by Alice Munro
from Runaway

“Tricks” is not one of Munro’s blockbuster stories. Getting access to what feels like the center of the story is less difficult than in a story like “Runaway” or “Passion.” (Regardless, please read Munro’s original story before you read the following (detailed) commentary; Munro’s art deserves to be encountered fresh.)

To complicate matters for the reader, Robin, the main character in “Tricks,” is a woman who (much like all of us) is not altogether sympathetic. The most compelling character is Danilo Adzic, a mysterious man from Montenegro about whom we know very little.

Robin, the central character, is a woman who manages, after a while, to live the  life of the artist, but at a very high price. It is as if for a woman, especially a provincial woman, to live a life of art is a kind of magic trick.

What other kinds of tricks does the title suggest?  Dirty tricks? Turning tricks? Trick of fate? Did the trick? Card trick? Circus trick?

“Tricks” opens with a 30-year-old older sister playing cards with a neighbor on the porch. Thus all of the negative connotations associated with “tricks” begin with her. Joanne is a likely bad guy, given that her severe and stunting asthma seems to have warped her character. In the first two pages she ridicules her 26-year-old younger sister several times, her “fund of contempt” fueling her standard relationship with the world. Robin is silent. Joanne is mean. But Joanne’s also a bit of a straw dog in the villain department. Yes, given their orphan status, Robin has to take care of Joanne. But does the role actually require Robin to limit her life or her self? Or has Robin actually made her own choice to be isolated and limited?

With “trick of fate” lurking in the background, the reader flirts with the idea that Robin, who has never had a boyfriend, has had her life ruined by this slightly monstrous older sister. A whiff of paralysis fills the house. So, is Robin fated? Or does she choose?

There are two essentials to Robin’s back story. First, she has become a nurse, and at one whack has solved the problem of both caring for Joanne and supporting them both. Being a nurse also affords her independence and an uncomplicated career that is always in demand. She has chosen to cope with the cards she has been dealt.

The second essential is that she is “different,” and she knows she is different. When she was in nursing school in Stratford, she had taken to allowing herself one play a year, and has kept up the ceremony even after leaving school. It is as if that one trip to the theatre a year is a balance to all of her responsibility. Robin is open to the power that drama offers. After she leaves the performance, the world seems to have “a radiance behind it.” Robin knows that no one else she knows is affected by the theatre the way she is.

Essential to the plot is that the theatre leaves Robin in a kind of trance. When she is twenty-six, she happens to lose her purse as she navigates her way out of the play, and a courtly, tall, silver-haired man with a dog comes to her rescue. He offers to buy a return train ticket for her, and on a kind of whim, he offers to give her dinner. The beef stroganoff he prepares is foreign and delicious, and the jazz he plays is similarly foreign, offering Robin a momentary flight, similar to the experience of attending a play. He speaks with a curious foreign accent, and she is interested in where he is from: Montenegro.

After the wonderful dinner, they walk in the city until nearly ten, and they share “a conversation of kisses” at the train station. He exacts from her a promise to meet again in a year; he must return to Montenegro for some reason, and he will be back by then. It will be dangerous for him to receive letters. She must promise to wear the very same dress.

These two actors appear to have improvised a wonderful scene, one laden with desire, tension, mystery, and romance. And instability. Danilo has a big dog named Juno, the name of the goddess of marriage and childbirth. Why would a handsome single man name a large “stubborn” guard dog Juno? As a kind of reminder to himself that he is already somehow taken?

For a year, Robin lives in a kind of trance, fascinated by this change in her life and fascinated by this man. Time is slow.

The man, Danilo, has a workshop where he repairs clocks. It is important to the story that in Act I, at home with Joanne, time seems to drag. In Act II, at Danilo’s place, there are clocks everywhere, but time seems to stand still. These clocks ask the reader to consider whether Robin, with this mean and invalid sister, will have time for Danilo when he returns.

On the stage, Shakespeare does make time stand still. Juliet will never grow old; Romeo will always love her. As for Antony and Cleopatra, the play Robin has just seen, the two lovers are foreigners to each other, each with duties at conflict with their love affair. Regardless that Cleopatra is immensely powerful and immensely charismatic, theirs is a doomed union. Let us be warned.

