Tricks by Alice Munro

Ah, I have a soft spot for short stories about spinsters about town, enjoying their passions in solitary fashion. “Tricks” by Alice Munro calls to mind Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill”, especially after mention of the symbolic scarf: Miss Brill, you may recall, wears a fur. Robin of Munro’s story “Tricks” does not; she is instead disturbed by someone else’s fox scarf in the Lost and Found. If storyworlds could collide and time elide, I imagine that ‘disgusting-looking brownish fox scarf’ was left there by Miss Brill herself. (That fur had never been the same, of course, after having her fashion choice dissed by strangers at the park.)

Like Miss Brill, Robin finds herself permanently unpartnered.

But of all Katherine Mansfield’s women, Alice Munro’s Robin reminds me most of Bertha — Bertha of “At The Bay”, who constantly imagines men (and women) admiring her and might easily fall immediately and hopelessly in love, because her expansive imaginative world keeps her primed for it. Perhaps if Katherine Mansfield had lived as long as Alice Munro she’d have written Bertha as an older woman, and then Bertha may have found the strength of character that was always evident in Robin.

Sir Frank Dicksee - Paolo and Francesca
Sir Frank Dicksee – Paolo and Francesca

THE EMOTIONAL RESONANCE OF LONGING

The final sentence of this story delivers a punch to the gut. Where does the emotional resonance of “Tricks” come from?

The plot of this story begins like that of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” trilogy. In Linklater’s initial film:

A young man and woman meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together.

Likewise in part one of “Tricks”, a man and a woman meet by chance encounter, start to fall in love, then are parted for a length of time. They agree to meet again in one year to recreate the romance: Same place, same dress.

Nicholas Sparks makes a meal of such longing in his love tragedies. Of all the emotions, I find the ‘yearning’ emotion is successfully recreated in many fictional simulations of it. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much of a trick to writing a moving story like this:

  1. set up a chance encounter between two people
  2. create some reason why the potential lovers must remain apart
  3. then keep them apart for ages, possibly forever.

All romantic stories will include a stretch of longing. (Approximately 120 minutes of it in fact, in a romantic film.)

The hard part these days, in a hyperconnected world, is coming up with a believable reason why two lovers can’t just get together. This particular story is starts off in the 1960s, which helps.

Alice Munro also makes Danilo Montenegrin. By prior arrangement he is going back there from Canada. (Is he going to collect his brother because ailing parents no longer can?)

Am I glossing over a few essential ingredients of writing a love story about romantic longing?

First the writer must create characters who are obviously meant for one another. This isn’t so easy. We have to like both characters and we must want them to find love.

In “Tricks”, Alice Munro presents Robin in all her defective glory. We don’t get inside Danilo’s head but we observe him as Robin sees him — he is a gentleman. Why do I think he’s a gentleman? Because he has many opportunities to murder her and does not. I tell you, the bar for strange men is low. I worry for Robin when she goes into his house. I worry again when they go for a walk along the river. (The horror riverspace of popular culture is strewn with murdered women’s bodies, thanks, Green River Killer.)

To be fair, Danilo does seem a nice man. He lends money to a stranger in need. Okay, he may have romantic motives, and if Robin weren’t wearing that beautiful green dress, would he have been so kind?

Could green symbolise longing as well as envy? Isn’t envy a subcategory of longing? (Robin’s original dress is avocado with a full skirt and a pinched waist. The replacement is lime green.)

keira knightly green dress atonement

Also important in stories of yearning and longing — if not vital then at least very common: The two romantic partners meet by chance. If any number of factors had been different, they would never have met at all.

George Michael’s “Different Corner” asks us to consider the random nature of love:

Turn a different corner and we never would have met

I put it to you that fatalism, especially when it comes to love, is a comforting worldview. It is quite disturbing to really get our heads around the statistics — why this exact combination of me and not all those other millions of sperms? Why me with all these riches? Why am I not one of the 820 million humans who still don’t have enough to eat? If I’d hadn’t gone to the pub/nightclub/party that Friday, who would be my life partner/boy friend/girl friend right now instead of the one I’ve got now (or not)?

