In After Rain, William Trevor presents many stories that play with the reader’s plot expectations. Often he creates a compelling, even dangerous, scenario, but then the story unfolds to reveal that the reader was watching the magician’s assistant rather than his hands. Whether the crooks are the protagonists or the antagonists, the result is always the same: Trevor pulls the rabbit from the hat as we expected in the first place, presenting the triumph of conventionality.
In “Timothy’s Birthday,” Trevor writes of an old couple anxious for their son, Timothy, to come home and celebrate his birthday with them. The initial scene is warm and homey as Charlotte cooks and Odo prepares a fire. Timothy convinces a friend, Eddie, to go in his place and say he is ill. Charlotte is the picture of a concerned mother: “[Timothy’s] tummy played up a bit once.” Eddie makes himself at home, fixing the toilet and helping himself to gin and trinkets. The reader starts to worry for the old couple. Is Eddie going to hurt them? How can he show such disrespect for people who have treated him so kindly? But Eddie leaves and when Odo and Charlotte discover the missing decoration, “[t]heir own way of life was so much debris all around them, but since they were no longer in their prime that hardly mattered….Their love of each other had survived the vicissitudes.” They are beyond caring. They have endured and their life remains fundamentally unchanged.
“A Bit of Business” follows a similar pattern except this time we meet the crooks first as they rob the neighborhood while everyone is out waiting for the Pope. When we learn that Mr. Livingston is at home and elderly, the story seems to be set. Surely these youths will come upon Mr. Livingston and something dire will happen. The tension rises as Trevor cuts between the points of view of the thieves and of Mr. Livingston. “At once Mangan knew there was a bit of trouble.” They tie Mr. Livingston up and leave. So they haven’t hurt him, but still “[h]e’ll squawk his bloody guts out.” and they’ll get what’s coming to them. Surely they’ll go back to finish him off or at least they’ll get caught, but no, they pick up a couple of girls. In fact, it is the crooks who are changed by the encounter with Mr. Livingston: “[t]he lean features of Mr. Livingston were recalled by Mangan….they’d bollocksed the whole thing” and “there was nowhere left to hide from the error that had been made….Privately, each calculated how long it would be before the danger they’d left behind in the house caught up with them.” By having the thieves changed by their interaction with the normative Mr. Livingston, Trevor again creates an aura of the persistence of mundanity.
In “Widows,” Trevor set up a rivalry between sisters Catherine and Alicia with passages such as: “[i]n her girlhood she had been pretty – slender and dark….Alicia, taller, dark also, had been considered the beauty of the town.” But when Thomas Leary appeared and tried to bilk Catherine out of £226, my attention shifted to Thomas as Catherine’s antagonist. His deceit was compelling and I found myself wanting Catherine to stand up to him. Trevor kept Alicia present on the page through simple actions like “replacing forks and spoons in the cutlery container,” which built the expectation that the sisters have banded together in crisis. Alicia does back Catherine up against Thomas in conversation “‘[a]nything could have happened to the receipt….In the circumstances.’” However, when Catherine decided to pay Thomas, Alicia’s hopes were dashed and she turned on her sister: “[h]er expectation had been that in their shared state they would be as once they were….If Leary had not come that day there would have been something else.” The power struggle is once again between Catherine and Alicia. The story is not at all difficult to follow, but the shifting dynamics not only shows the complexity of the relationship between the sisters, it also conveys the sense that something would have come between Catherine and Alicia eventually. Thomas was merely a catalyst, interesting though he was, and the story remains as it ever was the rivalry between the sisters. In comparison to Thomas’s thievery, the sisterly feud seems quotidian and conventional, just where I have come to expect Trevor will leave me at the end of a story.
What was interesting to me about the structure of Trevor’s stories was how clearly they articulated a singular world view without seeming forced. He feeds the reader’s interest with some of the more seedy aspects of life, but his real interest seems to be conveying the fact that ordinary endures. I can learn from the complexity of the relationships he builds between characters such as Catherine and Alicia and Charlotte and Odo. Their encounters with the seamier side of life portray the characters’ normative lives much in the way that Gatsby was drawn through the negative space around him. There were other aspects of Trevor’s work that I can learn from as well, for example, the way he handles the letter in “A Day,” by never giving us the exact text of the letter but giving us enough information to infer it. I may in the long run look at his point of view shifts versus Mary Gaitskill’s.
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