A common suggestion in recent books of prompts and story ideas for writers is to spend time in an airport; in 1968, when Alice Munro’s first story collection was published, the suggestion would have been to hang out in a train station.
Trains make arrivals and departures routine (consider “To Reach Japan” and “Amundsen”). In Dear Life, trains offer flight and respite, and they contain promises and opportunities, disappointments and dismissals.
“Train” takes these truths and, like its protagonist, goes on the run.
One man leaps from a train and survives to take another train elsewhere at another time. Another man stands in the path of a slow-moving train and chooses to remain in its path.
One man is constantly moving while another man moves no more, and Alice Munro weaves a story of this dichotomy.
“Jumping off a train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness.”
Because of course, you know, with Alice Munro, that there also might be a state between, between the arrival and the departure. As if arrivals and departures aren’t complicated enough.
Jackson was the only passenger left on the train when the story began, before he jumped. The next stop, Clover, was about twenty miles on. And he thinks that he is in luck because it is a slow train.
Because there might have been more gravel in his palms had he jumped from a faster train.
Or because it gave him the opportunity to consider jumping in the first place (and, then, the opportunity to actually jump).
Or because he might landed wrong, seriously hurt himself upon impact.
Unsure about Jackson at this point, and uncertain about what ‘luck’ means to him, the passage about jumping off a train continues:
“And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window.”
Jackson’s new surroundings are definitely unanticipated. Had Belle not been chasing after her cow, Margaret Rose, she would not have met Jackson that dry August morning.
“What are you doing here? Where are you going?”
The set of questions Jackson might have been asking inwardly are mirrored by Belle when she comes upon him, near the trees that line the railway tracks after she has crossed the pasture in search of Margaret Rose. But outwardly, she simply asks him for breakfast and when she refuses his offer to pay for the food, she suggests that she could use help fixing the horse trough.
Whether new surroundings actually do ask for attention remains unclear until readers settle further into Belle’s situation, but it is clear that nothing is the same, after you’ve jumped off a train.
“A sense of being watched by things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.”
After one has jumped, there might be a period of ease, even if it took some doing to get around to it. And Jackson doesn’t like surprises: he likes to keep the “possibilities of life” locked down.
Jackson as a character is intriguing and a mass of contradictions; he is also a remarkable plot device is, for readers cannot predict when he’ll jump.
He doesn’t like surprises, but he’ll leap from a moving train to assemble a new life (starting with assembling a horse trough). He can adjust when the accidental transforms into the deliberate, but remains slightly dismayed. He can traverse from phenomenally shy to making a ruckus in the time that it takes to exchange a single look.
But trains, too, contain contradictions, the most obvious being that they can only run on rails, on a tightly prescribed pathway, but even their predetermined route intersects with uncharted territory and offers a multitude of possibilities.
It might have been just a “different block of air” or “emptiness” that into which Jackson leapt in “Train”. Indeed, because this is an Alice Munro story, it might have been both.
What do you think?
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, until now, this has been a chronological reading project, but I was unable to resist inserting her most recent collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the eighth in Dear Life, with next Wednesday reserved for “In Sight of the Lake” and the following Sunday for “Dolly”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013.