What if? The what if question is hugely resonant in story and if you can create it in narrative you’ll be leaving the audience with something. The ‘what if’ doesn’t have to involve romance but it will probably involve human relationships. In The Wrestler (starring Mickey Rourke basically as himself) the what if spans family and acquaintance relationships as well as a romantic one.

In “Tricks”, what if Robin had not lost her handbag? What if she had not visited the Lost and Found before sitting down right at the moment Danilo happened to pass by? Turn a different corner and they never would have met.

It is common to believe when we fall in love that our lover was made for us. Solipsistic? Yes, but it’s very common. In Danilo’s absence, Robin falls into this way of thinking herself, while doing research on Danilo’s home country:

The thought of him was there when she woke up, and in lulls at work. The Christmas celebrations brought her thoughts round to ceremonies in the Orthodox Church, which she had read about, bearded priests in gold vestments, candles and incense and deep mournful chanting n a foreign tongue. The cold weather and the ice far out into the lake made her think of winter in the mountains. She felt as if she had been chosen to be connected to that strange part of the world, chosen for a different sort of fate. These were the words she used to herself. Fate. Lover. Not boyfriend. Lover.

STORY WORLD OF “TRICKS”

PLACE

Specific real world places are mentioned, for example Downie Street, Stratford (Ontario).

I find it hard to get a handle on Ontario’s geography, but it seems Robin has travelled to Perth County to see As You Like It, which is where she met Danilo all those years ago.

ERA

“Tricks” is a story which seems set in a mythic, nowhere time — he’s a clockmaker, same as Belle’s father in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. This is a vocation that goes back as far as… well, clocks. Because Danilo has an ancient profession. There must be something more to this ‘clockmaker in a timeless storyworld’ thing.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SPACE AND PLACE

Montenegro is a foreign, exotic place to Robin, much like Iceland is a duality of real PLACE and imaginary, mythical SPACE in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain“.

The distinction between ‘place’ and ‘space’ is important, in both stories. Harvard professor Lawrence Buell made the distinction, with his career-long interest in how literature interacts with environment (spatial theory). Buell built upon a conversation started by E. V. Walter, who wrote:

people do not experience abstract space; they experience places. A place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided

In theory, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without being familiar with a ‘place’. By going to the library and researching Montenegro, Robin has created an imaginative space without being familiar with the real world place.

This is an important distinction in the work of Alice Munro. Her characters often live, imaginatively, in a space and this space has an influence on how they act in the real world. This makes the imaginative space no less real than if they knew the place, though its influence is different.

Often these characters experience fernweh. I experience this myself — two places in particular. One is for Canada (hence my interest in the work of Alice Munro). I’ve never set foot in Canada and I don’t want to, lest my imaginative space become sullied. The other is for my home country, New Zealand. I’ve been away for long enough that my home country has changed a lot. It seems quite foreign to me now. I don’t understand the in-jokes, the TV celebrities have died or been replaced. (Or become disturbingly old.) From Australia I listen to Radio New Zealand podcasts, I read some New Zealand news, get social media updates from now-distant friends. I have recreated an imaginative space in my mind. I’d love to move back to New Zealand. It seems quite perfect to me now. Yet once I couldn’t wait to leave. I remind myself that my imaginative space of New Zealand is different from the real place.

Related: John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is also about fernweh, and imaginative space. See also Munro’s “Jakarta”. That story is not set in the place of Jakarta but in the imaginative, mythical space, created by the Canadian character.

Alice Munro’s characters don’t always pick a different country as their imaginative space. “Cortes Island” is one Canadian example, conjured by a Canadian character.

