Even if you don’t subscribe to the digital version of the New Yorker, you can peek at the first two pages of “The Jack Randa Hotel” as it originally appeared in 1993’s July 19th glossy pages.
There, readers first met Gail, who “usually reads a book a night”. “The Girl of the Limberlost. The Blue Castle. Maria Chapdelaine. Such books remind her, naturally, of her life before Will.”
And, there, yes, readers meet Will. Will, who had returned to his mother’s house in Walley. In Walley, where Gail had travelled with her boyfriend, but soon the boyfriend leaves and Gail and Will take up together.
Gail sews costumes and Will puts on plays, and they live a quiet life in Walley.
For a time.
“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.”
And that real scene?
It’s real because Will has gone there. He has left his mother behind in Walley. He has left Gail behind in Walley, too.
“What made him give it up? This and that, he said. Machiavellis here and there. Empire-building. Exhaustion.”
When Gail travels there, in pursuit of something-like-closure, time spent with her fellow-travellers causes her to reflect upon the role of a wife.
“Wives have diamond rings and headaches, Gail thinks. They still do. The truly successful ones do. They have chubby husbands, left-handed golfers, bent on a lifelong course of appeasement.”
Perhaps wives, too, have the “upper hand”. Certainly the woman with whom Will now lives, a much younger woman, as it turns out, appears to have the upper hand. But they are not married either.
“Was she a person who believed that somebody had to have the upper hand?”
Gail’s identity is shifting, so that she no longer knows the answer to such questions (if, indeed, she ever did know them). She was once Galya and now she is Gail. She was once a quiet resident of Walley and now has an adopted identity in Australia.
(Well, one might say she has ‘adopted’ this identity. Someone else might say ‘commandeered’. Or ‘appropriated’. Or, even, ‘stolen’.)
Perhaps, like Liza in “Vandals”, Gail is simply a woman who loves a good love affair.
“But love affairs were the main concern of her life, and she knew that she was not being honest when she belittled them. They were sweet, they were sour; she was happy in them, she was miserable. She knew what it was to wait in a bar for a man who never showed up. To wait for letters, to cry in public, and on the other hand to be pestered by a man she no longer wanted.”
Those books that Gail was reading so ferociously, at least one each night, all uphold traditional values, even as their female characters buck against the limited opportunities afforded to them as women inhabiting other times.
The question in “The Jack Randa Hotel” is whether Gail can define another sort of “happy ending” for herself.
“Otherwise, what will happen? What she has surely wanted. What she is suddenly, is surely, driven to escape.”
The question is whether Gail can even know what she has surely wanted, when she has been reading such stories all her life.
What do you think? Does Gail find/have a “real life“?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fifth story in Open Secrets. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.