Alistair MacLeod was a Canadian writer who told stories about the rugged landscape of Cape Breton island in Nova Scotia and the rugged miners and fishermen who inhabited it.
Marcie over at Buried in Print has embarked on a fascinating reading project covering all of his short stories over the next couple of years. I probably won’t be able to join her for all of them—I have my hands full with Borges, among other things—but I wanted to drop in and read along with her this month.
This month’s story is The Vastness of the Dark, a story that seems to be a quite simple tale about a young man escaping from the confines of his family to find freedom, but that becomes something more complex in the last few pages.
MacLeod’s prose, like the story itself, seems simple but is actually quite complex. There are no stylistic fireworks here, but every word seems carefully chosen, and even the simple language conveys a boatload of meaning.
For example, we start with a beautifully detailed description of the narrator’s father lying in bed:
“lying there on his back with his thinning iron-grey hair tousled upon the pillow and with his hollow cheeks and even his jet-black eyebrows rising and falling slightly with the erratic pattern of his breathing.”
The description goes on, taking in the bubbles of saliva at the corners of his mouth, the way his left arm and leg are hanging over the bed and touching the floor, as if ready to respond to an emergency.
But the interesting thing is that the narrator hasn’t seen any of this. He’s imagining “how he must be”, and he goes on to imagine how his father will get up and go downstairs, and we get another highly detailed scene told in the future tense as his father struggles to button his trousers with the three remaining fingers on his right hand while holding his shoes in his left, etc.
The only way the narrator could know all this detail without seeing it, of course, is because he has seen it so many times before, and it always happens in exactly the same way. It’s a wonderful technique for showing us the suffocating familiarity of this repetitive, predictable, intimate life lived in a very small house with a very large family.
The narrator, James, is the oldest of eight children, and it turns out that his birth was unplanned. His grandfather lets that fact slip one night while he’s drunk:
“when I heard it I said, ‘Well, he will have to stay now and marry her because that’s the kind of man he is, and he will work in my place now just as I’ve always wanted.'”
So by being born, James effectively trapped his father into staying in this small Cape Breton town and working in the same mine as his grandfather. And now the mines have closed and the jobs have gone, and there’s nothing left for his father to do but get drunk and violent and to keep waking up early every morning and banging the stovelids in the kitchen in a futile pretence of having somewhere to go.
As for James, there’s nothing here for him at all. He feels like a prisoner, oppressed by the family’s mining tradition, which dates back to 1873. There’s a clear meaning behind his description of the blind old pit-horses his father used to take him to see:
“They had been so long in the darkness of the mine that their eyes did not know the light, and the darkness of their labour had become that of their lives.”
And so, when he turns eighteen, James makes his escape from this place. But here’s where The Vastness of the Dark gets more complicated.
As James hitch-hikes away from Cape Breton towards an unknown destination, he gets a ride with a coarse, brutish man who speaks disparagingly of the grim mining towns they’re passing through and boasts of his sexual conquests. But the towns remind James of his own, and the women remind him of his own mother, and so it is as if he’s seeing his own life from the outside. And then he sees the people in the street looking at him in this car with Ontario licence plates and dismissing him as an uncaring outsider.
This process of looking through the glass, of seeing and being seen, helps James to realise that he can’t so easily be free of his family and his upbringing simply by leaving town. He is not the outsider and never will be—he is of this place, even when he’s trying to leave it.
“And perhaps I have tried too hard to be someone else without realizing at first what I presently am.”
And at the same time, as a reader, I realised that James had barely spoken in the whole story. He is the narrator, yes, and so we have access to his thoughts and experiences, but almost all of the dialogue involves other people talking to him while he listens silently or gives terse responses. And that seems to be another way in which MacLeod is showing us how fragile this young man’s identity is, how he is still being shaped by those around him, and perhaps he won’t truly find freedom until he learns to shape himself.
The Vastness of the Dark, then, is a short story that gives us plenty to ponder, plenty to chew on. It’s one of those stories in which not much seems to be happening, but then you realise you’ve covered a lot of ground, and it all felt quite effortless.
I didn’t know Alistair MacLeod or his writing before Marcie began her reading project, but I’m very glad I do now. Why not join in for a story or two yourself? You can find details of the reading project, or get the Buried in Print take on The Vastness of the Dark. (Update: Naomi at Consumed by Ink also wrote an excellent post.)