“In Sight of the Lake” is the ninth 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.
This story first appeared in Granta 118: Exit Strategies. I found it to be quite unlike what we’re used to seeing in Alice Munro. In fact, more than reminding me of an Alice Munro story, it reminded me, in some small ways, of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” Let’s see if I can articulate why.
“In Sight of the Lake” begins when an elderly woman — called at first, simply, “a woman” — goes to the doctor to get her prescription renewed, only to find that the doctor is not there. More distressing, it’s the doctor’s day off: “In fact the woman has got the day wrong, she has mixed up Monday and Tuesday.” Besides renewing her prescription, it’s this lapse in memory, this mixing up things, that she wants to talk to the doctor about. Only when the doctor’s office calls do we learn the woman’s name:
Instead, the doctor’s assistant phones a day later to say that the prescription is ready and that an appointment has been made for the woman — her name is Nancy — to be examined by a specialist about this mind problem.
It may seem strange that Munro introduces the woman’s name in this way, almost as if it’s an afterthought. In fact, this story is filled with small tangents and observations that seem like afterthoughts, or, rather, that seem like clarifications of thought that arrive just a tad too late.
This specialist is located in another town (as are all specialists, and none of them in the same town, Nancy laments). Rather than arrive flustered and, maybe, late, the woman decides to go to the town the day before her appointment to find the doctor’s office.
When she arrives at the town, called Highman (a play on words that does not go unnoticed by Nancy), Nancy goes through her “habit of checking out small places just for fun, to see if she could live there. This one seems to fit the bill.” Highman is a small town, and “[t]here are signs of course that the place has seen better days.”
She parks her car and goes to seek the doctor’s office on foot, presently finding that she failed to grab the piece of paper with the directions and with the doctor’s name. Not to worry, she thinks, surely when she sees it she will recognize, and maybe people will be able to help her.
The story turns a bit cold and menacing at about this point. The town seems to be from the past, only modern conveniences like televisions and air conditioners keep people off their porches where once they might have spent then evening, leaving the town empty and haunting. When she finally does meet some people to ask for help, even that encounter is almost ghostly as Munro tells it:
Here there are people. They haven’t all managed to shut themselves up with the air-conditioning. A boy is riding a bicycle, taking diagonal routes across the pavement. Something about his riding is odd, and she cannot figure it out at first.
He is riding backward. That’s what it is. A jacket flung in such a way that you could not see — or she cannot see — what is wrong.
A woman who might be too old to be his mother — but who is very trim and lively looking all the same — is standing out in the street watching him. She is holding on to a skipping rope and talking to a man who could not be her husband — both of them are being too cordial.
The street is a curved dead end. No going further.
Interrupting the adults, Nancy excuses herself. She says that she is looking for a doctor.
“No, no,” she says. “Don’t be alarmed. Just his address. I thought you might know.”
Then comes the problem of realizing that she is still not sure of the name. They are too polite to show any surprise at this but they cannot help her.
The boy on one of his perverse sallies comes swinging around, barely missing all three.
Laughter. No reprimand. A perfect young savage and they seem to positively admire him. They all remark on the beauty of the evening, and Nancy turns to go back the way that she has come.
Please forgive the length of that excerpt. A lot of the joy of this story, though, comes from the disjointed style, the almost hallucinatory encounters as Nancy wanders the streets and yards of this town, looking for that cursed doctor’s office, and the strange details (riding backwards? the jumping rope? the cordial couple? the beauty of the evening?).
This isn’t a story about the swift passage of time coupled with regret, but the feel of the story — not to mention the town and the encounters where someone, either the people or the narrator, seems to not quite be on the same plane of time — reminded me of “The Swimmer,” another stylized piece of writing that nevertheless comes off feeling almost too true to life.
“In Sight of the Lake” is actually one of the only Alice Munro stories where I have the basic thrust of the story’s narrative figured out before we get to the end. In fact, I can’t remember another Alice Munro story where I knew how it was going to end before we got there. At any rate, this didn’t diminish the story for me because, as is often the case with Murno, it isn’t what happens that’s important. Rather, it’s the tone, the textures, the images.
As much as I enjoyed this story, I do think it is one of the weaker ones in this collection. That’s hardly harsh condemnation, though, when the collection contains masterpieces like “Amundsen,” “Gravel,” and “Haven.” And of course, the more I think about “In Sight of the Lake,” the more I admire it, the less I’m able to shake its ramifications. This collection continues to be one of the must-reads of the year.