Strangely enough, although I read this story twice earlier this year as well, when I scanned the table of contents I could not place it.
Planning to reread for a third time this morning, I had no idea; it wasn’t until the talk of the truck and Roy’s need to gather the wood sooner than expected, that I remembered.
What strikes me as funny about that, is that “Wood” is one of the more obvious titles (along with, perhaps, “Face” and “Deep-Holes”, although the hyphen in the latter remains mysterious, maybe some comment on unexpected connections).
And, yet, the first question I had, upon finishing this reread, was “Why, “Wood”?”. And, next: “Why not, “Forest”? And, then: “How many woodworkers does it take to fuel an Alice Munro collection?”
Perhaps fittingly, the other story in Too Much Happiness which contains talk of the forest, is “Fiction” (possibly my favourite, but I also really like “Child’s Play” and “Wenlock Edge” and “Some Women” and, oh never mind, I should have known better than to start down that road).
“Fiction” begins with Joyce driving home, where woodworking-Jon awaits, “beyond the limits of the town into the forest, and though it was a real forest with great Douglas firs and cedar trees, there were people living in it every quarter-mile or so”. Jon and his woodworking assistant Edie soon inhabit this house in the woods together, rather than Joyce and Jon.
And in “Free Radicals”, there is the question of Nita/Bett learning carpentry from Rich, one of them playing assistant-à-la-Edie too.
In “Wood”, Roy laments not having trained his wife’s niece, Diane. But loyal Alice Munro readers will think it just as well that he did not: the role of assistant-woodworker is extremely complicated in Munro territory.
The end of “Wood” makes it clear that the title was chosen deliberately. Perhaps, if Roy never did think of the word, readers could have debated whether the title was significant. But under the circumstances, it is named for “wood” and not for “forest” and we are meant to note that distinction.
In “Fiction”, the boundaries between home and forest are significant. “Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly.”
In “Wood”, the boundaries appear to demarcate psychological territory. “There’s another name for the bush, and this name is stalking around in his mind, in and out of where he can almost grasp it. But not quite. It’s a tall word that seems ominous but indifferent.”
As single entities, the trees do not appear ominous. “The ash, the maple, the beech, the ironwood, the cherry, are all safe for him. For the time being, all safe.” But taken together, they become something other.
It is dark and the snow is falling and Roy can no longer see behind the first trees. This is when he notices something about the bush that he thinks he has missed previously.
“How tangled up in itself it is, how dense and secret. It’s not a matter of one tree after another, it’s all the trees together, aiding and abetting each other and weaving into one thing. A transformation, behind your back.”
There are other transformations in Too Much Happiness. In “Fiction”, Joyce and Edie’s daughter are transformed and reality is turned into fiction. In “Dimensions” there is talk of bears shedding coats and snakes their skins.
Here, in “Wood”, in the bush, in the wood, in the forest, Roy is transformed too. He no longer recognizes the security in the woodlots that he once found there. And he no longer recognizes Lea, who has been immobilized by depression but now appears capable and strong enough to offer Roy the assistance he requires.
But there, he “isn’t feeling quite the way he thought he would if her vitality came back to her” and he makes more noise to dramatize his pain in a way which reveals to him that he is uncomfortable with Lea’s seeming return. “But even if it is for good, even if it’s all good, there’s something more. Some loss fogging up this gain. Some loss he’d be ashamed to admit to, if he had the energy.”
For Lea, too, has transformed. And it’s lucky for Roy that this is the case, for she has found him in the bush, with the wood, in the forest, one ankle useless and the tools left behind, already buried by the snow where he fell.
There are two more mentions of the “forest” in “Fiction”, a reference to Matt having grown up in “a house on Windsor Road on the slope of Grouse Mountain on what used to be the edge of the forest” and Christie’s memory of coming to terms with lost innocence, the “buoyancy of her hopes, the streaks of happiness, the curious and delightful names of the forest flowers that she never got to see”.
There is nothing curious or delightful about the forest Roy sees at the end of “Wood”. But, then, that’s “Fiction”.
“Forest. That’s the word. Not a strange word at all but one he has possibly never used. A formality about it that he would usually back away from.”
But then he says “The Deserted Forest”. He must have used this word. He must have some previous impression or understanding of it.
It sounds like a line from a poem. But the poems I know are schoolchildren’s territory. Whose woods these are I think I know. (And, of course Roy knows exactly whose woods they are.) Two roads diverged in a yellow – not snowy – wood. (Roy could not even see the path behind him, where he had crawled, because the snow was falling so quickly.)
Anyway, what good would it do to track a single line from a poem. Wouldn’t it be about the whole poem in any case, rather than just a line?
But I am not convinced. There is something significant here about fragments and representations. About the way in which parts are split from wholes, a branch that a lathe can transform into a table leg and a mind whose sadness can swell until all else is obliterated.
Roy works with the wood, but he views it as fuel, something cut into pieces and consumed (sometimes creating a lovely smoke along the way). He lives with Lea, but he views her as helpless, someone who no longer hears his stories (sometimes offering a senseless comment at the end).
At first glance, it seems as though Lea is in the forest, but in the end, I think she was watching the whole time, as Roy edged closer and closer to the darkness, further from the warmth.
How different would this story have been if titled “Fire”?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, the title story “Too Much Happiness”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.