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.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2016

The Improbability Party

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trump’s People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Old Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Long Rescue

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

New Television

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Helen Ouyang on the cost of crowd-sourcing drugs, Paul Wood on Trump's supporters, Walter Kirn on political predictions, Sonia Faleiro on a man's search for his kidnapped children, and Rivka Galchen on The People v. O. J. Simpson.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Photograph (detail) © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Article
Trump’s People·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"All our friends are saying, load up with plenty of ammunition, because after the stores don’t have no food they’re gonna be hitting houses. They’re going to take over America, put their flag on the Capitol.” “Who?” I asked. “ISIS. Oh yeah.”
Photograph by Mark Abramson for Harper's Magazine (detail)
Article
The Long Rescue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

He made them groom and feed the half-dozen horses used to transport the raw bricks to the furnace. Like the horses, the children were beaten with whips.
Photograph (detail) © Narendra Shrestha/EPA/Newscom
Article
The Old Man·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Illustration (detail) by Jen Renninger
Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With its lens shifting from the courtroom to the newsroom to people’s back yards, the series evokes the way in which, for a brief, delusory moment, the O. J. verdict seemed to deliver justice for all black men.
Still from The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story © FX Networks

Amount an auditor estimated last year that Oregon could save each year by feeding prisoners less food:

$62,000

Kentucky is the saddest state.

An Italian economist was questioned on suspicion of terrorism after a fellow passenger on an American Airlines flight witnessed him writing differential equations on a pad of paper.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today