“To Reach Japan” begins with a departure and ends with an arrival.

Dear Life: Stories

McClelland & Stewart – Random House, 2012

That is not commonly how it goes, but it’s not unusual in the territory of Alice Munro’s stories, which often begin in the present and work backwards to the past.

In her fiction, what comes before often does come after, in reflection, in memory, and in comprehension.

This is not only true for readers (who often only gain an understanding of a story in the final paragraphs) but for characters as well (who often have quiet epiphanies while reflecting on their earlier experiences).

Readers do not learn much of Greta’s past however; we learn more about her husband Peter’s past, more about the coming-of-age of a young man she meets travelling on the train between Vancouver and Toronto, than we learn about Greta’s earlier years and her identity.

Perhaps that’s not important to an understanding of Greta.

What is, then, important, what readers learn on the fourth page, is that she is a poet — or a ‘poetess’, not a term that one hears much anymore though “if you were writing poetry, it was somewhat safer to be a woman than a man”.

What it is safe for a woman to do and what is expected of her — and what is not (either directly stated or implied) — is at the heart of “To Reach Japan”.

The story is titled for a line of poetry that Greta has written:

Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle –
And hoping
It will reach Japan

She puts the letter in an envelope, and it is clearly addressed, but she expects it to be intercepted, expects that it will not reach its intended recipient.

And this is but one of a many thwarted efforts to communicate in this story. Not only her difficulty connecting with an audience, with finding readers for her poems (though she has had two poems published in a literary journal). Not only the unsuccessful conversations — at a party, in a children’s playroom. But a sense of interception from her own self.

“People’s eyes slid around her and then they went on with their conversation. They laughed. Everybody but Greta was equipped with friends, jokes, half-secrets, everybody appeared to have found somebody to welcome them.”

Both anxious to be seen and frightened by the idea of being seen, Greta does not feel any more satisfied by her life as a poet/poetess than she does by her life as a wife/mother.

“Here nobody was safe. Judgment might be passed behind backs, even on the known and published. An air of cleverness or nerves obtained, no matter who you were.”

And, yet, her dissatisfaction is not outwardly expressed in words. For all that she might spend time crafting a line of verse, Greta’s disappointments are expressed through the observations she makes of other characters in the story.

“Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony. In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.”

Greta, it seems, might prefer a rich chocolate truffle to a hard candy; though she does not name it, she has a problem with monotony.

But, soon, her problem is less to do with sweets than with the weather.

“The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather – a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart.”

(You see how it goes: it’s not about the weather, any more than it was about a candy.)

And, later, it grows much more complicated, crosses into unsafe territory for a woman.

“A sin. She had given her attention elsewhere. Determined, foraging attention to something other than the child. A sin.”

Greta does not come with a backstory and she does not seem to fit into a neat-and-tidy package of ‘wife and mother’ either. She is a poet, and she fiercely inhabits the present.

And, yet, the present is comprised of a series of joining moments, moments that stretch out and connect with other moments, like the railcars on a passenger train.

“You always hurried through these passages, where the banging and swaying reminded you how things were put together in a way that seemed not so inevitable after all. Almost casual, yet in too much of a hurry, that banging and swaying.”

Readers might expect Greta to step between railcars during the story, in the middle. But keep in mind that the story begins with a departure and ends with an arrival. At the end of the story, Greta is hurrying through a passage, but with all the banging and swaying, the reader cannot see where she is headed. She might be headed into a beginning.

Have you read “To Reach Japan”? Do you have other Munro stories in your reading plans for 2013?

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 first in Dear Life, with next Sunday reserved for “Amundsen” and the following Wednesday for “Leaving Maverley”. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013.