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Old 02-24-2014, 10:26 AM View Post #1 (Link) 1. Alice Munro, The Art of the Nobel in 'Passion'
Spacepirate (Offline)
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1. ALICE MUNRO (1931-), THE ART OF THE NOBEL IN 'PASSION'

Was there any other way to start a discussion on the short story than first focusing on the queen, 'the master of the contemporary short story', and our dearly beloved, Alice Munro? 2013 was the year of the short story, what with Munro picking up her Nobel Prize for her writings which only dealt with the short story form. In redefining the genre through fourteen collections she has become synonymous with her unique sense of prose.

Munro, who has supposedly retired with her latest collection Dear Life, has swept the award board by and large ever since her debut publication of Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968. Born in Ontario, Canada, Munro has gone on to pick up Man Booker and National Book Critics Circle nominations, as well as in 2009 becoming the recipient of the Man Booker International. She is only the thirteenth woman laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

People unfamiliar with her work will find her fiction microcosmic, that is focused on communities that themselves stand for a larger thing, universal themes. Set within Huron County, just as Faulkner's within Yoknapatawpha, her stories are a blend of Southern Ontario gothic, a sub-genre that would begin to develop with other Canadian writings by Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and James Reaney. Her early writings, often seen as her weaker work, emphasised the 'Southern Gothic' with their psychoanalytical insights into morally hypocritical societies, with the backdrop of Protestant small towns looming over the families of coming of age - however it is only with her later collections that Munro has achieved transcendence, focusing often on the lives of the middle-aged and the elderly, in relation to the archetypal themes of motherhood and love. For these social stories some critics have dubbed her the 'Canadian Chekhov'. People wishing to find more about Munro's life have a whole host of sources to delve into: from the Nobel archives; a great Guardian article, as well as this link by kirijasto.

I picked Munro on the basis of her strength as a conventional short story writer. She belongs to those group of people who write through the 'iceberg model', that is where the importance of narrative lies mostly in what is unspoken. Her stories are character-driven; very few things actually happen in them - and if there are events, they are often small epiphanies. The loneliness of her writing from action mirrors the sublime isolation of the hauntingly beautiful Canadian wilderness, the harshness of setting as much a resounding theme as love and friendship. For many people she may seem old-fashioned, one of those writers, and misunderstood purely because she is a woman, but no one can do what she does any better. Her writing resonates because it is thoroughly human, touching but equally extraordinarily effortless in structure and composition. As one critic pointed out, you don't get the sense of a Munro story until you reach the very end and you realise you have been hit, by a wave, by the slowly mounting power of her words.

'Passion' (2004) VIA THE NEW YORKER [LINKED]

For this first discussion then I have decided to choose the short story 'Passion' for everybody to read. Firstly, it comes from her collection Runaway, often thought to be one of the best collections of stories, and an excellent way to get to grips with the technicalities of her prose. Secondly the story is a long one, clocking in at nearly 11,000 words but for all its words the story itself is very simple. Paradoxically although the story is long the narrative seems concise and is never, for me anyways, tiring. I think for many of us we are afraid of writing long short stories, because perhaps we think by very definition it goes against the genre we write - here Munro does it perfectly.

The New Yorker version of the story (linked above) is interestingly different to the one in the collection she later published in 2006. There are about 200 differences in total, and although I haven't gone through them myself it's worth bearing in mind that the version we are reading is one that she will later tweak.

I won't post much more with regards to the story but instead offer it up to you guys. What did you think of the story? Nobel-worthy? (What makes a great story?) What is the story about? What is the story really about? And so on and so forth. I guess the point of this series is to get you thinking as you're reading, about how another writer, a great writer, is able to craft that greatness.

Below I've posted also a few much more specific discussion points, some taken from class and some taken from academic articles but recreated by myself, for you guys to think about after you've read the story. There are also a few articles if you are super-keen; I recommend the last three particularly for ideas about how to create a narrative, focalisers, etc… Amongst the discussions are a large variety of literary topics to talk about which should get you thinking, whilst the last discussion is more concerned with the actual pragmatics of writing. Of course there's no need to answer all of them - you can if you want to! - but again hopefully even by reading through them they will get you thinking, and introduce you to some concepts you may not be familiar with.

DISCUSSIONS

1.
What she saw was final. As if she were at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing that it was all there was.
'Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.' (Søren Kierkegaard on an early form of ‘nihilism’). The character of Neil, whose name itself is similar to the Latin nihil, seems to embody a kind of anxiousness about the existence of temporality, where meaningful life becomes null and void. To what extent does Munro paint 'Passion' as a nihilistic story of life? Does Grace, who with Neil shares in what Trussler terms 'metaphysical solitude', ever come to similar realisations; she does not commit suicide in the end but instead chooses to embrace life, however to what extent has her life been shaped by the meaninglessness?

