Editor’s Note: This is the second and final part of Alyson Mosquera Dutemple’s essay on “penultimate spaces” in fiction. Read Part I here.
III. Interlude as Clear Eye in “Le Visiteur”
Despite the fact that both “The Stone Boy” and “Le Visiteur” feature penultimate scenes in which a male protagonist seeks out and is denied access to a woman who has hidden herself behind a closed door, the “almost endings” of these two stories don’t immediately recall each other. This is due not only to the dramatically different circumstances surrounding the protagonists’ rejections, but to the fact that Berriault and Trevor use the space of the interlude to create complex scenes that are more than the sum total of their stories’ plots. While Berriault’s choices concerning detailed language, landscape, and time render the interlude as a sparse space tucked into a richly textured story, Trevor allows disruption to undo carefully curated restraint within the interlude through dramatic counterpoint, staging, and names.
In “Le Visiteur,” the protagonist, Guy, longs to share the secret of his illegitimacy, but lacks the occasion and the courage to do so. His life, which has been marked by yearly visits to the Buissonnets, is deeply weighed down by the knowledge that Mr. Buissonnet is his unacknowledged biological father. Though Guy has long since figured out this secret on his own, he and the Buissonnets never discuss it. Because of the lack of acknowledgment, he only ever interacts with the couple as the titular “visitor” rather than a true family member. His interactions with the Buissonnets are friendly and polite, but strained by the unspoken. Guy senses the distance but chooses to be complicit in the polite charade. By practicing restraint in word and deed, he chooses to protect that superficial sense of harmony between himself and the Buissonnets over his own emotional well-being and desire for deeper intimacy.
And yet, in the crisis of the story, when Guy finally drops his restraint to sleep with a stranger in a hotel room, he doesn’t benefit emotionally from the encounter as he fantasizes he will, but is further damaged by it. The penultimate scene following the encounter not only demonstrates how badly Guy misread the woman and her motives, but more importantly, how this misunderstanding will drive Guy further into a life of restraint and isolation. The dramatic counterpoint highlighted in the interlude of “Le Visiteur” doesn’t take us out of the groundedness of the story, as the interlude does in “The Stone Boy.” Rather it takes Guy out of the self-delusions he has allowed himself to participate in throughout the story. It grounds him in the reality of his situation, forcing him for the first time to look honestly, nakedly, at himself and his loneliness.
In order to appreciate the significance of such an anomalous moment of emotional nakedness, the reader must pay attention to the ways Trevor establishes Guy’s restrained nature. This is done from the outset with the story’s emphasis on the habitual. “Once a year, when summer was waning,” we are told in the story’s opening, “Guy went to the island.” The habitual continues in the second sentence: “And once a year, as his visit drew to a close, he took Monsieur and Madame Buissonnet out to dinner at the hotel.” In opening the story with a phrase like “once a year,” and repeating it in the next line, Trevor is both calling attention to the infrequency of these visits and stressing the routine by which these visits are defined. Not only does Guy return to the same island each year, but he even returns to the same restaurant each year. In fact, the whole paragraph, which cleverly compresses time to encompass thirteen years of Guy’s life, points to the presence of the habitual in Guy’s relationship with the Buissonnets:
He had not always done so, for he had first received the Buissonnets’ invitation to visit them when he was seven. He was thirty-two now…For thirteen years there had been the tradition of dinner at the hotel, the drive from the farm in the onion truck, Madame Buissonnet in her grey and black, Monsieur Buissonnet teasingly not taking off his boatman’s cap until they were almost in the restaurant, then stuffing it into his pocket. Loup de mer: always the same for both of them, and as often as not for Guy also. Soupe de langoustines to start with.
“Always,” “same,” “as often as not,” and “tradition” signify carefully established practices. The specificity of the type of soup, not to mention the type of jokes, that are habitually shared, shows a subtle rigidity in the relationship between these three people. There is no unpleasantness expressed in the description of these fixed behaviors, but neither is there spontaneity. And that lack of spontaneity, coupled with Trevor’s specific allusions to how long these behaviors have been going on, suggest that a great deal of restraint is involved in the upkeep of such long-standing traditions. By “as often as not” sharing loup de mer with the Buissonnets, there is an implication that for thirteen years, he has been eating the same thing, suffering through the same faded jokes. Even the clothing they wear during these visits is pre-ordained—Mr. Buissonnet in his boatman’s cap and Mrs. Buissonnet in her “gray and black.”
