New Yorker fiction (Jan 31) – “Axis”

The New Yorker has made the story available online only to subscribers.

Alice Munro’s story serves as a primer for a lifetime’s work of unpacking the notion of shame, that most insufferable and feverish sentiment. Who hasn’t, when caught short by life’s unpredictable events, felt burning cheeks and struggled to stammer? Though it’s more complicated than simply ‘not getting your way’, that childish explanation isn’t far from the truth.

All of the story’s characters, in a Canada of fifty years ago, live lives that are rich in scarcity, wanting in material and emotional goods alike. One of the young college women and her boyfriend seem to find ways to make progress; others, quite simply, do not:

He looked up at some feathery, slightly Oriental-looking trees, and asked her if she knew what they were.

“Acacia. Acacia trees. They’re my favorite.”

Favorite trees. What next? Favorite flower? Favorite star? Favorite windmill? Did she have a favorite fence post? About to inquire, he figured it would hurt her feelings.

Awareness of self, respect for others, genuine humility — without these elements of honest effort, what kind of response is possible? When the world does not match up with one’s expectations, how is it possible to fashion a constructive outcome? It’s all too easy to indulge in an outburst:

He walked out to the road in such a rage that he could not think where to turn for the highway. When he found it, he hardly remembered to keep to the gravel, out of the way of the cars that might come along on the paved road. He knew he’d have to hitch, but for the moment he could not slow down to do it. He didn’t think he’d be able to talk to anybody.

But why are others able to find a better path to follow?

It was also the first time that they had really got pregnant, and they had announced that they would be getting married in Kenora very soon, before she began to show.

They were not unhappy about it.

So many forks. Which one to choose?


Alice Munro’s short stories have been published in The New Yorker since 1977. Her most recent story collection, Too Much Happiness, is available in paperback. In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, she commented: “I have a backlog of ideas. But it isn’t just ideas you need, and it isn’t just technique or skill. There’s a kind of excitement and faith that I can’t work without.”

(“forks and shadows” from Muffet / liz west / cc by)


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