In “Tricks”, the river is another heavily symbolic place. Robin’s view of it changes over the course of the story to reflect her mood. At first it might be a horrorspace — is this man going to murder her down there? When they have their romantic evening, that same river is transformed into a romantic scene, with lamps lighting her way along its banks. After rejection she notices the black duck — the odd one out.

Part Two goes into a beachspace as setting. The changes around the beach show how much things in general change over time:

The beach is no longer surrounded by railway sheds and warehouses — you can walk on a boardwalk for a mile along the lake.

As happened to coastal beaches in Australia, the beach around Lake Ontario has become increasingly more urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand, no longer an industrial arena but one of entertainment and relaxation.

THE SEASONS OF STORYTELLING

Part one takes place in two winter times, but at the beginning of winter. Part two takes place after Christmas. When it comes to the symbolism of seasons in Western narrative, the beginning of winter is quite different from the downhill slide that happens after Christmas. The build-up is exciting; after the celebrations are over, there’s February to get through, and March, with little to look forward to except slush and going back to routine.

The ice is rough, in some places it looks as if big waves had been frozen in place. Workmen are out taking down the Christmas lights. Flu is reported. People’s eyes water from walking against the wind. Most women are into their winter uniform of sweatpants and ski jackets.

Once again, Alice Munro screws with my sense of time. I don’t realise until ‘Joanne has been dead for eighteen years’ that this is not the end of the very same winter. This must be deliberate, of course, otherwise it would’ve been said in the opening sentence to part two.

Why? Why is Alice Munro messing with me again? For Robin, time has stood still. This has just been described in her appearance — unlike the married women, this single woman remains a sophisticate in appearance.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRICKS”

Like “Trespasses”, the preceding short story in Munro’s Runaway collection, “Tricks” opens with a dramatic scene — not disposal of a mystery box, but a different kind of mystery: What’s so important about a green dress that Robin will ‘die’ if she doesn’t get it back from the dry-cleaner’s?

WEAKNESS/NEED

That green dress is the first thing we learn about Robin: She is really worried about a particular green dress. Why? What’s with the dress? Munro encourages the reader to side with the characters playing rummy nearby, who mock her for caring so much.

Why do they mock her? Why do we mock her, perhaps? This is an older woman going out on a date with herself. The media mocked Emma Watson when she said she’s ‘self-partnered‘. What does the dominant culture find so detestable about this? (Long story short, women are rendered less intimidating when viewed in relation to men.)

When Robin admires herself in the bathroom mirror, we as readers are invited to cast further judgement. She chastises herself: perhaps she lost her hand bag  because she was admiring her back in the mirror. Alongside Robin, we code this behaviour as shallow and vain.

But I think there’s a bigger cultural sin here: Who, exactly, is this woman trying to impress? No one, as it happens. We mock her for caring about her dress because she is going on a date with herself. At least, that’s how Alice Munro sets it up. I didn’t initially realise the opening scene is chronologically subsequent to admiring herself in the mirror and losing her handbag. A second reading reveals this time jump to be clear, but I believe the elision of times is deliberate on Munro’s part — this episode in the bathroom is depicted as almost iterative, even though meeting the man is very much singulative.

So I don’t code Robin as shallow and vain. I see her as, well, ’empowered’ (an annoying word). She’s not sitting back and watching the world pass her by; Robin enjoys plays, so she will enjoy them alone. Loneliness does not consume her. Of course, this is exactly where you want to be when entering a new relationship: comfortable in your own company.

Nonetheless, Robin irritates me at times.

As an erstwhile cleaner myself, who handed in vast quantities of found cash (lecture theatre seats are good at flipping wallets out of back pockets), the following observation troubles me whenever I come across it — the prejudice that people near the bottom of the socio economic rung are somehow less trustworthy than those at the top:

[Robin] could imagine Joanne saying that the cleaning man had already stashed her purse away to take home to his wife or his daughter, that is what they were like in a place like this.

