Here we come to the final story in another Alice Munro collection, and again it is the title story. As I’ve been reading this, I’ve been mulling over what “the moons of Jupiter” have to do with this collection and, now, with this particular story. Sure, the actual Galilean moons — Io, Europa, Callisto, Ganymede — come up in a conversation late in this piece, but their significance as distant orbiting bodies has deep meaning. When I picture the moons of Jupiter, I picture great mass. Jupiter is, of course, incomprehensibly gigantic, pulling into its orbit many smaller bodies, each with fascinatingly unique characteristics. Besides mass I think of space, the vast space that separates these bodies that are, nevertheless, joined together in a dance around the sun.
This story is not astronomical, though. It is told from the perspective of a woman named Janet who has come to Toronto because her father is about to undergo surgery. There’s a good chance he won’t survive, but without the surgery he will definitely be dead in a few months. Janet’s marriage in Vancouver has broken up, and she — a relatively well known author — is a bit unmoored, traveling back to Canada from London so she can be with her father.
Janet has two adult daughters living close to Toronto. One picked her up at the airport, and Janet is going to stay at her house while she and her boyfriend go on holiday. The other daughter . . . well, Janet doesn’t know where this other daughter is. Due to hurt feelings and resentment, she drifts in and out of Janet’s life.
So, here we have Janet, a woman past middle age, brought back to her roots and wondering just what is going on with the people who’ve, for the most part, been ever present, even if silent, in her life and thoughts.
What, then, is Jupiter in this story, and what are the moons? I think there are several potential answers, all quite interesting to examine. Is the father Jupiter, always influencing Janet’s trajectory? Is it that region of Canada? Or is Janet herself the massive planet, all of these people, these places, these times, the moons in her orbit?
I’d like to focus on the last possibility, as it includes people, place, and time as physical objects that revolve around the central being. Janet’s daughters as moons — orbiting objects whose path is determined by balanced between a trajectory of escape and a trajectory of free fall and collision. They are close, related, inescapably present (even when not), yet they are separate beings with unique, unknowable features. They are always close — Janet laments that she had no sons because sons can never know as much about you as daughters do — yet always distant.
As for places, Munro herself and her fiction has always orbited a distinct region in Canada, though it often drifts away for a brief time (orbits are not perfect circles, after all). With Janet we have another character — another Munro-like character — who has gone away for a time and has now returned, forced to reevaluate the past as she does so.
But, interestingly, this story looks both at the past and at the future. So Jupiter, that massive body, could also be this main event in time: the surgery and impending death of Janet’s father. The present, then, is the massive body, with all other times and events — past and future — circling around it, exerting their influence as well. Here, now, Janet sits, the narrative circles around her, events and the people involved flashing before her face.
This is the title of the book as well, and when we look back we see this theme across the other stories. People coming together and drifting apart, time speeding up and then slowing down to a crawl, “now” sitting at the exact center of everything. Is it ever hopeful? I’m not so sure, if I look at it all this way. It also seems that everything might just be headed toward oblivion, that these moons of Jupiter will one day be as the dust in the rings of Saturn, all silent in space.
Importantly, though, they were bodies once. They were in space, orbiting, living, once. Munro is at her best when she shows that even these moments and these people, that will one day appear insignificant in the grand scheme of things, they had mass.
In “The Moons of Jupiter” a father, who is an old man with a heart condition, and a daughter, who is a successful writer, face his possible death together. Once before, there was the possibility that her now grown (estranged) daughter had leukemia, and Janet says of that time:
I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love in fact measured and disciplined, because you have to survive. It would be done with such care that the object of such care wouldn’t suspect . . . .
How English! How Scottish! I can say that — I’m Scotland and England bred. Once I was in the emergency ward of Holyoke hospital in the middle of the night with my eighty-year-old father. I was pretty proud of us, that I was there with him, that I had flown out of the house in the dark to get to his bedside, first at his assisted living place, and then with him at the hospital. But next to us, in the little curtained cubicle, were an entire Hispanic family: Grandma, who was ill, a young couple, and several of their children. There was nothing measured about their response to Grandma’s being near death. They were all there. Circumstances had predestined that fact. They probably lived together. So far from protecting the children from death or grief, or protecting the grandma from the children (which is what would have happened in my family) the children were not to be protected from death. They were to be protected from being alone, or protected from being abandoned, which of course, is how the family were protecting Grandma. No ice floes there.
I don’t mean there’s nothing universal in “The Moons of Jupiter.” There is, for one thing, the universe, given the visit the frightened daughter makes to the planetarium, seeking calm and relief. I remember, so clearly, the day JFK was shot. I was in college, and I went to the Brattle Street Theatre to see a movie, and the theatre was packed.