Although Robin spends the winter in a trance of memory, when summer returns, she almost inexplicably stalls the buying of the theater ticket and seems to wait until the very last minute to have the green dress cleaned. She arranges to pick it up on the morning of the trip to Stratford. Of course, it isn’t ready. She has to rush out and buy another green dress. But it isn’t the same color or style. The reader notices that although she has broken her promise, she has decided to appear in what might be a very sophisticated dress that shows off her beauty.

When she finally arrives at the shop, she sees him, he turns, and he slams and locks the door. Which leaves her, for a time, in a trance of sorrow. She never returns and she avoids that part of the city forever.

Typical of Munro, the story now leaps 40 years ahead. Robin is 66, stylish, beautiful, and accomplished. She is a hospital psychiatric nurse who performs counseling. By a strange twist of fate, one Alexander Adzic, deaf mute, ends up on her ward. He is Danilo’s twin brother. The man she saw that night so long ago was not Danilo, and Danilo is now dead. She is quite shaken by this.

Even now she can yearn for her chance.

She thinks:

Shakespeare should have prepared her. Twins are often the reason for mix-ups and disasters in Shakespeare. A means to an end those tricks are supposed to be.

But was it a disaster? The fact that fate denied her a true love? Or was it a choice? Or was it “a means to an end?” Munro doesn’t spell that out. She leaves it to the reader to decipher or discern.

Because, in the meantime — in those forty years — Robin has, in addition to building a nursing career, made a life on the stage in her local theatre company. She has had triumphs. Her Hedda was a triumph, given that people said Hedda was her “opposite.”

Was Danilo Robin’s twin? Them both having a disabled sibling to take care of? Or was Hedda her twin? Hedda, the mistress of destruction? One can look at Robin’s home in the theater and realize that in order to have it — the place where she was most herself — she had to destroy a part of her life. There’s no way a life with Danilo and children and two disabled siblings would have ever allowed a life in the theatre. And Danilo and his jazz? Would a life with Robin have upset his own life in art?

Here is the truly strange part of the story, the part that completely unsettles. Robin is okay with her life. She has not been denied sexual relationships. She has had them with her patients. Her patients are the type who are “frequent fliers.” They are in and out of the hospital. When she has nursed them back to (temporary) health, she has had affairs with them. Robin’s sex life has an element of “turning tricks” to it.

But, these “grateful” men are always married. So she is safe, safe, that is, from anything long term.

The life of the artist is a choice, insists Munro. It’s different. One must make adjustments, and these adjustments are different and not necessarily pretty.

But compare Robin to Georgia in “Labor Day Dinner.” Georgia has left her husband in order to write but promptly ended up right back in the soup with a man whose way of life she must serve. When we meet Georgia, her writing is completely blocked. She is constantly in bed with a sick headache, in tears, and with a wet washcloth on her head. Compared to Georgia, Robin is strange, but she is content. Choices.

Not actually twists of fate. To the outsider, some of the choices the artist may have to make may look like contortions, or even dirty tricks. But remember, too, that Danilo and Robin are actually star crossed. Their short idyll was real. But so was their confinement to their disabled siblings.

But to Robin, she “has no regrets.” No confinement to bed with a wet washcloth for her.

A key to the story for me is that Robin knows she is different. And, like Munro herself, Robin has had to actively choose if she is to have an artist’s life. She must, accidentally, have a misstep with Danilo. It is also essential that we see Robin as slightly strange, or even slightly repugnant. Munro is making a point.

To be an artist is not only to be different, however. To be an artist, the choice is first. The choice is essential.

Regardless of the poignant lovers’ tragedy, one must remember that Robin chose to dawdle getting the tickets, chose to dawdle getting the dress cleaned, chose to buy a different dress, and chose to go before the right dress was cleaned. She chose not to wait until the right dress was cleaned.

She chose single, and she chose different.

Post Script: A word about trances. The idea of the artist’s trance reappears in “Powers,” the last story in the collection. One could also consider the role of trance in the three Juliet stories. One could as well consider the role of trance for the two alcoholics in “Passion.”

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