While there have been a few Munro stories that I didn’t particularly care for, “Bardon Bus” is the first that I actively disliked during my first read-through. I stewed on it for a day or so and sat down with it again, only to see how wrong I was. “Bardon Bus” is a masterpiece. I didn’t see it on my first go-around, but I’m now in awe of what she accomplished in this short story.
Though the story itself treads on one of my favorite topics — the hidden inner life that can be turbulent and torrid even while the surface remains calm — I was a bit put off by Munro’s fragmented structure. The narrator, a middle-aged woman, is telling this story from a friend’s apartment in Toronto where she’s working on a book about the history of a wealthy family. Meanwhile, she slips back and forth in time, remembering an affair she had while in Australia and its aftermath, but we don’t fully understand all that is going on until the end. It was a bit bewildering at first. Munro herself has described the narrator’s state as “hysterical eroticism.”
I don’t know why this was so hard to take in on my first go-through, why I was so impatient, why I didn’t recognize that bewilderment was exactly what I was supposed to feel because that’s what the narrator was expressing. I simply must have been suffering from some deficiency at the time. Maybe I was hungry. I don’t know. “Bardon Bus” as a title refers a bit to this structure. “I say to myself, ‘Bardon Bus, No. 144,’ and I see a whole succession of scenes.” Munro’s “Bardon Bus” is this succession of scenes, memories that surface, sometimes unwelcome and with no context.
All [these memories] did was stir up desire, and longing, and hopelessness, a trio of miserable caged wildcats that had been installed in me without my permission, or at least without my understanding how long they would live and how vicious they would be.
This affair, which she always knew was fleeting, has left her feeling empty and alone, desperate with desire and unable to satisfy her longings. She has to go about her business with this awful gale storming inside of her.
Munro’s opening paragraph is one of the best I’ve seen, from her or anyone. I’ll parse it a bit here. Here’s how we meet our narrator. We know nothing of the affair, nothing at all of her life. We simply hear her connect herself to a long line of women with secret passions.
I think of being an old maid, in another generation. There were plenty of old maids in my family. I come of straightened people, madly secretive, tenacious, economical. Like them, I could make a little go a long way.
While we may expect her to be talking about making a little wealth or a little food or a little warmth go a long way, the way we often hear how people with little still get by, she actually means a little passion, a little lust, and whatever tiny detail set the flames burning:
A piece of Chinese silk folded in a drawer, worn by the touch of fingers in the dark. Or the one letter, hidden under maidenly garments, never needing to be opened or read because every word is known by heart, and a touch communicates the whole.
It’s a secretive world, harbored by these “straightened people,” reminders of lust “hidden under maidenly garments.” Or perhaps:
Perhaps nothing so tangible, nothing but the memory of an ambiguous word, an intimate, casual tone of voice, a hard, helpless look. That could do. With no more than that I could manage, year after year as I scoured the milk pails, spit on the iron, followed the cows along the rough path among the alder and the black-eyed Susans, spread the clean wet overalls to dry on the fence, and the tea towels on the bushes. Who would the man be? He could be anybody.
The narrator continues to imagine herself as an old-maid, working while picturing this man, and finally retiring to her bedroom.
Upstairs my bed with the high headboard, the crocheted spread, and the rough, friendly-smelling flannelette sheets, the hot-water bottle to ease my cramps or be clenched between my legs. There I come back again and again to the center of my fantasy, to the moment when you give yourself up, give yourself over, to the assault which is guaranteed to finish off everything you’ve been before. A stubborn virgin’s belief, this belief in perfect mastery; any broken-down wife could tell you there is no such thing.
The narrator seems to desire something that she knows is impossible, some absolute state of being, though one not accomplished without significant violence to the self. It’s as if the identity of this person is built up of this powerful inner life fed by desire, and if that desire were only sated . . . That’s not something this narrator believes is possible. If we look back on the previous story, “Accident,” we may find just the wife this narrator is talking about.
After this tremendous, complex opening section, we finally meet the woman who is narrating to us. We don’t learn her name, only that she is in Toronto, living with a friend, and working on that book of family history. She quickly tells us that a year prior, she was in Australia and ran into an old acquaintance from schooldays, an anthropologist she calls X. The affair begins, each telling themselves that it was just for a time, he apparently accepting this.
We were not afraid to use the word love. We lived without responsibility, without a future, in freedom, with generosity, in constant but not wearying celebration. We had no doubt that our happiness would last out the little time remaining.
