All the questions that Linnet poses at the end of this story? I wonder about them straight away.
“How do you stand if you stand upon Zero? What will the passage be like between Zero and One? And what will happen at One? Yes, what will happen?”
Straight away, straight through, and still onwards.
And because I know that the final six stories in this collection are all about Linnet Muir, I peer more closely, trying to suss out the possibilities.
Is Linnet standing upon Zero? Is Linnet moving between Zero and One? Will the next story (“Varieties of Exile”) be about what will happen? At One?
And because there are so many similarities between Linnet Muir and Mavis Gallant, I peer until I am frowning.
This week, I read this story on Saturday (I’ve read it twice before, years ago.) I read it again on Sunday. And on Monday afternoon. There is a comma hanging on the edge of my inner brow, marking where I have squinted to see the truths behind the story. Truths about Zero and One.
After dinner on Monday, I pull back to focus on the rest of the story. On the rest of the things that this, slightly older, Linnet shares with us (the details she chooses to share, like the parts of the story that she tells the Americans in her first story).
From the furthest distance, there is Montreal.
“Montreal was a city where the greater part of the population were wrapped in myths and sustained by belief in magic.”
There is the office building.
“I climbed to the office in a slow reassuring elevator with iron grille doors, sharing it with inexpressive women and men – clearly, the trodden-on. No matter how familiar our faces became, we never spoke.”
And the office.
“I can see the rolled shirtsleeves, the braces, the eyeshades, the hunched shoulders, the elastic armbands, the paper cuffs they wore sometimes, the chopped-egg sandwiches in waxed paper, the apples, the oatmeal cookies…the thermos flasks.”
And Linnet’s place in it.
“And so, in an ambience of doubt, apprehension, foreboding, incipient danger, and plain hostility, for the first time in the history of the office a girl was allowed to sit with the men.”
And Linnet’s place in it when it is enlarged enough to hold a second woman, Mrs. Ireland.
“She said ‘Don’t you girls ever know when you’re well off? Now you’ve got no one to lie to you, to belittle you, to make a food of you, to stab you in the back.’ But we were different – different ages, different women, two lines of a graph that could never cross.”
There are the two women, looking out a window, which Linnet recalls as dirty. They are discussing Linnet’s engagement, her decision to marry, an unpopular decision with everyone, with the men, with the only other woman in the office.
And that’s where my questions begin anew. Because we do not simply see Linnet look out the window. We do not simply hear Mrs. Ireland dispense her advice (the kind of advice, no doubt, which the younger Linnet in the last story says was something adults felt entitled to give her, something unhelpful, it seems, because she is more concerned with escape).
We see Linnet looking back on Linnet looking out. We see her reflecting on her younger self.
So, back again. Start at the beginning. Go back to Montreal.
“In the very poorest part of the east end of the city, apparitions were commonplace; one lived among a mixture of men and women and their imaginings. I would never have believed then that anything could ever stir them from their dark dreams.”
And there is the other Linnet again. Yes, with the myths and magic from her first observation about the city. But also with an acceptance of apparitions and an acknowledgement that younger-Linnet would not have believed that those people could have been stirred from their dark dreams.
Linnet is just as alone as ever. Her co-workers “were rotting quietly until pension time” and she spends her lunch hours writing in a notebook. She is deeply happy.
She is independent, apart from apparitions, apart from her surroundings. “It was one of the periods of inexplicable grace when every day is a new parcel one unwraps, layer on layer of tissue paper covering bits of crystal, scraps of words in a foreign language, pure white stones.”
If there is movement here, I do not yet recognize the arc. Linnet views herself as moving on a parallel trajectory to Mrs. Ireland. Still a solitary soul.
For me, Linnet is still drawing the graph, her pencil poised to label the axes.
Home Truths Stories: Thank You for the Lovely Tea / Jorinda and Jorindel / Saturday / Up North / Orphans’ Progress / The Prodigal Parent / In the Tunnel / The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street / Bonaventure / Virus X / In Youth is Pleasure / Between Zero and One / Varieties of Exile / Voices Lost in Snow / The Doctor / With a Capital T
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in Home Truths. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: Overhead in a Balloon.