2.
As Grace was going down the steps, she felt the strap of one of her sandals break. She took both shoes off and walked without difficulty on the sandy soil, across the flat-pressed plantain and the many curled leaves that had already fallen.
When Grace steps on the clamshell and cuts herself, she becomes a symbol: the Botticelli Venus who is born out of the scallop-shell. Taking into account Christian symbology in what ways - if any - does Grace stand in for not merely the Venus, but by relation the Madonna, the Eve. We should not forget the importance of Grace’s name, as well as the inclusion of Thanksgiving in the story, which in Canadian French translates as 'Action of Grace'. The scallop shell throughout Christianity has been seen to represent the symbolic traditional pilgrimage. What then is Grace’s epiphany through her passage to Bailey’s Falls? In what ways, in both themes and narrative structure, is 'Passion' one of searching, one of the transition from the past and present?

3.
Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs.
The story seems to strike a cord through the divide between morality and sensuality, between what is deemed right and what is deemed good. However why is the title of the story entitled 'Passion' when there does not seem to be much passion between characters? Is the relationship between Neil and Grace a passionate one? Although Munro has said that she does not write feminist fiction, her stories often embody the idea of the écriture féminine first espoused by Hélene Cixous in that 'Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.' How is the body of Grace constructed in the story by the masculine presence in the town and is it a feminist image? How is the presence of the written word, such as Anna Karenina and the word games the Travers family plays, important in espousing the idea of female writing? Is there such thing as female and masculine writing, and is that distinction important?

4.
Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say—she did say—that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang—acquiescence simply rippled through her, and the rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled out. Her memory of this day remained clear and detailed for a long time, though there was a variation in the parts of it she dwelled on. And even in some of those details she must have been wrong.
The story of 'Passion' is both simple and complex; previous critics have often applied the term 'novelistic' to Munro’s short stories. In what ways is that definition true? How do the characteristics between novels and short stories differ in terms of literary technique? M.M. Bakhtin theorised that every genre had their own method of seeing and reimagining reality to form a narrative structure specific to that genre (comedy, tragedy, hero etc…) Bakhtin coined the term chronotope to describe specific fusions of time and space, represented through language, that defined genre. What then is the alleged chronotope of a short story compared to the novel? Through the utilisation of time within 'Passion' to what lengths does Munro both subvert the idea of genre and chronotopes.

REFERENCES & LINKS

Trussler, Michael. “Pockets of Nothingness: ‘Metaphysical Solitude’ in Alice Munro’s ‘Passion’.
May, Charles E. “The Short Story’s Way of Meaning: Alice Munro’s ‘Passion’.
Toolan, Michael. “Engagement via Emotional Heightening in ‘Passion’: On the Grammatical Texture of Emotionally-Immersive Passages in Short Fiction.
Lohafer, Susan. “The Stories of ‘Passion’: An Empirical Study.
Winther, Per. “Munro’s Handling of Description, Focalization, and Voice in ‘Passion’.
Copeland, Sarah. “To Be Continued: The Story of Short Story Theory and Other Narrative Theory.
  
						Last edited by Spacepirate; 03-24-2014 at 10:08 AM.
					
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Old 03-02-2014, 04:58 AM View Post #2 (Link)
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I'd heard of Alice Munro, though I'd never read any of her work before this morning. I'd chalk that up to a job shelving library books as a teenager and a lack of English classes in college.

In response to your first question in the original post, I think the initial premise for the story suggests that Grace didn't buy into meaninglessness forever - to go back to a place that was important to you, to participate in an act of remembering as complete as this story, suggests that something was meaningful. Maybe it's an act of meaning-making in the face of the messiness of life. At the beginning she's looking for Sabot lake, and thinks she's found it, but the roads aren't where she remembers; this suggests that she's not passively receiving a memory and that it's perfectly intact, but that she's trying to remember and not everything is coming back exactly right, and that it's hard to tell what has changed in 'real life' and what has changed in her memory.

I like that we had the Liz Taylor movie at the beginning of the story to ground us in a particular time, which I think helped a lot in my understanding of Grace, her choices, her relationships. And I think her reaction to the movie says a lot about her as well as her time. Her trying to explain to Maury why she hated it so much reminded me of a conversation I had with my mom a few years ago. We were talking about why second wave feminists could be so angry, and I think this hits it on the head. Here's the part I'm talking about:

He did take her to the movies. They saw “Father of the Bride.” Grace hated it. She hated girls like Elizabeth Taylor’s character—spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but that they wheedle and demand. Maury said that it was just a comedy, but she told him that that was not the point. She could not quite make clear what her point was. Anybody would have assumed that it was because she worked as a waitress and was too poor to go to college, and because, if she wanted that kind of wedding, she would have to save up for years to pay for it herself. (Maury did think this, and was stricken with respect for her, almost with reverence.)