As I mentioned above, we move back and forth to this affair, to the narrator’s agony, a subsequent relationship, and to side-stories about her friend’s own relationship troubles . . . as they are seen by the narrator, who understands that not everything comes out above the surface.
She does was women do. Perhaps she does it more often, more openly, just a bit more ill-advisedly, and more fervently. Her powers of recovery, her faith, are never exhausted. I joke about her, everybody does, but I defend her too, saying that she is not condemned to living with reservations and withdrawals, long-drawn-out dissatisfactions, inarticulate wavering miseries. Her trust is total, her miseries are sharp, and she survives without visible damage. She doesn’t allow for drift or stagnation and the spectacle of her life is not discouraging to me.
Yet she is discouraged. She knows this. Knowing it gives her hope that she’ll get over it. And I think that’s the main question in the story. Can she get over it? Does she want to? It’s agonizing to live without this fulfillment, but how does one forget, move on, to avoid the pain without also feeling like one repudiates the beauty? Doesn’t that mean the beauty was not as beautiful as it seemed, as transformative as it felt at the time?
When the story comes to the end, Munro adds in a trick. Kay has met a man named Alex Walther, an anthropologist. Kay says:
He’s a nice man. Do you know what he did? After dark when we were sitting around the fire he came over to me and just sighed, and laid his head on my lap. I thought it was such a nice simple thing to do. Like a St. Bernard. I’ve never had anybody do that before.
There’s that ephemeral gesture, the one you can hold on to for a long time. Here it may be a source of pain: because it wasn’t for her, and because it didn’t mean anything anyway. Unbidden, it may follow the narrator around. Or it may be just the detail to set her free. Munro doesn’t tell us, but given the narrator’s agony before Kay met Alex, I’m nervous for the narrator.
I am amused at the way the title “Bardon Bus” reminds me of “bard on a bus,” and amused as well by the mock-epic tone this play on words sets in gear. The speaker/writer is, after all, in the paid service of a “rich family” to write their history. She is their bard, so to speak. It is a wicked title. The speaker/writer has a big affair, and you could describe her as the bus her thrice-married libertine lover boarded for a couple of stops. Or vice versa.
Epic might be how many people might describe their experience of the seventies sexual revolution. Quite a few people thought that everything had changed. These would be the same people who might feel pressed to use epic terms when describing what they lived through. Given how much things changed, it is curious how much some things stayed the same. I think Munro is making that point in this story with the mock-heroic allusions.
One question this story raises is whether the feminine mental landscape has really changed along with the sexual revolution, or whether women still dream of being an attachment to a (great) man, and whether this fantasy is still a driving force in the psychology of some women.
Section 1 is a riff on old maids the speaker/writer remembers from her family. These women were able to deal with their “straightened circumstances” with the uses of fantasy. The speaker/writer waxes lyric on their ability to sustain life with the fantasies that one old letter or one piece of faded silk could unleash. The speaker/writer celebrates a “lifelong secret, a lifelong dream life.” This passage is seductive; the women seem self-denying and heroic. But the mock heroic sneaks in. When the spinsters feel satisfied with the transports of a slightly erotic, very romantic hymn, the reader sees a vision of Emily Dickinson secluded in her room, Emily being an almost epic hero of literary women.
In Section 1, the speaker/writer argues that these spinsters were “lapped in harmless craziness.” As the story proceeds, however, the reader wonders if the speaker/writer is similarly “lapped in . . . craziness,” and if she is, the reader questions just how harmless it is. This story suggests that the desire to be subsumed in a man still exists and is still a deranging force.
The reader encounters a sense of derangement in the language toward the end of the very first paragraph in the story, as if Munro were undermining the sense that the speaker/writer is trying to convey. The speaker is able, for about a page, to write in a forceful, lyric, and detailed manner about an “old-maid-craziness” that is the interior solace for spinsterhood and “straightened circumstances.” But then, at the end of this long first paragraph, the speaker/writer lapses into a kind of mental skip, a kind of gap in logic, a kind of linguistic slippage.
Take a look at these two sentences:
There I come back again and again to the center of my fantasy, to the moment when you give yourself up, give yourself over, to the assault which is guaranteed to finish off everything you’ve been before. A stubborn virgin’s belief, this belief in perfect mastery: any broken-down wife could tell you there is no such thing.
One derangement I encountered in these two sentences was just who the “I” was meant to be — the imagined spinsters, the speaker/writer, or more likely, a conflation of the two. There is a slippage of self here.
