Reflecting a fictional timeline into the reader’s world adds another layer of credibility to the tale.
Structurally, the story is complex, although at first glance it is simple, beginning with the arrival of a family for a holiday dinner and ending with their departure.
At the beginning of the story, Roberta “thinks how ugly the corn looks — a monotonous, coarse-leaved crop, a foolish army”.
At the end of “Labor Day Dinner”, the corn is an offering, like the gibbous moon, something dark and a symbol of terror and thanksgiving, simultaneously.
In between that arrival and departure, the history of Roberta’s relationships is dabbled throughout like the paprika garnishing the potato salad.
The dinner is an event, pageantry in a country farmhouse in Grey County. When George and Roberta and Eva and Angela arrive at Valerie’s house, they “are costumed in a way that would suggest they were going to four different dinner parties”. Each is acting with a different intent.
Angela and Eva, at seventeen and twelve, have dressed themselves out of a box of old curtains found in the upstairs of George’s house.
It’s plausible enough, but the symbolism of wearing curtains is palpable: what is on display, what is concealed from view, what is altered when one knows there is an audience in attendance. It adds a disturbing sense of heightened awareness to the story.
By the end of “Labor Day Dinner”, Roberta is either still acting or no longer acting: the reader is unsure, as is Roberta herself.
“She yawns, and there is a private sound to her yawn. This isn’t tactics, though she knows indifference is attractive. The real thing is. He can spot an imitation; he can always withstand tactics. she has to go all the way, to where she doesn’t care. Then he feels how light and distant she is and his love revives.”
Roberta is poised on the edge of caring and not caring, of once having cared and of no longer caring.
“Labor Day Dinner” unfolds in an evening of nearly’s and almost’s, against a backdrop of once’s.
Roberta thought “her skin looked like a piece of waxed paper that had been crumpled into a tight ball and then smoothed out”.
An apparition “fills the air right in front of them the way a big flat fish will glide into view suddenly in an aquarium tank”.
What is transitory, what endured.
What is annihilation, what mercy.
What is loved, what lost.
“Labor Day Dinner” may make you grateful for the absence of a Labour Day Dinner to attend.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, beginning with with Dance of the Happy Shades, Lives of Girls and Women, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You and Who Do You Think You Are? (The Beggar Maid). I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
The next in The Moons of Jupiter is “Mrs Cross and Mrs Kidd”; one story will be discussed on each Thursday. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story