She could not explain or even quite understand that it wasn’t jealousy she felt; it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that but because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men—people, everybody—thought they should be like: beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl had to be, to be fallen in love with. Then she’d become a mother and be all mushily devoted to her babies. Not selfish anymore, but just as pea-brained. Forever.
So while things have changed a lot since this part of Grace's story, I think this depiction of women is still relevant. I definitely get Grace's anger and I feel that way sometimes when watching TV. It's just not as …. dire. The image of the perfect woman is still there and it still sucks, but I've never felt obligated/pressured to be that way to the same degree that Grace had. Anyway, this part of the story both told me a lot about Grace and helped me to identify with her. And I like how this contrast between Grace and her time is included in the story, but it's not stressed, it's not made the whole point of the story; though I think her uneasiness and anger when watching a Liz Taylor movie also comes through as uneasiness in her relationship with Maury and maybe her relationship with her family. The way Maury takes their future marriage for granted, and the way he won't have sex with her so that she remains his "ideal girl" are both informed by the Liz Taylor movie and her reaction to it. In one of the discussion questions you mention that Munro has said she doesn't write feminist fiction. I think this is feminist fiction, in a way. It's not overtly political, and it might not label itself as feminist. But any fiction that shows women as real people, that takes into account the complexity of women's selves and relationships and lives -- that feels feminist to me, and right to me. Any fiction or any other work of art that develops female characters with the same level of detail, complexity, contradiction, and realism as it develops male characters is doing necessary work (even if it doesn't feel political, and even if it doesn't feel like work).

One thing I found interesting about this part, and that I don't totally get, and that intrigues me: her advances on Maury are described as cold. Take a look:
It wasn’t as if she had never thought of getting married. That possibility had been in her mind, along with the life of caning chairs. In spite of the fact that nobody had ever courted her, she had felt sure that it would happen someday, and in exactly this way—with the man making up his mind immediately. He would see her and, having seen her, he would fall in love. In her imagination, he was handsome, like Maury. Passionate, like Maury. Pleasurable physical intimacies followed.

But this was the thing that had not happened. In Maury’s car, or out on the grass under the stars, she was willing. And Maury was ready, but not willing. He felt that it was his responsibility to protect her. And the ease with which she offered herself threw him off balance. He sensed, perhaps, that it was cold—a deliberate offering that he could not understand and that did not fit in at all with his notions of her. She herself did not realize how cold she was—she believed that her show of eagerness would lead to the pleasures she knew about, in solitude and in her imagination, and she felt that it was up to Maury to take over. Which he would not do.

These sieges left them both disturbed and slightly angry or ashamed, so that they could not stop kissing, clinging, and using fond words to make it up to each other as they said good night. It was a relief to Grace to be alone, to get into bed in the hotel dormitory and blot the last couple of hours out of her mind. And she thought it must be a relief to Maury, too, to be driving down the highway by himself, rearranging his impressions of his Grace so that he could stay wholeheartedly in love with her.
Grace's desire, which seems pretty evident to me in the first paragraph, is contrasted by her coldness, which I have to take at face value here - I don't see it. I think it's only realized in the second half of the story, when she goes off with Neil. Maybe it's that her desire makes her cold, that she desires a thing or an experience and not Maury, as a person? I wonder when her hesitance to marry Maury becomes actual refusal. Is it before Thanksgiving? Or is it when she bounces from the hospital with Neil?

This seems a good spot for a response to your second question. I see Grace more as the pilgrim you mentioned than as a Venus, a Madonna, or an Eve -- though I think other people in the story see her in those roles. Maury sees her as this Venus/Madonna, someone he admires and wants to marry but can't touch (well, can't get it on with). Someone he arranges in his mind as perfect. Mrs. Travers seems to see her as a Madonna, taking care of Maury and then of Neil, a good future wife and a good future sister-in-law. Neil maybe sees her as Eve, though he doesn't act on it in the way you'd expect. I didn't think they were going into the hotel for a drink - because Grace didn't think so, it seemed.

