This story begins with an airplane making a shaky landing that has all on board a bit on edge before they laugh in relief. And indeed the story itself has the ability to take us from regret and sadness to comedy as Munro focuses on one of the women on the plane: Gail.
Gail, we learn, is on her way to Australia, a place she’s never been. She’s going there now on a bit of a fool’s errand: Will — not her husband, but someone she’d been with for years — left her in Canada to follow a young lover to Australia. Since that time, for Gail, Walley, Canada, has been barely a backdrop:
All the trees and streets in Walley, all the liberating views of the lake and the comfort of the shop. Useless cutouts, fakes and props. The real scene was hidden from her in Australia.
So to Australia she goes because to her that’s where life went. I don’t think she’s thinks she’ll find happiness in Australia. I don’t think she has a real plan to execute when she gets there. It’s simply where the throbbing is, and she must tend to it.
The first third of the story shows a bit of Gail’s life with Will. She runs a shop. He teaches school. As she reflects on this, during the bumpy plane ride, she wonders when it was she lost the upper hand in their relationship, which is such a sad thought: the union as a power struggle, the partner as a slippery opponent to be directed with delicacy and utilized for self-fulfillment. And yet, there next to her on the plane is a couple that looks very familiar. The husband and wife are on their way to Hawaii so the husband can play in a left-handed golf tournament. His wife is there to support him, and there she sits with a headache and regret. And so Gail reflects on what it means to have a relationship at all.
It doesn’t seem like “The Jack Randa Hotel” is going to have much levity. But then Gail arrives in Brisbane, finds Will’s new home, and steals a letter from his mailbox. The letter, it turns out, is stamped “return to sender”; it’s one Will wrote that was sent back to him because the addressee was recently deceased, though Will does not know this. We quickly see he didn’t even know the addressee but sent the letter on a whim. Gail infers from the letter that Will is a bit lonely in Brisbane, a bit out of place in the country as well as in his lover’s young group of friends. Will, you see, not only left Gail in Walley; that’s where his own mother still lives as well. And so Will reached out to the only person in Brisbane with the same last name: Thornaby.
For her part, Gail goes to the recently departed Ms. Thornaby’s apartment, sees it’s up to be leased, and moves into a new home and a new identity. A new identity that feels quite comfortable taking Will down a peg or two. Here’s part of her first hilarious missive as Ms. Thornaby:
You may know that the name comes from Thorn Abbey, the ruins of which are still to be seen in Northumberland. The spelling varies — Thornaby, Thornby, Thornabbey, Thornabby. In the Middle Ages the name of the Lord of the Manor would be taken as a surname by all the people working on the estate, including laborers, blacksmiths, carpenters, etc. As a result there are many people scattered around the world bearing a name that in the strict sense they have no right to. Only those who can trace their descent from the family in the twelfth century are the true, armigerous Thornabys. That is, they have the right to display the family coat of arms. I am one of these Thornabys and since you do not mention anything about the coat of arms and do not trace your ancestry back beyond this William I assume that you are not. My grandfather’s name was Jonathan.
The remainder of the story is a comical — though, under the surface, desperate and very unhealthy — back and forth between Gail and Will, who receives his share of chastisement from this stranger in the letters and gradually comes to understand that something is going on, that perhaps he doesn’t have the upper hand. Gail enjoys the new Gail, or “Ms. Thornaby.”
As a story that moves and entertains, “The Jack Randa Hotel” is a lot of fun. But Munro is always exploring more than she’s entertaining, and “The Jack Randa Hotel” is a rather dark examination of relationships — that “upper hand” — and what brings people together, seemingly against sense. Gail is no one I’d like to trifle with, but she’s an intelligent woman who is willing to go against sense in more ways than one. By adopting a new persona, she can say things to Will she never would otherwise, she can maintain some sense that they are still in a relationship, and she can even hope he might follow her back to Canada.
In the end, we’ve been through quite a bit of turbulence, real turbulence, real risk, and we have to look around and maybe chuckle a bit to find ourselves still in one piece after a brush with the edge. But this is not the end. Not really. That onset of relief, which feels like joy, can dissipate quickly.
“The Jack Randa Hotel” is so perfect in every way, so entertaining, so funny, so interlocking, so echoing, so various, so changeable, so like life and at the same time so new that I can hardly bring myself to say one single thing about it.
It is the best epistolary fiction I ever read, and I adore epistolary fiction.
It is also a love letter to the way we misunderstand things — the way Gail hears, not once, but twice, “Jack Randa,” as in “randy jack,” when what was actually said was “jacaranda.” The jacaranda is an Australian tree which in the spring blooms a “shade of silvery-blue, or silvery-purple.”
The jacaranda is a color “so beautiful, so delicate that you would think it would shock everything into quietness, into contemplation.”
But if life always knew how to act, that would not actually be life, would it?
Gail mistakes the name of the tree, just as she is mistakes randyness for love, and temporary for permanent, and lasting for fleeting. It is as if the very essence of life is not getting it right. It is as if the condition of life is to not perceive almost anything right.
The story seems to me like a trapeze act or a fleeting blossom: perfect, impossible, full of tricks and daring, each little exquisite maneuver executed and done and over before you realize it, and lasting, in the memory as only an impression of perfection, an impression of life (its speed and fleeting momentariness), with all its mistakes and glory.
Is every sentence perfect? Every shift? Yes.
The story is an entertainment and a hymn: full of sadness and loss and haphazard determination, and funny, very funny, as well as dead-on perfect about men and women. It’s as good as “Wigtime,” except it’s way better.
And that’s all I can bring myself to say, as if to pin it down would kill it, the way the beauty of a gorgeous bug or ephemeral butterfly is nothing to what it was before we put it in the case.
Thanks, Alice. Thanks so much. I love how you can write. You make me laugh.