Despite the class prejudices, Robin possesses a reasonably woke attitude towards what we nowadays know as ‘othering‘. Othering is not a new concept but only recently do people untrained in social sciences and philosophy know what it means. Robin knows the concept but uses her own language to expres her discomfort in talking to a foreigner:

It was rude, she supposed, to keep asking him things. To make him feel like a specimen. She would have to control herself, though now she could come up with a host of questions.

Robin is an introverted character. This is not told but shown, for example by Robin’s reaction to a more recognisable, extraverted character:

Through the train window she saw rain starting. She did not even have an umbrella. And in the seat across from her was a passenger she knew, a woman who had had her gallbladder out just a few months ago, at the hospital. This woman had a married daughter in Stratford. She was a person who thought that two people known to each other, meeting on the train and headed for the same place, should keep up a conversation.

Throughout the story, Robin is infantalised somewhat. The sister keeps tabs, which is infantalising. At one point Robin ends up sitting in the back of a car with kids, surprised that she hasn’t ended up with Popsicle on her nice dress. The person who offered her a ride has obviously read her as childlike. She feels nervous before meeting Danilo, and compares her nervousness to incidents from childhood — being asked at school to demonstrate a math problem. Others treat her as a child; and at 26, she still sees herself as such. Perhaps this is why Alice Munro describes Joanne, the sister, as resembling a child. To describe Robin as looking like a child as well as feeling like a child would seem a bit on the nose. Also, the sisters are mirror characters — two sides of the same coin. Joanne, who cannot go on home-away-home adventures for health reasons, is the shut-in that Robin might easily become.

DESIRE

Robin wants to follow her passions. She wants alone time. She also wants romance if she gets the opportunity.

OPPONENT

Robin’s older sister Joanne is her Opponent at home — frail, asthmatic, passively judgmental and thereby stifling.

Danilo is the Romantic Opponent. There always has to be a bit of tension/opposition in a romance story.

But first, the reader must be shown as early as possible that two characters would be good together. How does Munro show that in “Tricks”? She uses what Matt Bird calls an ‘I understand you’ moment.

The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.

“I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Sometimes you can establish that the two characters understand each other before they even meet.

— Matt Bird, Secrets of Story

The reader can see these two are compatible at a fundamental level because both Danilo and Robin appreciate a slow life as interested observers. For Robin, this means enjoying plays on her own. For Danilo, this means a childlike enjoyment of rides on trains.

“What are you smiling at?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you can go on smiling,” he said, “because I will be happy to lend you some money for the train. What time does it go?”
She told him, and he said, “All right. But before that you should have some food. Or you will be hungry and not enjoy the train ride. […] he spoke of her enjoying the train ride. Nobody she knew would speak of a grown person doing that. But he spoke of it as being quite natural and necessary.

Trains in Munro stories are symbolic — train journey as journey through life. Danilo’s attitude towards train rides signals his attitude towards life.

PLAN

The plan is basic: Two potential lovers will meet in exactly one year.

BATTLE

At point of reunion in Part One, the plot becomes similar to that of “Louisa, Please Come Home“. Someone who wanted to meet her so badly (Danilo) doesn’t even recognise the young woman he wanted. He slams the door shut in her face.

SELF-REVELATION

We don’t learn what happens to Robin in the immediate aftermath of having a door slammed in her face. Instead, we learn where she is in late middle age. This is when she gets her revelation — not so much about herself — she’s had years to do that. This sequences gives her some reasons.

All these years she has been active in a theatre society. Munro slips a bit of intertextuality into the story by revealing that Robin once played a character from an Ibsen play. Hedda Gabler, in Ibsen’s play, is newly married to a man she has never loved. She married him because she thought her years of youthful abandon are over. When she gets bored with her marriage and life, she seeks to influence a human fate for the first time.

How is Hedda Gabler connected to Robin in “Tricks”? Like Joanne, the dead sister, the fictional character of Hedda Gabler serves as a mirror — Hedda got married because she thought she had to whereas Robin went the opposite direction, perhaps partly because she had that door slammed in her face.