A second derangement is when the reader encounters the word “assault,” which is neither specifically sexual nor specifically not sexual, but conflated. The speaker/old maid is stuck in the moment of giving herself over to a sexual experience she chooses to define as an assault. The words “again and again” suggest that this is a fantasy that is repeated and repeated.
A third derangement is that the speaker/dreamer imagines that sex will be a giving over or a giving up that will also “finish off everything you’ve been before,” as if this would be a relief, to be rendered from your self. To finish someone off is to kill them. This speaker is imagining that union with another will be a violent assault in which she herself will be annihilated. Why would anyone want that? Would powerlessness have anything to do with it? Does the woman imagine that sex is going to be both an invasion and also a means to power?
Munro often writes about the need to escape a bad situation. In Munro, the key to autonomy seems to be that the person caught in a trap has to finally begin to write, or finally choose divorce, or finally jump on that train, or finally jump off that train. There is a huge difference between escaping from a trap because you climbed out of it and fantasizing that the way to get out of a trap is to yield all power and be assaulted or raped by someone else. It is about locus of control. In the one, you take charge and take action; in the other, you wait around for someone to transport you. This speaker/writer appears to have no inner locus of control.
A fourth linguistic derangement opens up a gap as big as a canyon. Initially I wondered if it were a typo or poor editing. In it, the speaker/dreamer’s language devolves from a vision of assault to sentence fragments set off by a semi-colon: “A stubborn virgin’s belief, this belief in perfect mastery;”.
What mastery of what?
What is this lunatic thinking? Is she talking about mastering yourself? Is she talking about being the master of herself? Is she talking about using submission as a means of being the master of someone else? Does she have any idea what she is trying to say? We have no idea what mastery of what discipline is being sought, as to emphasize that these are women with a mastery of nothing, or, more important, these are women who imagine they have a mastery of nothing.
I suggest that Munro uses dislocutions such as these two sentences when she wants to indicate profound confusion, or profound disintegration of self.
I want to take a slight detour here. This passage about sex as assault reminds me of “Leda and the Swan,” and specifically I am thinking of Leda “taking on the power,” and of the question of whether she takes on the knowledge with the power. I am also reminded of Dickinson’s “Master letters,” and just why she thought of him as her master; I also wonder whether her “secret, lifelong dream-life” is a viable model for the woman writer or any writer. Power, of course, or the lack of it, is the common denominator in all of this.
The stumbling continues as the speaker/writer concludes the sentence: “any broken down housewife could tell you there is no such thing.” This is essentially an unfinished thought. No such thing as what? No such thing as “perfect mastery”?
The speaker/writer’s thinking has gaps. We go from lyric love letters and hymns to submission, to assault, to assault that sounds like rape, to self-annihilation, to assault as the means to “mastery,” to the desired obliteration of the self, to a transformed self, to broken-down housewives. That’s a million mile trip, given that the speaker/dreamer seems to see most housewives as “broken-down,” which I don’t think Munro means at all.
I think what we are meant to notice is that this speaker/dreamer is a woman whose locus of control is not within herself. So, is this a “harmless craziness”?
Not at all. The speaker/dreamer goes on to tell an alarming story at the length of fifteen pages or so about a thrilling affair she had that has left her not in possession of herself. According to the mores of the 70s, her life might seem to be a triumphant tale of sexual free expression, but Munro makes clear how lacking in self she seems to be.
The speaker/writer admires a friend for her success at this kind of life:
She does what women do. Perhaps she does it more often, more openly, just a little more ill-advisedly, and more fervently. Her powers of recovery, her faith, are never exhausted. I joke about her, everybody does, but I defend her too, saying that she is not condemned to living with reservations and withdrawals, long-drawn-out dissatisfactions, inarticulate wavering miseries.
I note the word “inarticulate” — that for the speaker, the love affairs reduce her to “inarticulate wavering miseries,” and this loss of speech is signal, I argue, in Munro, to loss of will and self. Having dinner with a male acquaintance who viciously assaults her, the speaker/dreamer “can’t think of anything to say.”
Remembering the affair, the speaker/writer/dreamer remembers what she said to the thrice married lover as they parted:
“As it is, it’s been perfect.”
I said that. And that was a lie.
Who assaulted whom here? Munro holds people accountable for their delusions and dishonesties.
In Munro it is the self that is responsible for itself.