August 27, 2012


By Alice Munro
~9500 words

During the Second World War, a young teacher from Toronto is assigned to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Canadian hinterland, where she falls in love with the resident doctor.

The first-person narrative consists of the protagonist's reflections, presumably in the present day, upon her experience in the sanatorium and, in particular, with Dr. Alister Fox. Fox is unremarkable in almost every respect, "a spare man of ordinary height, whose reddish-fair hair was cut very short" and who "was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into." Somehow, nonetheless, Vivien falls in love with him, loses her virginity, and rushes into wedding preparations until, for unexplained reasons, Fox calls it all off and sends her packing. Over a decade later, now married, she runs into him on the street in Toronto and still feels the pangs of love.

The story is at its best in its descriptions of the bleak Canadian landscape:
Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some small, untidy evergreens, rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling. And the building, with its deliberate rows of windows and its glassed-in porches at either end. Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds.
The cheerlessness invades every crevice, from the "smell of winter clothing that never really dried out" to wretched meals of Postum, canned salmon, and cold apple pie to the sacrifices inherent in the wartime effort. Life in the sanatorium is particularly dismal: the students are "quiet and tractable but not particularly involved," and when they miss class it usually means that they are feverish, undergoing surgery, or dead.

The story's main characters are as dreary as their surroundings. Yes, this is surely the point, but that doesn't mean it's an advisable one. Fox is about as forgettable a character as there ever was, and the narrator makes no effort to explain how she can fall so hard for a man who serves up boxed mashed potatoes and, on their first sexual encounter, "did not want me to say anything" and "provided a towel, as well as a condom." She, too, is a lifeless creation, with almost no unique or endearing qualities. She states that "My passion was the surprise, to us both," which comes as a great surprise to the reader as well, for there is no evidence of it anywhere in the story—except, perhaps, when she confesses to wanting to feel "my spine crushed against any roadside rock, should he require an upright encounter." But that's one sentence in a 9500-word story, at the end of which we're supposed to understand why Vivien, over ten years later, still feels the sting of loss.

In my personal hierarchy of characters, which faithful readers of this blog will have come to recognize, deeply flawed but ultimately sympathetic beings reign at the top. This is the case of "The Cheater's Guide to Love" and "A Brief Encounter with the Enemy." (It's also key, by the way, to Aristotle's concept of the tragic hero.) In the middle are characters we can't ultimately love but who nonetheless prove unique and intriguing (often with a touch of humor or morbidity), as in "Expectations," "Ever Since," "The Golden Vanity," and "After Ellen." At the bottom are specimens so colorless and insubstantial it feels as if they'd tip over if you blew on them: behold "Someone" and, unfortunately, "Amundsen," whose beautifully rendered ambiance is insufficient to redeem the bloodless souls that populate it.


Reader poll: I found "Amundsen" to be ___. 

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