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Alice Munro: “Train”

“Train” is the eighth 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.

“Train,” first published in the April 2012 issue of Haper’s magazine, is one of the longer pieces in this new collection. Like “Pride” this story closely follows a man, only here the man remains the focus throughout the entire story.

We first meet Jackson when he jumps off a train going through the Ontario countryside. It turns out he’s approaching his home town after serving in World War II. At first he can tell himself he just needs a bit more time; he’ll just walk the rest of the way. He can come up with excuses for his tardiness, and he will be believed. “But all the time he’s thinking this, he’s walking in the opposite direction.”

It will be some time before we know what he’s avoiding, but quickly Munro lets us know that, whatever it is, even if he’s successful, life will bring new things you’ll want to avoid:

Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.

He ends up walking to a small farm just off the tracks where he meets Belle, a woman ten or fifteen years older than he. Belle is friendly and a little child-like. Recently her mother, who required constant care and who couldn’t talk, died, leaving Belle compeltely alone in the world. Her father had been hit by a train many years earlier. When Jackson arrives the farm is in decline. In exchange for some food, he promises to complete some repairs and then be on his way.

The years pass, suddenly, without license, as they often do in Munro’s stories. People just assume Jackson and Belle are brother and sister. In all that time, Jackson never goes back home. Any fear he once harbored that someone from his old town would run into him in his new town are dispelled when he remembers that that just isn’t the way small towns work.

The years continue to pass until Belle gets sick. He convinces her it’s time to go to Toronto for medical treatment. Under medication, Belle shares some secrets about her past that Jackson wishes he’d never heard. He can’t handle the intimacy and abandons the farm with just as little fanfare as he joined it.

We’d think the story would stop sometime around there, but it doesn’t. If Jackson again wished for cancellation, what he’s found are new surroundings, and it’s here his past rears up.

While it may feel I’ve given away quite a bit of this story, I don’t believe that is true. I’ve gone only about halfway, and there are quite a few surprises in the first half. And, of course, this being Munro, much of the pleasure doesn’t come from what happens but from the texture and the thematic structure, that wish for cancellation, that sudden and easy realization “that a person could just not be there.”

It’s not my favorite of her stories, although, as usual, the more I think about it, the more I revisit it, the more it reveals and the more clearly I can see just how involved I’ve become in these lives. I’m not looking forward to the end of this book.

7 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Train””

  1. Betsy says:

    Beyond this story’s title, “Train” is its opposite – “runaway train”. There is, of course, as always with Munro, the train of memory, and the train of thought – the mapping of consciousness.

    Running away, going backwards, is one of the themes of this story. Primarily, it is Jackson, in 1945, who jumps off the train that is taking him back home. He’s running away from a probable doomed marriage. He has already run away once: during high school, he had drifted into a friendship with a minister’s daughter, and then drifted into living at her house, her father having been distracted by the war. Jackson is not the only run away; another teenager has run away by the end of the story, and another character retreats to a shabby cabin in the woods when life embarrasses him with a severely incapacitated wife. Running away is a centrifugal force in this story. That man, in fact, withdraws completely: he commits suicide.

    Partnered to this theme of running away is the situation of being mute, or being purposefully mute. Jackson himself lives within a in a “phenomenal shyness and silence” (perhaps what we now know as selective mutism). Another character in the story retreats to a shabby cabin after his wife is supposedly injured by the 1918 flu. Later, his daughter, Belle, continues on in the isolated cabin, living in oblivious “squalor”.

    Of course, intertwined with running away and withdrawing are also mystery and relief.

    At the story’s close, Jackson thinks, “Things could be locked up; it only took some determination.” And he reveals that at “six or seven, he locked up his step-mother’s fooling, what she called her fooling or her teasing when she gave him a bath. “

    The mysteries of these characters’ withdrawals all have to do with sex, fear and guilt and what now seem like mild experiences of abuse. Belle, however, has confined herself to her squalid cabin because she feels responsible for her father’s death – immediately following the night the father purposely opens the bathing room door and stares at Belle, he throws himself under a train.

    At the same time, the withdrawals are heightened by a familiar situation that haunts almost all of Munro – the absent mother. Jackson’s mother dies young; Belle’s mother is mute and almost psychotic; and the minister’s wife is off caring for her sick mother. The only reversal is Ileane, who is searching for her runaway daughter, but the reader wonders if she, too, has been an absent mother.

