During store hours, Maria didn’t let one sort of transaction interfere with another. Everybody paid as usual. She didn’t behave any differently; she was still in charge. The boys knew they had some bargaining power, but they were never sure how much.
In much of her work, Alice Munro explores the transactional nature of sex, the give and take, the power positions, so well. In “Five Points” — the title of which refers to a section of town in Victoria, Canada, where some of the action takes place, but which certainly also calls to mind the five points of Calvinism, with its focus on sin and grace — there are two linked stories, each of which explores the power relationship in sex — the drive, the carnality, the fall, the abuse.
The primary story involves Brenda, a married woman who is having an affair with Neil based on lust and the rush of freedom from the ever-increasing complexity of her relationship with her husband Cornelius.
The secondary story, significantly darker than and embedded in the primary story, is about Maria, a thirteen-year-old girl who first pays boys to have sex with her and then loses everything when the young boys usurp her power. Neil knew Maria when he was about her same age, and he is the one telling the story to Brenda, little knowing that it will be a piece of their own transaction and reevaluation of the services being rendered.
I think “Five Points” is a fascinating story. On the surface it is relatively straightforward. The two stories are, for example, easy to summarize, and their relationship is not difficult to suss out. However, this is a story about what goes on the outskirts and below the surface. Munro makes this rather explicit, letting Cornelius tell us about what it was like when he used to work in a mine that went under the lake:
It’s a world of its own, he says — caverns and pillars, miles out under the lake. If you get in a passage where there are no machines to light the gray walls, the salt-dusty air, and you turn your headlamp off, you can find out what real darkness is like, the darkness people on the surface of the earth never get to see.
Munro is again showing us that the simple is anything but, that there are many more potential tunnels than we can ever follow, each going deeper into the lives, deeper into darkness. Most people prefer to look on the surface. But in this deepening, relationships that seemed straightforward even to the characters (and, we recognize, in our own lives) grow in complexity and, in these instances, burdens and abuse.
We see Brenda and Maria embark on a new and, at the time, light phase. The sex feels cheap if not free. But they each enter a new phase. For neither is it hopeful, though Brenda recognizes it is rather inevitable, and doesn’t necessarily mean the end:
He has lost some of his sheen for her; he may not get it back. Probably the same goes for her, with him. She feels his heaviness and anger and surprise. She feels that also in herself. She thinks that up till now it was easy.
“Five Points” initially struck me as thin, not to mention that I was also repelled by its hopelessness. An attractive woman with a disabled husband is having an affair with a customer she’s picked up in her second-hand store. Brenda and Neil meet in his trailer for sex; it is isolated, not particularly clean, and way down a long dirt road. Although they do nothing together but drink and have sex, the woman looks forward to their meetings as if they were a “ceremony on which [her] life or salvation depended.”
Pretty thin salvation, the reader notes. Pretty grim. So much for free love, flower power, and all the other nostrums of the 60’s.
As is almost a constant in Munro, there is a companion story: Neil tells Brenda how, when he was 15 or so, a slatternly immigrant teenager named Maria, old beyond her years, ended up paying 15-year old boys for sex. The boys then used the money to buy drugs, drugs having suddenly proliferated, it being the 70s. Neil does not leave out how Maria ended up in such a mess. He tries, in a kind of atonement, to tell the whole story. Though Munro doesn’t say so, Maria’s central European parents seem to be in a kind of shock, and in their frozen state, they neglect and use her. The father does almost nothing in the store, the mother does all the baking, the pretty little sister does her homework, and Maria runs the money. If one were looking for a patriarchal society run amok in miniature, there it is. The havoc of immigration has reduced the father to nothing, and slovenly, unloved, and untended Maria takes his rightful place in the business.
Neil’s “salvation” is obviously the amnesia that drugs offer (another false nostrum of the 60s), although he also appears to crave the release of confession.
As always, the story plays out in complicated layers. The first layer is in the reverberation created by the two plot lines and the details of the two plot lines. The two stories, for instance, both involve an exaggerated patriarchy that cracks under the strain. We find out that when very young, Brenda married a man 12 years her senior, as if she purposely had picked out a father figure, as if the man had purposely picked out a teenager/child bride. Brenda tells Neil that her father had slapped her when he heard she tried some pot, but this is a lie. It was actually her fiancée who had slapped her. And she still married him, as if the slap had sealed the deal. She had gone out of her way to choose a man to be her patriarch, and then, with his injury at work, things are turned upside down, and she is suddenly the one who has to be “responsible.”
Patriarchy in the Maria layer plays into patriarchy in Brenda’s marriage. Maria’s father, having been uprooted and perhaps reduced as an immigrant, plays the lord, ruining his wife and oldest daughter in the process. Cornelius also plays the lord, only to be reduced by accident. Ironically, both men get to keep a kind of lordly, do-nothing status. At first, only the women are enslaved. By the end, however, things have flipped, and both Maria and Brenda are assuming the role of the patriarchy, with the men and boys are at their beck and call. The reduction of the men is painful; the hollowed out women are repulsive. Reflect, however, that the women have merely flipped the patriarchal equation.