I think the scene where Neil teaches Grace to drive is really important. I think that's the story beneath the story, what's really going on. Neil gives Grace an out, an escape from what she thought she wanted and then discovered that she didn't. But he also gives her something practical - the ability to drive a car, plus maybe the ability to determine the direction of her own life. Your first question suggests that the scene by the river is the story beneath the story, but I think the car is more important. The scene by the river is her insight into Neil, why he drinks, who he is. And that scene is one of the turning points of the story, similar to the gate closing behind her as she and Neil duck out of the ER and go off on their pilgrimage. Her realization, her abandoning the promise of passion for some deeper insight, might be what (aside from needing a place to sleep for the night) allows her to get in the car and drive them both back to Bailey's Falls.

I think the driving, both learning and then doing it on her own when Neil is asleep, is a metaphor for how she takes control at the end of the story. When Maury writes her the letter, it would be way easier for her to say what he wants her to say. She would be playing to expectation, and Maury would have liked her for it. But she didn't: she did want to go.

I really liked this story. I don't read stuff like this often - most of my reading is poetry and scientific papers. This story put me in a weird funk like the best stories often do. I think it's in conjunction with the dreams I had last night. I dreamed that I was cheating on The Boyfriend. We lived in my parents house as if it were our house, and he was out walking the dog, and I was with some guy who lived/worked at the house - a house painter? An artist in residence? I don't remember, and dreams are weird. Who knows. Anyway, in the dream it was just the best ever, but I felt guilty afterwards. Then I woke up, the guilt was gone, just enjoyment of having a fun dream and waking up with The Boyfriend not angry or betrayed but fast asleep beside me. It left me in an odd place though, and I think in the opposite place that Grace is in this story. I toyed with faithlessness, but was ultimately relieved to find myself back in my own bed with my usual companion. Grace toys with the idea of marrying Maury as she is expected to, but when something different and deeper presents itself, she bails. Maybe there's not that clear of a connection - maybe it's just testament to how well Munro makes me empathize with her main character, and how real Grace feels to me when reading the story.

Now that I've spent the evening thinking about this story I'm really excited to discuss it - I'm sure you guys have different views on these things, or connected with the story in a different way. Giving readers something exciting to discuss is the mark of a good story definitely (maybe a great one? I'm not in a place to decide).

Spacepirate, have you read other short stories from the collection this was published in? Has anybody? I'm thinking about locating it at the library - I'd like to read more.
  
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Old 03-02-2014, 02:53 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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I have nothing of real importance to add other than SHE IS MY FRIEND'S GRANDMOTHER and it's abhorrent that I haven't read her. We were all really excited to hear of her award. I had never heard about her before, but I will be sure to check out her stuff.
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Old 03-02-2014, 05:27 PM View Post #4 (Link)
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I heard about her when she won the Nobel and I've read probably around... ten of her stories, all from different books (but most from The Moons of Jupiter). Obviously I like her since I put one of her quotes in my sig, although I generally prefer a bit more... pop in a writer's prose. She has a very relaxed style.

I don't think I've read "Passion", but I can get my hands on it today since my school library has all of her collections.
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Old 03-02-2014, 07:19 PM View Post #5 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Ichigo View Post
I have nothing of real importance to add other than SHE IS MY FRIEND'S GRANDMOTHER and it's abhorrent that I haven't read her. We were all really excited to hear of her award. I had never heard about her before, but I will be sure to check out her stuff.
That is really cool actually - small world! She seems like such a lovely person, I'd love to just have a blether with her. I imagine you're Canadian? What's the general consensus over there with her … I imagine most people would be satisfied and pretty happy with her. Do you happen to know if she's on the curriculum?

Originally Posted by Dabs View Post
I heard about her when she won the Nobel and I've read probably around... ten of her stories, all from different books (but most from The Moons of Jupiter). Obviously I like her since I put one of her quotes in my sig, although I generally prefer a bit more... pop in a writer's prose. She has a very relaxed style.

I don't think I've read "Passion", but I can get my hands on it today since my school library has all of her collections.
That's a fair amount of stories and actually more than myself, haha. I see the relaxed quality in her stories too. I don't think many people could argue that often the things that happen are psychological rather than overtly physical. They seem so easy and relaxed as to be deceiving. (The story I've linked to in my original post via the New Yorker, by the way, if you missed that! Although the whole collection is brilliant, and well worth a read.)
  