    What is so wonderful about Munro is that even though this is a short story, history, motive and personal growth are layered into each of the five main characters. Munro can sometimes achieve complexity with only with one brush stroke, as when Belle off-handedly reveals her mother’s partial recovery upon the father’s death. One wonders about the exact nature of the “flu” that she had caught.

    Munro often mentions Eudora Welty (another erudite country girl) as an inspiration. Henry James is not a name Munro talks about, but his influence appears here and there in the writing. He is an appropriate presence in Munro’s intellectual life, as he concerns himself not only with the realization of women’s consciousness, but also the inappropriate and damaging power that parents can wield in a child’s life – well into adulthood. James is continually interested in how people experience moments of realization and self-actualization.

    In this story, Belle is in her fifties, when, perhaps under the influence of drugs, she has a vision about how she can view her life, how she can free her life. She says, “I feel so released.” What she has realized is that she was not responsible for her father’s suicide, and that he was not a monster. “…it was nobody’s fault. It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation. Me growing up there and Mother the way she was and Daddy, naturally, the way he would be. Not my fault or his fault.”
    The degree of guilt in both the father and the daughter, however, indicates to the reader that Belle’s story may not be absolutely complete, as it has been incomplete in the past. She doesn’t recognize, for instance the “squalor” she was living in. When she first told Jackson about hearing the train that hit her father, only her mother seemed to realize what had happened. Later, Belle says she knew at once. The father had been tormented for some time, given that it was his habit to walk the train tracks in the early evening (in the dusk, when he would have hard to see). So one wonders about the amount of sexual communication that in fact had taken place between the daughter and father.

    What is interesting to me is that the only way Belle can speak her mind to her father is to withdraw – she becomes mute. She says, “I had to let him know he had changed us.” The father heard, and he killed himself.
    I want to return to this story and Henry James, for whom incest and its many psychological variations is also a topic (as in “The Golden Bowl”, for one.) Munro has the father refer to his wife as “the Princess Cassamassima”, perhaps a reference to his wife’s great beauty, and perhaps a reference to her violent withdrawal from the real world, a rebellion perhaps in the order of the Princess Cassamassima’s retreat into terrorism. In the story and novel of that name, James has also has a young man frozen between action and inaction, until the ultimate withdrawal, suicide, is the only option. So, despite the fact that I have not encountered Munro mentioning Henry James, I think he is a topic in her world. He just is not part of her public persona – in which her true mentor is that other country girl, Eudora Welty.

    I think this is a great story. It is a tale, for one. It is mysterious, for another. And Munro risks a kind of rescue in this story. Belle is “so grateful” for her “release”. She says, “I have in a way got outside the tragedy.” It is hard to see how she could have ever reached such “clarity” without the intrusion of Jackson’s quiet care for her and her environment.

    I sense the wisdom of the older writer at work here, and her own personal experience of how time can release a person, how marriage can take many forms.

    Finally, the story has a mystic note, a mysterious vision. When Jackson first arrives at Belle’s squalid cabin, he is seen slowly solving the mysteries of her life – where is the man? -what’s with the horse and buggy? –what ‘s with all the paper stacked to the rafters in her kitchen? The reader is also slowly solving the mysteries of the story.

    Jackson has just arrived at her place, and he hears “a clip-clop, clip-clop. Along with the clip-clop came a tinkle or whistling.” This mystery is revealed in parts – first the strange sound, then the sight of a horse-drawn box on wheels, then the vision of six or so little men in black hats in the box, all singing. Later, Belle reveals that these are
    Mennonite boys.

    Belle and Jackson are a man and a woman who have been frozen in childhood. These Mennonite boys are a weird reflection of them, boys frozen in adult poses. But they are singing. With this vision, Jackson somehow decides to stay: he has chosen his real wife.
    Later, at the end of the story, the vision returns again (as it has throughout his life), when, after Belle’s death, and after his chance encounter with the fiancée he had jilted, Jackson makes his final withdrawal to Kapuskasing. One wonders whether, having heard the Mennonite boys once again singing in their “small sweet voices”, Jackson will once again transform withdrawal into communication.
    Munro uses the word tragedy several times. Munro’s own life has had its tragic aspects. Her writing seems always to be reaching for clarity – a place where you “have in a way got outside the tragedy.” This is a very satisfying story: strange, sad, touching, complicated, beautiful, and visionary.