As the story progresses, the habitual continues. The phrase “as every year he did” refers to actions of Mr. Buissonnet. Similarly, the phrase “as she always did,” is used twice to describe the words Mrs. Buissonnet utters. Trevor even uses habitual language like “always” and “never” to describe the way Guy thinks of his mother. Because so many words hint at what is fixed, the reader gets a sense of déjà vu in the story—everything during this dinner, and during this visit, has been said before. We perceive Guy’s life to be predictable, painfully so. The repetition conveys active restraint that Guy, the Buissonnets, and his mother all practice to maintain appearances. In fact, Guy reflects directly upon this restraint: “It was odd, it always seemed to him, what was said and what was not; and not just here, not only by the Buissonnets.” Even though we can see evidence of frustration in his use of the word “odd,” it is noteworthy that Guy does nothing to actively address that frustration, that is, until he meets the American couple.
The absence of dialogue in “Le Visiteur” also establishes restraint. Though the story is divided into sections, all but one of them describing an interaction between Guy and another character (Guy in the restaurant with the Buissonnets, Guy with the American woman before he sleeps with her, Guy with the American woman after he sleeps with her, and Guy alone on the beach), there is curiously little “spoken” dialogue during any of these interactions. Instead, most of the conversations are reported or summarized, with only occasional lines of actual speech cropping up throughout:
Monsieur Perdreu, the hotel’s proprietor for as long as Guy and the Buissonnets had been dining in the restaurant, was making his evening tour, pausing at each table to introduce himself or to ensure that everything was in order.
The Buissonnets knew him well, and by now so did Guy. He stayed a while, receiving compliments, bowing his gratitude, giving some details of his season, which had, this year, been particularly good, even if the restaurant was not quite full tonight. The hotel itself was, he explained: it was just that at the moment there were fewer yachts moored at the harbour.
“You are getting to be my oldest client, Guy,” he said, shaking hands before he went away.
This narrative tactic of reporting exchanges through exposition is in keeping with the theme of a story that revolves around the unspoken. The reader doesn’t get a feeling of spontaneity or liveliness from such summaries. Nor does the reader get the benefit of gesture or inflection. The reported conversations appear muted; they create a hush around the interactions, not unlike the low murmur of indistinct voices in a quiet restaurant. As a result of all this reported dialogue, the reader feels kept at a remove from the scene. The distancing effect of such a remove mirrors Guy’s own emotional reserve.
Though a story’s energy is typically conveyed through dialogue and gesture, here, Trevor assiduously avoids both. His use of the habitual and insistence on summarizing, rather than using scene, reflects the subdued and stilted interactions between Guy and the Buissonnets. The craft choices allow for the dynamism that is lacking from the page to reflect the dynamism that is lacking in their relationship.
The story’s numerous half-scenes achieve a similar enervating effect. The present action, especially during the dinner, is often interrupted by a series of summary, flashback, and flash forward that give the reader deeper access to Guy’s consciousness, but also highlight a sense of disconnect. Take for example their dinner conversation about visitors to the island. Our interest is immediately piqued by this conversation because Guy himself is a visitor. However, the pace of the conversation is awkward, as the first line of dialogue is waylaid by a long passage of summary before the reply. And when the reply comes, it is noticeably stilted. The conversation withers, choked off by summary:
“They are a pest sometimes,” Monsieur Buissonnet said, an observation he now and again made about the tourists who came to the island, “even if they bring a bit of life.”
The tourists hired bicycles at the harbour or in the village and rode about the sandy tracks. They came for the day or lodged in one of the small village hotels if not in Monsieur Perdreu’s rather grander one. The only vehicles that were permitted on the island were farm trucks, the tractors, the delivery vans, and the minibus that delivered and collected guests. Cigarettes were forbidden in wooded areas because of the risk of fire.
“Oh, we enjoy the tourists,” Madame Buissonnet commented. “Of course we do.”
One by one the tables were deserted. When the waiter whom Madame Buissonnet considered stylish brought chocolates and coffee, only a few were still occupied . . .
This example is especially noteworthy because it seems for a moment as if Guy and the Buissonnets could be nearing the topic of Guy’s mother. Because we know that Guy is only a visitor to the island, and not a native, we suspect that his mother, too, was a visitor. So, when the conversation comes around to tourists, we begin to edge closer to the unspeakable subject at hand. And yet, the narrative, like the characters, immediately swerves away from the details that Guy, and by extension, the reader, wants to know. Instead we are given a lengthy description of what kinds of vehicles the tourists and the locals operate.
