Sentences — June 25, 2008, 4:11 pm

The Solid Shelf of Rock

“Kent would have to be raised up by his father, pulled to the solid shelf of rock by his mother.”

The sentence comes a quarter of the way into Alice Munro’s latest short story, “Deep-Holes.” A picnic has gone awry; it started to go awry in the first paragraph, when the mother and father mentioned above were etched into life with two brusque Munrovian clauses: “She protested, but he insisted.”

“Kent would have to be raised up by his father, pulled to the solid shelf of rock by his mother” contains the whole of Munro’s story. Not its plot, which — as her readers have come to gratefully expect — offers a busy succession of unexpected arrivals and departures. Rather, its tone and theme. The words “tone” and “theme” might have come to seem like ruined critical vessels, ripe for what Terry Eagleton calls the amateur side of literary criticism, “a sort of waffling belletrism, the linguistic equivalent of wine tasting.” Especially in light of the reading group guides that have begun to agglutinate at the rear of too many books. Tom Bissell’s good joke: “Did Odysseus make the right choice returning to Ithaca? As a single mother, was Penelope right to wait for his return?” However . . .

Theme in Munro: The story in question, told from the point of view of the mother, details the difficulties that she and her husband have, through many decades, with one of their three children, Kent. The boy has come between them, these parents, and here, in the sentence in question, in a moment of violence and fear, the parents must reckon with the boy’s literal fall, one which prefigures worse plummets to come.

Tone in Munro: Not understated but stated straight. Where some writers try to compete with the violence they describe, Munro reports and moves on. To call such reporting journalistic, though, would miscast the deliberation that goes into Munro’s restraint, the balance that is needed to produce a tone that carries more than content, conveying in its choices the story’s theme: parental division. The sentence under consideration delivers the inert boy from one parent to another. The parents are poised on either side of this transaction, separated by nothing more than a comma, each phrase that the comma separates ending in a prepositional manner (“by his father/ by his mother”), with each half ten words long.

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Kent would have to be raised up by his father,
pulled to the solid shelf of rock by his mother.
 

The tense Munro chooses here poises the event in the conditional mood, one given over to that which can occur in the future but might not. And this, actually, beyond a description of a tense, it too the mood, tone, theme, and plot of “Deep-Holes.” Nothing in Munro is inadvertent.

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