  2. Betsy says:

    Welcome to the English Reading Circle of the Biblioteca del Instituto Internacional. I see that Mookse and Gripes is on the attached suggested reading list!

  3. Dwayne says:

    Just read this one. Problem with reading Munro’s stories is that they take me out of commission for the rest of the day. I can’t read anything else because the stories are so lodged in my mind.

    I read this as the classic story of a man struggling to come to terms with being gay. Am I reading this wrong?

    I should’ve seen this coming a mile away. It’s the classic O. Henry ending, surprising yet inevitable. And it hit me like a ton of brinks just at the end.

    There are several points throughout the story where Munro reveals that Jackson is gay. The section where the Mennonites aren’t worried about their girls around Jackson. Munro writes, “With Belle not a thing had to be spoken of … she was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man.”

    Then there are three other key markers – a) the hospital scene where Jackson doesn’t want to kiss Belle; b) when he writes on the hospital check-in form “Friend,” c) the absence of sex in the beginning of the story; and d) the failed sexual encounter with Ileane.

    You guys know with Munro I’m constantly looking for those moments in the story where those same opposing forces are butting heads over and over again. And in A,B,C,and D above, Jackson is constantly confronted with the issue that he’s not like everyone else. The energy in the story rises above normal during these points. So that’s what stuck out to me, the absence of sex and not to mention, the story starts with Jackson running away from his fiancee.

    It was all so control.

    My only qualm with the story is that it seemed disjointed and abrupt. From the time Belle takes her last sleeping pill to the time he takes on the job as a superintendent. Did Belle die? I’m guessing. And the job as the superintendent left me shaking my head.

    But Munro is, without a doubt, phenomenal and understated. The story transported me.

  4. Hi Dwayne, I loved this story. It’s been a while since I read it, so I’m not entirely fresh on everything. That said, while I agree that while Jackson could be homosexual, I’m not sure that’s the case. I think it fits better in Munro’s work and in this story to read him as someone who simply wants nothing to do with intimacy in any form. I’ll have to pull it out and reread it again to see if that’s still how I feel.

  5. Dwayne says:

    Thx.

  6. Betsy says:

    Hi Dwayne, so nice to have you with us. I agree with you – the people in these stories and the way the stories are told both stay lively long after reading.

    “Train” has among its gifts equal degrees of specificity and mystery; one of the pleasures is how this balance of detail and mystery allows for readers to experience the stories differently.

    Your reading seems perfectly plausible to me, as a possibility. It is consonant with Jackson’s desire to be invisible, and this possible desire for invisibility seems consonant for a homosexual at that time.

    But my own reaction, like Trevor’s, is that Jackson seems asexual, somehow in relation to abandonment.

    Jackson says, “Things could be locked up; It only took some determination.”

    It is this locked quality to his life that speaks to me above all. Abandonment is an overarching theme in Munro; she often seems to be exploring how it takes different people.

    Having a locked life is also a theme in Munro. There is the Parkinsonism that locked her mother up when Munro was a teen. So I think that works as background to her interest in people existing in various sorts of prisons.

    We are right now working on a story from the third book, a story called “Walking on Water”. In it there is an older man whose name (the pronunciation of which is indeterminate) is Lougheed. Perhaps it’s pronounced “Lockheed”. And this character does seem to have a locked personality.

    Mr. Lougheed seems to be struggling with himself; one of the elements of this story is Lougheed’s attempt, late in life to open himself in general to experience; another one of the elements of his struggle appears to be his being attracted to a young man.

    So I think “Train” is usefully considered in tandem with “Walking on Water”, even though the mysteries of “Train” are wonderfully satisfying to the reader and the mysteries of “Walking on Water” are more confusing than successful.

    As we read through her complete stories, it will be interesting to see if or how the theme of homosexuality re-appears. Certainly sexuality in general is one of Munro’s central interests – for the centrality it plays in a character’s yearning for autonomy and completeness.

    But for me – “Train” turns on abandonment, and with the opportunity for Jackson to act out with Belle the caretaking that was so lacking in his own life. They act out a parent child relationship on both sides that is only interrupted when Belle, somewhat in the manner of a coming of age, is able to accept her father’s death as not her fault, and accept her sexual relationship (whatever it was) with her father as not her fault either.

    But that’s too much for Jackson – that’s overwhelming. In her own way, Belle has abandoned him by being able to integrate body and soul. He protects himself from that abandonment by leaving.

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