated by the fact that Greta, the main character, is a poet. At that time, Robert Lowell and John Berryman were living famously chaotic lives, Sylvia Plath was publishing, (and had committed suicide by 1963), and in general, there was in the air the idea that poets should be tormented-geniuses. Even Elizabeth Bishop, the magnificently measured and private poet, struggled with alcohol and instability. Being a poet was a dangerous business.

    The key problem that the story sets up for me is not motherhood or wifedom, but rather whether Greta will succumb to the lure that the “access of boldness” holds for her. Access to boldness practically destroyed Robert Lowell (and other poets of his generation). In the course of this short story, Greta gets very drunk once and carelessly drunk another time; despite being married, she attracts the attentions of an older man, and plans a move cross country to be with him for a month; she hooks-up with a young stranger on a train, and in so doing leaves her young daughter unattended on that train. She seems not to question the aimless, drifting nature of her actions, and she doesn’t seem to have a serious plan for being a writer; of course, neither does she have any structural support for becoming a writer. As Ken so beautifully pointed out regarding the title, Greta has a mistaken sense of direction.

    Amid the chaos, her one structural pier after her daughter’s wandering off on the train is a sudden idea that she should give up writing.

    What will become of her? For one thing, is it writing poetry that attracts her, or is it the pose of the poet? The wildness? Her survival as a poet (and in any role, in fact), depends upon her realizing that it is the work of writing itself that provides access to boldness.

    Greta is attracted to men who are willing to save her (her “tolerant” husband, the young man on the train who amuses her child, and Harris the journalist who drives her home), but what would really save her is a writing structure she establishes for herself, or a writing program (which hardly existed at the time) or, more likely, a mentor. Until then, she’s one misplaced letter away from being “great”.

    Elizabeth Bishop first had Marianne Moore as a mentor. Later Bishop and Robert Lowell had each other, and as their recently published letters to each other demonstrate, it was that platonic, mentoring relationship that saved both of them and inspired both of them. Emily Dickinson said that Higginson “saved” her; Melville had his Hawthorne.

    This “Dear Life” story shows a kind of writer’s life, but it is a kind of anti-reality, where the writer has not yet realized what the “writing life” requires. It’s a kind of “lost in a dark wood” story, and perhaps because I am a woman, I really enjoyed it.

  4. Trevor says:

    I’m thrilled you’re reading this collection, Betsy, and I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on the remaining stories (you do plan to read and share, right?).

    Here, you’ve enlightened me by talking about the “access of boldness” and that it is her poetry which gives her that. Though does this also make her reckless? Is she aware that she is attracted to men who are willing “to save her,” or does she think the man on the train and Harris are part of the world she’s trying to access, feeling held back by motherhood and marriage?

    You’re right: the motherhood and wife angle support that aspect nicely. It’s also worth noting that Munro herself was writing in snatches as she raised her children. Certainly this was discouraged.

    Also, great final paragraph. I like the idea of it being a “lost in a dark wood” story. I don’t usually mind that short stories end unresolved, but I’d love to see what happens to Greta.

  5. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor, Your wonderful example sets us on the Munro trek!

    I really enjoyed the observations you made about Greta’s husband: his steady nature being both endearing and alienating. There really are so many filters through which this story could be read. I actually had trouble settling down to choosing.

    The story was rich to me – given that the roles of wife and mother give women a lot of pause when ‘considering’ how to also lead an artist’s life or have a career or a role in the world. That was, in fact, the word that “enraptured” Greta about Harris: “Consider!”

    I found the off-hand reference in the story to Doukhobors another string that I wished I had had time to investigate, other than to discover that the word means “spirit wrestlers’. Truly, Greta (along with Rbt Lowell and Plath and Bishop and Dickinson), is a “spirit-wrestler”. But there is much more to know about that in order to see what Munro is really doing.

    I enjoyed your note regarding the way Munro manipulates time and flashback. (I loved the way she tucked in a flash-forward when talking about the difficulties of representing the pre-feminist era.) I hadn’t even noticed that it took half the story to return to the train platform.

    So many thanks to you for taking on every story in Munro’s “Dear Life” as a project! What a fine way to get to know her.

  6. Elizabeth christensen says:

    Does anyone know . . . Why Japan?

  7. Marcelo Zaibek says:

    yes, the name “Reaching Japan” was intriguing me too. I just finished reading this short story today and I couldn’t recall why she gave to the story the name “Reaching Japan”. A friend told me that Alice Munro is not the kind of writer who gives a name to the story without any relation to something in the story itself. So reading again i found something like “putting a story in a bottle and hope it will reach Japan”
    Marcelo

  8. Mary Charron says:

    It’s pure speculation on my part, but the “Japan” reference could equate with ‘going against the current’, which she would be if she dropped a bottle in the ocean on the west coast of Canada expecting it to reach Japan?

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