In the background of these two stories is the salt mine that runs under Lake Huron. Munro never says so, but we all recognize the salt mine as a particular site of ancient misery. Despite the fact that the mine ruined him, Cornelius loves the power it represents, the immense machines, the huge labyrinth, the dangerous work. To me, the mine mirrors the labyrinthine effects of patriarchy: the danger, the slavery, the ossification that the salt of the mine and the rules of the patriarchy represent. In addition, the mine represents a kind of calcified mind lurking beneath the lake of daily life. Cornelius says the dark in the mine is like no other, and that parts of it are as sealed as a tomb.
As any good icon can, the mine also is a riff on the way people think they can seal off parts of themselves, or seal off lies, or seal off deception.
Brenda thinks of her relationship with Neil as a kind of dream, and in her mind, “there’s a whole underground system that you call ‘dreams,’ having nothing better to call them, and that this system is not like roads or tunnels but more like a live body network, all coiling and stretching, unpredictable but finally familiar — where you are now, where you’ve always been.” Brenda takes the image of the mine and makes it alive, except that the word “coiling” makes her metaphor ominous. In addition, Brenda does not distinguish between the dreams you have while sleeping or the dreams, or ambitions, you have while awake. Yes, surely, we connect sexuality with sleep and with sleeping dreams, but Brenda also thinks of her relationship with Neil as a waking dream. As an ambition, Neil is so unpromising as to be a warning, regardless that he and Brenda have a language and history of “passion.” The reader can’t help but think this dream-world of Brenda’s is a dead-end, like the salt mine. While Brenda craves the “sap” of the men she pursues, she “notices that [her lover’s] voice is nearly as flat and tired as her own.”
In both stories, the natural order is up-ended, and to no good effect. Maria, the teenager, is acting the adult by running the store, but in so doing she plays the old witch. Brenda, the housewife in her thirties, is acting the teenager, but in doing so is playing run-around-Sue, and simultaneously criticizing her daughter for being the teenager the real teenager actually is.
Neil describes what happened in the 60s and 70s as “the change”: the sex, the drugs, the teenagers on their own, the oldsters playing at being kids. It’s bizarre to hear him using the locution society uses to name the time which marks the end (“the change”), for women, of their fertility. It’s as if life in the Americas had suddenly dried up. Munro is not romantic about the wild changes of the 70s. There’s a hard-boiled attitude toward the revolutions of the 70s at work here and in many of her other stories, in which the revolution does not appear uniformly benevolent.
Another layer in this story is created by the title: “Five Points.” Ostensibly, it is the place Neil grew up, the poor neighborhood he fled when he was sixteen.
Many Canadians might also be familiar with the phrase as the “Five Points” of Calvinism, the original backbone of Presbyterianism, the most dominant Protestant strain in Canada. The Five Points of Calvinism include the idea that only some people are saved (the elect), and that Christ’s atonement was limited to those who were saved. Thus a strictly Calvinist church does not believe in the possibility of salvation for all. Munro does not, I think, mean to refer to these ideas in any strict manner but more as a setting for the sense of unrelieved and hopeless sin that Neil feels.
Calvinism is obviously another sealed tomb like the salt mine — a place where you work and think you are powerful. But the machines of Calvinism are as dangerous and as paralyzing as the machines in the salt mine.
While a search for salvation is a theme in this story, Munro is almost never comfortable with the organized church as place where salvation either occurs or is sparked. Instead, Munro’s characters often seek to appropriate religious ritual to their own ends, or to even create their own ritual. Hence, Brenda sees her trysts with Neil and her “salvation,” but Munro clearly means us to see what a bleak salvation it is.
Neil ends his story about Maria, and how he was one of the boys who took money from her, by saying, “I wasn’t looking to confess it [. . . ] I just wanted to talk about it.” He goes on to admit, “Then what pisses me off is I lied anyway.” We are not sure, here, whether what he means is that he lied at first about taking money from Maria, or whether in fact that his denial he had sex with her is true either. What we do know is that he ran away shortly thereafter, and that he lives the drifter’s life, seemingly unattached to family or any particular woman. So by the time the story ends, we know what Neil has denied: he does want to confess, he does want forgiveness, and he does want to rejoin the world of ordinary human interaction. He pleads with Brenda, “Christ, don’t get out yet!”
The life that Neil and Brenda manage to accomplish through sex feels as if it might be salvation, that they might be each other’s Christ, but the reader knows they have a long way to go beyond sex before salvation could enter into it.
