In a way, I owe the genesis of The William Trevor Reader to this one story. “Access to the Children” might not have been the first Trevor piece I read, but it was the first I fell in love with. I didn’t really need to reread it for this entry—I’ve read it so many times over the years that I can practically recite the story, beat for beat. It was one of a handful of pieces of short fiction that, as a young writer, rewired my brain. It demonstrated a narrative technique about which I was perhaps dimly aware, but that I had no words for. What I now think of as Unreliable Third Person.
“Access to the Children” concerns Malcolmson, a man recently separated from his wife, who is allowed to spend Sundays with his two daughters. He picks them up, they go to the park, watch TV back at his flat, and he returns them. Along the way, we learn of the infidelity that destroyed his marriage, and Malcolmson learns of a man who has been visiting his wife. All the while, throughout the day, he steadily and surreptitiously drinks. Back at his old apartment, he has a truly spectacular go-to-pieces in front of his wife and her soon-to-be new husband. She expresses worry for him, and via her shocked concern, we finally see him as he is: a pathetic alcoholic wreck. We leave Malcolmson in the pub, where goes after visiting with the children every Sunday night, weeping to the barmaid, as always.
Trevor is commonly known as a master of free-indirect style, a type of close third-person that blends narrative POV with the main character’s POV, creating a productive ambiguity as to where the story’s “thoughts” are coming from. “Access to the Children” goes a step farther than usual free indirect style, focalizing the narration so closely through Malcolmson’s perspective that we lose any sense of objectivity. We are getting the world through his eyes just as much as we get the world in first-person through Humbert Humbert’s, and with the same degree of distortion.
Malcolmson becomes, effectively, the unreliable narrator of his third person narrative. His denial is so fulsome and complete that we spend most of the story regarding him as he regards himself: a normal estranged father. He deeply regrets his affair and believes his wife will, must take him back; it takes her vocally disabusing him of this notion to disabuse the reader. The story offers small clues along the way, for instance, Malcolmson’s dismissal from his job and the fact that he spends his days in the Red Lion playing dominoes—but since he seems to regard these things as normal and unworrying, so do we. The strongest clue provided is when, walking through Hyde Park with his girls, a vagrant approaches and offers him a drink of wine, seeing Malcolmson—we understand later—as one of his own. The scene when Elizabeth, Malcolmson’s ex-wife, finally sets things straight is one of the most brutal in short fiction:
“You’ve gone to seed,” she said, hating herself for saying that [note, by the way how the narration admits another viewpoint here, introducing objectivity as it brings down the axe], unable to prevent herself. “You’ve gone to seed because you’ve lost your self-respect. I’ve watched you, week by week. The woman you met on a train took her toll of you and now in your seediness you want to creep back. Don’t you know you’re not the man I married?”
“You didn’t have cigarette burns all over your clothes. You didn’t smell of toothpaste when you should have smelt of drink. You stand there, pathetically, Sunday after Sunday, trying to keep a conversation going. D’you know what I feel?”
“I feel sorry for you.”
He shook his head. There was no need to feel sorry for him, he said, remembering suddenly the elderly assistant in Frith’s Patisserie and remembering also, for some reason, the woman in Hyde Park who peculiarly had said that he wasn’t shaved. He looked down at his clothes and saw the burn marks she had mentioned.
Trevor, like Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever, is a master of this kind of narrative indirection. When a character’s wrong belief about themselves is strong enough, the world, as seen through their eyes, deforms to accommodate that belief. Trevor’s characters, in the stereotyped Irish tradition, often are wrong because of drunkenness, just as O’Connor’s are often wrong because of pride and Cheever’s because of lust (something I wrote about here). This is an artificial move (as everything is) in fiction, but it models something true about the world, about the way that we get things absolutely wrong when it suits us. We live in one world with nine billion people, but there are nine billion versions of that world to go around.
This is to say that third person can be as subjective as first person. Maybe more so, because to appearances we are getting an objective view. When we read first person, we are habitually and constantly aware of the narrator’s bias, of their little lies, to us and themselves. When we read third, we enter, to some extent, a zone of ostensible neutrality that can be exploited by the author. “Access to the Children” offers a brutal master class in this form of pleasurable manipulation.
Next week: “The General’s Day.” See you then!