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Old 03-02-2014, 08:40 PM View Post #6 (Link)
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Oh wow I didn't even see that link there. I did end up reading the story, but from a book in my library. I rather liked it, to no surprise. The way her stories move is so interesting to me, probably because they aren't really about the "plot", so they always go to surprising places (well, not surprising in the typical "gasp!" sense of the word, although the ending of this story surprised me a bit).
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Old 03-02-2014, 08:50 PM View Post #7 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Dabs View Post
The way her stories move is so interesting to me, probably because they aren't really about the "plot", so they always go to surprising places (well, not surprising in the typical "gasp!" sense of the word, although the ending of this story surprised me a bit).
The larger ending, or the very last scene? I gotta say I was surprised by the very last scene and I'm still not sure what to make of it. I can guess at Mr. (and maybe Mrs.) Travers motivation, but it's all just guessing. Is it a payoff, a nice way of saying 'get out of here'? A gesture of condolence? Of responsibility? Of pity?
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Old 03-02-2014, 09:07 PM View Post #8 (Link)
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The last scene, mostly, although the broader ending I found interesting. I don't mind guessing. It makes me want to read it again to see if I missed something.
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Old 03-02-2014, 09:18 PM View Post #9 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Isis View Post
The larger ending, or the very last scene? I gotta say I was surprised by the very last scene and I'm still not sure what to make of it. I can guess at Mr. (and maybe Mrs.) Travers motivation, but it's all just guessing. Is it a payoff, a nice way of saying 'get out of here'? A gesture of condolence? Of responsibility? Of pity?
I definitely read it more as a pay-off. The 'businesslike' Mr Travers deals with the events with the only way he knows how, through money.

Actually it's interesting because the money he gives her is duplicitous for me: it both reaffirms her position in society, as a woman who must rely on a man, but equally it's the money that breaks Grace out of her rut. We can only assume that Grace used the money to get to the position she is now. In another way the money is essential for both breaking Grace out and back into her own story - using the money she escapes her confinement, but equally only with the money can she be retrospective.

There's a kind of fairytale element to it as well. The death of Neil causes Grace to receive this money and she wishes she can tear it up, because that would be the 'grand thing to do'. Not the 'right thing' but the most dramatic, the most fictional act; the rejection of the money would make her a heroine. Her acceptance then makes her human?
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Old 03-03-2014, 05:45 AM View Post #10 (Link)
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I love that this story feels very mundane throughout, and yet as I look back and analyse certain moments, they're also very complex. I don't have fully-formed thoughts yet on a lot of what I'm about to mention. This is probably because it has been a while since I've read prose with my "lit-crit" hat on.

The moment by the lake feels, actually, very... standard. I don't quite see it as any revelation or nod toward some greater sense of "meaning". Really, for me, it stands as a juxtaposition between Neil and Maury through the lens of Grace. And we have been given contrasts between them scattered throughout. I guess the revelation is quieter in that Grace realises that there is the possibility of a "deeper" connection. But I don't know if it can be that simple. There must be something (a something I'm not sure of right now) in how she is alone, reflecting in a more human way than I'd sensed before. It all came as matter-of-fact before, but something in the language of that moment is more insular, meditative. She is alone, pulled outside of her routine, in a setting alien for both herself and the readers. Is it signalling the first truly emotional response? Because she has been alone in the story before, and very rarely (if ever) does the narrative break away from purely observational/recounting and delve into a fluid, human, rumination. I think I was closest to an introspective speaker there. And perhaps that alone is the drive for such a scene; to reflect, and through that, to change our perspective on Grace by giving us a little more insight, even if Grace herself hasn't been changed by some epiphany of great magnitude.

I never thought of Grace as a character shaped by meaninglessness. I feel like an aspect of her life (the relationship with Maury) was in a way a step in that direction, but as a whole, the resignation didn't ever feel finite. She was taken with Mrs. Travers, and there was something about that relationship I felt remarkably intrigued by. I think Travers worked as a parallel to Grace. I also think that Grace's memory shaped Mrs. Travers; I feel very skeptical that those interactions were to be taken as truth/reality (as will happen in pieces with flashbacks). I almost think that a lot of Mrs. Travers is actually a construct of Grace--not literally, in that she didn't exist, but I believe how she is remembered should not be taken as "truth". This is because I see Grace so wholly as a reflection of Mrs. T, just as, in a way, Neil is a reflection of his biological father, who also committed suicide. Of course, that's all a roundabout way of saying I really think it is interesting how Grace is so parallel with Mrs. T, in that the story almost feels just as much of a narrative about Mrs. T as it does Grace.

I'm still thinking about some other things... like Isis mentioned, the driving felt really important. Not only because the driving lesson was one of the main points of connection between Neil and Grace, the 'key' to Grace's agency, and the device that caused Neil's death, but because the symbol of the car seems to be threaded throughout the story more evidently. It is, after all, where we begin: Grace driving in a car, speculating on the roads, how they are and how they should be--when they curve, when they're straight, and so on. Driving is immediately a focus, travelling, the point of destination and, in a way, the lack of arrival. It's interesting to me.
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