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.
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.
On his blog A Writer’s Life, British novelist Andrew Blackman shares book reviews, insights into the writing process and the latest literary news, as well as listing short story contests with a total of more than $250,000 in prize money.
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