One of the casualties of the seventies was ordinary religion. I doubt that church now holds the sway in Canada it did a hundred years ago. It’s as if Christ and his salvation were now entombed in history (and Calvinism) the way the company sealed up the giant machines in the caverns of the mine.
One of the hopes of the seventies was that we could save each other. Munro echoes that with Brenda thinking of her trysts with Neil as ceremonies of her “salvation.” But in order to fulfill her responsibilities to her husband, she needs to keep Neil separate. It’s as if the trailer where they meet is like a sealed cavern in a mine. Neil, however, needs more than just “ceremonies” of salvation. He needs actual salvation, perhaps of the kind that ordinary human relationships can offer. But something in him is broken, and he seems an unlikely candidate, at this point, for a turnaround.
This brings me to the issue of prostitution. The story, which is topsy-turvy in every way (think Brenda hiding from her daughter the way a teenager hides from her mother), has Maria being the John who pays for sex. Brenda, in this story, is also the John who prostitutes the men she meets, prostitutes them by keeping them so ceremonially separate, such that she would not have to feel “responsible” for him. The name Brenda, in fact, was originally a man’s name (Brendr, meaning sword). So Brenda and Maria act the man, Neil and the boys act the woman, act the prostitute, thus acting out “the change” that Neil described. The exchange works no better when the sexes are reversed: all are demeaned and “flattened.”
Gloria Steinem famously said that marriage was just legalized prostitution. Brenda’s marriage is more like slavery, her husband a “bulk settling down possessively like a ton of blankets.” If Brenda’s marriage to the salt-mine-worker is like legalized prostitution, it has ended up having none of the benefits of marriage itself.
A very bizarre note in this story (whether Munro intended it or not) is a slang allusion within the title that five points can refer to a sex between a woman and five men. Both Neil and Brenda’s sexual history is conflicted: Brenda could have easily serially had five men; Neil was certainly one of many boys who used Maria. Neil’s story is vague and incorporates at least one lie, such that what really transpired between Maria and the boys is not clear. He says it was one boy at a time, but they are referred to as a group, and once the door to the shed is closed, it’s not clear how many people are in there. The story concerns the cavernous emptiness that is possible between women and men, whether it be in marriage, casual flings, affairs, prostitution or pornography. As for Brenda, the lie is how many Neil’s she has had in this aftermath of Cornelius’s accident (Cornelius, who now, on a bad day, can spend a whole day lying on the floor in front of the television, presumably in the deadened embrace of some Percocet of his own).
The story’s clear allusion to prostitution suggests the dead zone that Neil and Brenda inhabit, regardless of the “sap” that Brenda hopes to suck from him. The deadness of their relationship is intensified by the image of the salt mine where Brenda like to troll. She says she “loves the smell of work on their bodies, the language of it they speak, their absorption in it, their disregard of her. She loves to get a man fresh from all that.” And flush with the money they make, I think the story suggests. But the emptiness and danger of the salt mine are the image of her relationships.
Drugs were part of the seventies revolution, and Neil still has his stash: “Percs, Quaaludes and a little hash.” This is what Neil wants to have after sex. Quaaludes are a sedative and a hypnotic. Percocet is an oxycodone concoction, and this is only the 1990s. Neil thinks of them as nothing, but as we all know, oxycodone is no nothing, and I think Munro knows that, too. He’s talking opioid, he’s talking narcotic, he’s talking obliteration. As if after sex he needs to make his own mind an empty cavern.
So what are Munro’s purposes here? Maybe to see if she can capture, without lecturing, the topsy-turvy bad effects of “the change” the world went through in the 70s. There’s no neat way to sum this story up: there is too much suffering. Neil and Cornelius probably can’t get through the day without drugs. Neil and Brenda can’t get through the day without lying. The teenagers are all on their own. Relationships exist in sealed tombs, and there is a purposelessness to the endeavor of being alive.
Brenda enjoys herself, but for how long? She runs a second-hand shop, and she has made of herself a second-hand girl. When she herself hits “the change,” what will she have?
In “Hold me Fast, Don’t let me Pass” the indomitable Hazel says, “[T]here came a time when she had to take hold of her life, and she has urged the same course in others. She urges action, exercise, direction.” Brenda needs a Hazel to break in, but even if Hazel did break in, would Brenda be able to listen? Some people feel their life upon them as a weight so heavy it’s like “a ton of blankets.” For some people, the situation is such that there’s very little hope.
“Five Points” asks: if the salt has lost its flavor what is a man to do?
Munro famously employs “the intervention of fate” to galvanize people. One is left with the sense that both Neil and Brenda need an intervention of fate. Brenda needs to be revealed by her daughter, or discovered by a neighbor, or startled some way, back to life. But that story is left for the reader to write.
For some people in Munro’s universe, the situation is just too overwhelming. It’s like being imprisoned in your own life, as Munro says of the mother in “Friend of my Youth.”