The William Trevor Reader: “Going Home”

March 22, 2022 | 2 3 min read

This is the 22nd installment of The William Trevor Reader, and I must admit to experiencing the first real moment of fatigue with the project—fatigue with Trevor’s work, if I’m being completely honest. And this is not Trevor’s fault, but rather the fault of reading one story after another, week after week. I am, of course, reading other novels and stories during the course of this project, but The Collected is always there: mostly like an old friend; occasionally like a guest who will not leave. In a way, I think my first experience of this collection—opened at random, scattershot, read in intense bursts and then left alone for months—is the right approach.

Inevitably, with any short story writer of sufficient prolificity and concentration of theme, a reader will experience… if not fatigue, a kind of intense reiterativity. Yates’s emasculated TB sufferers; Carver’s drunken dinners; Munro’s underestimated Ontarian women. This reiterativity of character and theme is, in fact, often a hallmark of greatness in the short story form, but the experience of reading the stories en masse can feel a bit like being lost in a forest and running into the same tree over and over again.

So it is with Trevor and his outcast characters, and their primal screams. “Going Home” features one of Trevor’s preferred dramatic set-ups, a forced tete-a-tete between two characters, Carruthers and Miss Fanshawe. Carruthers is a 13-year-old boy and Miss Fanshawe is an undermatron at the boarding school he attends—as the title suggests, they are going home at the end of the term, sharing a train compartment as they ritually do every year. Carruthers is preternaturally adult and cruel in his assessments of both their unfortunate waiter and poor Miss Fanshawe, “thirty-eight, fair-haired and untouched by beauty.” Somewhat predictably—if you have just read 20 other Trevor stories, I mean—the second half of the story cedes Miss Fanshawe the stage, and she breaks down, weeping about the loneliness of maidenly seaside life with her two aged parents, her lack of sexual prospects, and a kind of persistent mother/wife fantasy she has about Carruthers, while a chastened Carruthers must hear her out. In the end, Miss Fanshawe watches Carruthers exit the train where he is picked up by his glamorous mother, “laughing his harsh laugh.”

I wrote in an earlier installment about Trevor’s mercilessness, and the need for a kind of sadism in short fiction. But there is a fine line. Certain Trevor stories, like “Going Home,” are so airless and bleak that dramatic movement and effect are squeezed out. Mercilessness is a good quality in the service of tracking a character and their possibilities to a final place, as Trevor does, for instance, in “The Ballroom of Romance.” But mercilessness for mercilessness’s (apologies to Stephen Merritt) sake is anti-dramatic, as the possibility of dramatic action and change are foreclosed at the start.

Miss Fanshawe is never allowed any agency; she is as trapped in the circumstances of her life as she is in the train compartment with Carruthers. In a larger sense, Trevor’s characters are never allowed much agency, but there is a crucial difference between the dead-end Bridie encounters in “The Ballroom of Romance” and the dead-end of Miss Fanshawe’s family home. Bridie has chosen to visit the ballroom for two decades, she has substituted the ballroom’s nostalgic fantasies of romance for the real thing, for marriage. And the story tracks her through a final night, a final disappointment that brings her to a final knowledge and grief: she will marry the drunken bachelor who courts her and accept a dismal marriage to stave off loneliness. The reader is privy to the falling away of her scales, and as hers fall away, so do ours.

Miss Fanshawe has no fantasies to begin with—no truth with which to grapple or denial she must push through to reach acceptance. Carruthers goads her into her primal scream and scream she does. This is not mercilessness—it is torture. It is the narrative equivalent of poking a caged animal with a stick. But this begins to sound like critical judgment on a moral level, as though the very writing of this story is wicked, and it isn’t—the problem here is not moral but artistic. Because the narrative is only interested in demonstrating Miss Fanshawe’s loneliness and pain, it is dramatically inert. The effect of reading it is more or less an affirmation of something we all know, some of us too well: pain exists.

Yes, pain exists, but the charge of fiction is not to simply to capture a character’s pain. It is to show us how they came to this pain, how they seek to avoid it or anesthetize it, how they succeed or fail. Further, it is to show us, in their avoidance or struggle with pain, how, irrespective of their failure or victory, they may have in some small way changed (or not). Fiction is a dynamic form, and this type of story is fundamentally static—if I want to encounter expressions of pain in static form, painting offers centuries of art, from Goya to Munch, that capture a precise moment and measure of pain far better than any story could.

Next week: “A Choice of Butchers.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

2 comments:

  1. Adam,

    My reading of this collection was first done in the scattershot way, and while I’d make the case that this is the preferable method, your current deliberate way of reading it has the added burden of reviewing the whole damn thing. I’d expect to feel fatigue mostly when writing about a mediocre story, particularly when its shortcomings are ones already noted in earlier readings. Of note: your analysis remains interesting even when the story isn’t.

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