Janet’s dad remarks on a booklet someone had left behind in his room, a booklet that tells of near death experiences on the operating table. Survivors remark, regarding that brief time of being dead, on how they floated above the operating table and looked down upon it. He is wry about much of his experience. “Going under the knife,” he says, the sly verbal humor being typical of him in a crisis, says Janet.
There is, for another, the happenstance that Janet is, at the moment, estranged from her twenty-something daughter, that separation and that yearning marking what may also mark her life in the event of her father’s death. Life, its own self, intrudes in everything. And, in this family, temporary, even momentary, estrangement is as natural as breathing.
Janet herself is annoyed at her father several times, annoyed that he won’t accept her fame without needing to bring her down a peg, annoyed that he wants her to be famous, annoyed that he treasures her brother-in-law’s success, annoyed that he would, at this moment, choose to reveal he was annoyed when she left her husband. Estrangement is as natural as breathing out in this family, but at the same time, the reverse is true. Connection returns on the intake.
The father and daughter re-connect repeatedly: he quotes a broken line of poetry, and he searches for the rest of it, revealing how the daughter and he are in the same business – words, writers, books, art — even though the father was a workingman. It’s curious to me that the poet he quotes is Joaquin Miller, “Poet of the Sierras” says Wikipedia. Curious, too, that Joaquin was born Cincinnatus Heine Miller and renamed himself.
The father is struggling with something unfinished. As to whether he had fulfilled his dreams, the father observes, “The trouble was, I was always afraid to take chances.”
There is something magnificent, then, in his present parallel struggle – whether to have surgery to repair his broken heart valve. In the eighties, when this story was written, the surgery wasn’t a sure thing. The old man muses to his daughter that maybe “the best thing for me to do is go home and take it easy.” That is, in itself, courageously understated, as the doctor has given him three months. After a couple of days, he changes his mind. This feels, also, courageous.
Curiously, the story is also about what you know, what you don’t know, and how it is so human to revise what you mistakenly thought to be true.
The father says he’d always been afraid to take chances. This is not completely true. As a teenager, he’d bolted from his “bleak” circumstances — “the poor farm, the scared sisters, the harsh father . . . .”
Munro paints it for us:
I thought of him running away to work on the lake boats, running along the railway tracks, toward Goderich, in the evening light.
Munro celebrates this memory, which may be of her own father, painting it in the evening light, and letting us know who the model is for all her heroes and heroines who make a dash for freedom. He’d done it once before, revised his life, rewritten it. Now he does it again. He takes the chance on surviving the surgery and chooses the knife.
It is this revision that Munro is exploring, our freedom to revise our life.
At the planetarium, Janet muses about how people used to think Mercury rotated once in its orbit of the sun and had one almost magically permanent lighted side and one almost magically permanent dark side. But then it was discovered that it rotated three times, and the old idea was smashed to bits. No more condemned to fixity, knowledge allowed Mercury to be itself — changeable.
Munro doesn’t say that much. She lets that come to me.
In the same way, the old man revises who he is. For a while he’s been the one in the family who wouldn’t take chances. And now, again, as in his youth, he risks it all. His last words celebrate it all — revising as he does his stated knowledge — talking about the moons of Jupiter, he’d said Ganymede was a shepherd (a dull commoner), and then his last words to Janet revise that thought. No — he says, Ganymede was “Jove’s cupbearer.”
Funny about that. When Janet sat in the planetarium show, she felt as if the learning being presented were “balls of lightning” flying by her head. As if this were a heroic scene; as if she were some kind of immortal. Her father echoes that with his last words. Ganymede was “Jove’s cupbearer.” Somehow, he’s saying to her, should they never meet again, I was your cup-bearer, and I know I am immortal through you, through your writing. This is all in ironic code. They’d never say such things aloud so brashly. But it’s there in the situation.
And so he’s is offering her another cup as well, not just the fact that he and she are both interested in the way the brain thinks, the way it works, given that he mulls over how he can ask himself a question and then his brain “like a computer,” will search itself and deliver it. It is not just that they are both interested in words and knowledge and the nature of knowledge. Janet and her father are also interested in the nature of truth, and particularly the nature of truth in families.
He insists on telling her (should he die “under the knife”) that he had disapproved of her leaving her husband. She insists on making clear to him that she is resigned to his death. She is so measured in everything he does, calm.
He knows she is estranged from her daughter. He demonstrates, when he chooses surgery, that nothing is fixed, things can change, people can change their minds, people can revise themselves. Nichola is not necessarily lost. As Joaquin Miller says in his poem “Columbus,” you may think in the dark of night that all is lost, that “not even God would know / should I and all my men fall dead.” But Columbus sails on;
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: ‘On! Sail on!’
We are not Mercury, permanently fixed. We are like Columbus. We have choices. We decide. Says Janet’s father.