As this collection nears its end (the next story is its last), I find myself thinking more about the concept of being “in transit”.
About how we often meet the characters in this story when they are at their most rooted. But how the title of the collection allows us to imagine another kind of future for them than their present-day suggests. How the stories often take place at a moment which operates like a hinge, the transition about to swing open.
What a sense of stagnancy, for instance, readers witness when this young woman returns:
“Hours later he was exactly as she had left him – reading, under a torn red lampshade, on the ashy bed. The room smelled of smoke and hot iron radiators. You would not have known that a woman had ever lived in it. The first thing she did was open the window, but the air was cold and the rain too noisy, and she had to close it again.”
You can smell the stale, slightly sour room. You can see the not-just-lived-in but worn and rumpled space. You can hear the slight whine in the man’s tone. Alternating with the heightened note of anxious dissatisfaction in the woman’s. Simultaneously, like a sustained note beneath the story, you can hear the anxiety in his and the whine in hers.
Readers long for a more detailed explanation of their relationship, how their pairing came out. At the same time, you feel sure that you already know the whole story – that it’s the kind of sad situation that has led to the cliché about a man in midlife and a young woman with her whole life yet ahead of her.
“She was still thin-skinned about his family, even now, after he had proven there was nothing but her. His children were altogether taboo; their very names carried misfortune.”
This kind of collision is what contributes to the tension underlying the story. In one sentence, there is nothing but her; in the next sentence, there is certain something besides her. The density of the smoke and hot-water radiators is building; the sense of futility is building too.
In many ways, her dissatisfaction in this relationship echoes that of young women in Mavis Gallant’s earlier stories. A sense of frustration that a city, a picnic, a Sunday afternoon, a circus, a summer…a “insert random noun here”…wasn’t all that She…“insert random woman’s name here”…had hoped.
But there is something different about this story. At least, I think there is. A threat or glimpse of violence.
As the young woman speaks about it, readers aren’t entirely sure how to assign responsibility in the scene. The man’s response. The woman’s response. Readers’ responses. They’re all over the place.
There’s not enough information to fully understand. There’s too much information to dismiss it entirely. He warns her that she will feel differently about it later, after dark.
“She was frightened, as he had predicted, in the night. She supposed that the man who had come out of the shadows of the courtyard and was not blocking her way to the street intended to kill her.”
I’m still not sure what to think of it. In the end, I conclude that the important element is that she has come to see that he was correct in his predictions, that we are meant to notice this more than we are meant to notice the predictions themselves, that above all, he knew what she would feel before she felt it.
That this whispers of how transitional her position is. That she will find a way out. That she will realize that this man, too, is not blocking her way. That she can simply choose to exit.
But just as she might be thinking along these lines because someone has told her that she will think just so, I might be looking for characters who are “in transit” because I’ve been nudged in that direction.
What we bring to a story can be as important as what exists in the words that its writer arranged for us to read.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second last story in In Transit. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Good Deed”.