For all that the rest of the stories in this collection have unpredictable endings, “In the Sight of the Lake” leads readers to a recognizable, even expected, conclusion.
“A woman goes to her doctor to have a prescription renewed. But the doctor is not there. It’s her day off. In fact the woman has got the day wrong, she has mixed up Monday with Tuesday.”
Not quite yet, but almost, readers know where this story is headed.
It is almost as predictable as the fact that a railway leads to a train station. (See “Train”.)
“This is the very thing she wanted to talk to the doctor about, as well as renewing the prescription. She has wondered if her mind is slipping a bit.”
This woman “– her name is Nancy –” wonders at the beginning of the story whether her mind is slipping a bit and, by the end of the story, readers realize that it has long-ago slipped.
Nancy is a character viewed from without. She is identified as though viewed from afar and, in many ways, Nancy is no longer the woman she once was. If memory is intertwined with identity, Nancy is ever-shifting at best. So, “In Sight of the Lake” is focussed on her, but there is no intimate narrative identity or voice.
The narrative style is sharp, abrupt, unadorned and fragmented, and this style sometimes eclipses the reader’ awareness that some of Nancy’s observations are a little off.
For instance: “A boy is riding a bicycle, taking diagonal routes across the pavement. Something about his riding is odd, and she cannot figure it out at first. He is riding backward. That’s what it is.”
Well, perhaps. Perspective, in an Alice Munro story, is key, whether a character has leapt from a moving train or whether it is only her mind which is careening.
The boy might be riding backward, in another story maybe, but in this story, it is Nancy who is going backward. Or, arguably, in circles.
“It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.
Whatever. The specialist deals with elderly patients.
Indeed. Elderly patients who are off their nut.
The girl laughs. Finally, somebody laughs.”
And, indeed, readers might as well. Because there is some humour in this story.
(Another ‘girl’ — well, they’re all girls once you’re old enough to see an Elderly Specialist — missed Nancy’s wordplay with the village name, Highman, when Nancy suggested it was something to do with marriage and a troublesome ‘hyman’ instead.)
But, ultimately, Nancy’s confusion is the reader’s confusion. The reader can’t know for certain if Nancy’s meandering search for this doctor’s office is unfolding as described.
(She can’t, for the most part, remember his name, or was it her name, only in isolated moments when she isn’t trying to recall that detail and, even then, she doesn’t share it with the reader, so the reader doesn’t know for sure if, even in those isolated moments of ‘clarity’, Nancy actually has remembered the salient bit that was eluding her. You might think that Nancy’s voice would be as meander-y as that last sentence, but she is reaching for clarity, placing one sentence after the next determinedly.)
The reader can’t know for sure if the private property in which the man is gardening is actually private property, as though part of a house, or whether it is private property like a cemetery.
Even something as concrete and seemingly permanent as a building (although buildings are, perhaps, more like “Gravel” than one might think) might be a doctor’s office, or it might be a residential property.
(Well, doctors’ offices were once located in doctors’ homes, that is true; such a detail might reasonably be confused, might even reasonably be called an observation rather than a confusion at all.)
What is, however, certain and, at least to a degree, unavoidable, is that each one of us readers will age and are aging.
One need not be a fortune-teller to divine such truth: even in the length of time that it takes readers to read “In Sight of a Lake”, readers have moved through time, through the start-to-stop progression of minutes that track readers from beginning-t0-end, from page 217 to page 232.
And many of us have directly experienced elements of Nancy’s story, either from within or without.
So it’s not accidental that readers can predict the conclusion of this story; some might even go so far as to say that it is inevitable.
“Calm. Calm. Breathe. Breathe.” Then, stillness.
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 ninth in Dear Life, with next Wednesday reserved for “Dolly” and the following Sunday for “The Eye”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013.