I’m sure there are other reasons why Robin never married. She was already an established independent thinker before she even met Danilo. But it may be that the slammed-door incident has shaped her memory of how and why her life went the way it did.

Significantly, Robin now works in a psychiatric ward, caring for patients whose minds have departed from consensus realities. Robin herself let herself be deluded once — when she was young and prone to romantic fantasy. In the interim she has got her fantasy fix in a prescribed, safe manner — through her involvement in theatre. Fantasies come fully formed (e.g. by Ibsen). The patients of the psychiatric ward serve as a kind of worst-case scenario for Robin, who can probably see that imaginative power lies on a continuum, and that all of us sit somewhere along it.

At the conclusion of “Tricks” Munro gives us another man’s story, filtered through Robin. He is a patient in the mental ward, clearly deluded. Why do we get a character sketch of this man? What is his story function?

  • Through the retelling of this man’s story we learn that Robin has in the past slept with patients, after their release. Rather than presented as salacious, Robin has found these experiences ‘comforting’. Though I can’t imagine this is an ethical thing to do. ‘With a little encouragement, a little shift in his attention, he could perhaps fall in love with her.’ The phrase ‘with a little encouragement’ worries me deeply, and reveals Robin as the baddie of the piece; in a psychological horror, she definitely would be the baddie: the once-spurned spinster who works in a psych ward to groom mentally ill men at their most vulnerable, and use them for sex and comfort. (While Canadian guidelines may differ, and may differ again for nurses, here are the Australian guidelines for sexual boundaries in the doctor-patient relationship.)
  • In a previous scene, Robin thinks she sees Danilo come in as a patient from another unit. At first I think she must be correct — I trust her version — this is an old man version of a man from long ago. But then Munro tells us that his name is different. It now seems very unlikely that this is the same man. Robin uses a ‘mind trick’ to spin a story — he must have given her the wrong name all those years ago. This must be his real name.

When we blur that line between psychosis and reality, it is common to say things like, “I know this sounds crazy but…” With delusions and psychosis, a patient can often see the lack of logic and likelihood, but is nonetheless convinced of delusion as fact. This speaks to the realness of delusion. If we experience something as real, it is all but impossible to cast it aside as our own insanity.

Thus, Robin is presented as a mind situated at that border between fantasy and psychosis.

It is only after we learn that she’s been having sex with released patients that she isn’t all that wrong — this man is Danilo’s brother. Naturally they would look very similar.

Then we learn they are twins, and now for the big reveal: It was the deaf/mute brother who slammed the door all those years ago.

Now we get the big what if:

He must have gone out on an errand. A brief errand. He would not leave that brother in charge for very long. Perhaps the screen door was hooked–she had never tried to push it open. Perhaps he had told his brother to hook it and not open it while he himself was giving Juno a walk around the block. She had wondered why Juno wasn’t there.

If she had come a little later. A little earlier. If she had stayed till the play was over or skipped the play altogether. If she had not bothered with her hair.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

But Robin is older now, and finally she is revealed to be sensible, however much I doubt her for her decision to sleep with patients after their release (possibly grooming them).

She is glad the relationship ended swiftly. She can’t imagine a relationship with Danilo would have been good, considering Robin’s asthmatic sister and Danilo’s deaf-mute brother.

However, ‘she is not going to spare a moment’s gratitude for the trick that has been played. But she’ll come round to being grateful for the discovery of it.’

Finally, Robin is revealed to be fully aware of the difference between reality and fantasy, and even that murky interstitial place — perhaps something akin to Edward Soja’s concept of Thirdspace — an amalgamation of reality (Firstspace) and fantasy (Secondspace), encompassing the space of history, temporality and spatiality.

That was another world they had been in, surely. As much as any world concocted on the stage.

 

FURTHER READING

Feminist linguist Debbie Cameron writes about the word ‘spinster’ and why she has reclaimed it in her Twitter handle.

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