Also, because of this lengthy interruption, when the dialogue resumes with Madame Buissonnet’s response, we aren’t sure of how to read it. The context is gone. When she says, “We enjoy the tourists,” she could be wry or sarcastic, making an illusion to her husband’s dalliance with Guy’s mother long ago. Or, she could simply be making small talk. The narrative doesn’t tip off the reader with defining gestures. Instead, Trevor creates in the dialogue the same type of frustrating restraint that Guy feels in the entire relationship. Because the dialogue between Guy and the Buissonnets is so stilted and halting, by the time we get to the line that states that “[l]ove is conversation,” we have already seen evidence of this. We have experienced how lacking their relationship is precisely because of their lack of conversation.
Trevor uses the unspoken to create a proverbial elephant in the room during Guy’s conversation with the Buissonnets even before an elephantine presence, the “bulky” American man in the “bright blue suit” who all but stampedes through the quiet restaurant, disrupts the forced gentility of the scene. But because we have been feeling the weight of restraint and the habitual, along with the distancing effect of reported or interrupted dialogue, the drunk man and his wife immediately become a compelling distraction for both character and reader. They are so out of context for Guy that he becomes captivated by them upon first sight. In disrupting the forced calm of his experience with the Buissonnets, they demonstrate a looseness, a recklessness that is missing from Guy’s own experience. While the American man’s flailing about the restaurant is more of a superficial and ultimately unpleasant distraction, the American woman’s obvious disappointment with her husband becomes the real source of Guy’s fascination. When Guy notices the woman smiling sadly at him in acknowledgement of her embarrassment, and even when she even hangs her head morosely, Guy can’t look away. He becomes immediately, powerfully fascinated by her ability to express such things precisely because he is a person for whom such expression has always been stifled: “Was she weeping? Guy wondered. Something about her bent head suggested that she might be.” Though this is not the first time in the story that Guy tries to read the gestures of others, it is the first time that he feels an invitation to share in the emotion behind the gesture. And it is on this invitation that the story hinges. Whereas earlier in the story, Guy observes Madame Buissonnet “turning her palm upward for a moment and smiling a smile she reserved for such moments,” the observation is followed by the confession that “Guy felt not included in this occasion of communication between the couple, even though he was responsible for their presence here.”
Yet, Trevor demonstrates that the opposite is true of the gestures of the American woman. Guy does feel “included in the occasion” of her eye contact, her weary smile, and even her weeping. Accustomed to restraint and exclusion, this small gesture of inclusion is enough to awaken a series of passions: “Guy didn’t let his anger show. He was good at that; he always had been. It could happen like this that you fell in love, that there was some moment you didn’t notice at the time and afterwards couldn’t find when you thought back. It didn’t matter because you knew it was there, because you knew that this had happened.” By showing how quick Guy is to link anger to love, Trevor is suggesting that Guy has inadvertently opened the floodgates on his repressed emotions. Because he is able to feel sympathy, he is able to feel anger. Because he is able to feel anger, Guy believes that he is able to feel love. He lets his passion follow passion. Whereas in most realistic fiction, such a sudden appearance of “love” between strangers could be suspect, we don’t feel the same suspicion here. Instead, we recognize the strength of these passions, even as we see the delusional nature of them. By presenting the American woman’s outward emotions as a counterpoint to Guy’s inward restraint, we see that he is so strongly attracted to her because she is what he is not: emotionally versant. When one emotion finally breaks through, his carefully constructed restraint quickly crumbles, leaving him ready, at long last, for spontaneous behavior.
Through the emphasis on habitual behaviors and restraint earlier in the story, Trevor creates a scenario in which the interruption provided by the American couple doesn’t derail the narrative, but revitalizes it. This is demonstrated specifically by the increased use of scene after the Americans arrive. The story picks up pace once the habitual has been interrupted. We see more gestures, hear more voices. Guy notices for the first time, for example, a table full of Italian diners, and Italian phrases appear on the page. Even though the Italian dialogue is never translated for the reader, it needn’t be in order to serve its purpose of enlivening the tableau.
Note that this same section in which the American couple literally and figuratively make a scene begins with the unpromising description: “The evening advanced pleasurable and easily, as in previous Septembers so many others had.” Yet by the end of this same section, the evening is anything but “easy.” That which began “pleasurably” has ended with voices exclaiming “quite loudly” and dialogue that is “carrying across the restaurant.” The bustle of this scene moves the story dynamically closer toward the climax.
In the following section of the story, the momentum increases. When Guy returns to the hotel room with the woman and her passed-out husband, we see the longest uninterrupted conversation of the story. This conversation demonstrates several important points. First, though we are told that Guy can only “manage a little English,” there is remarkably little difficulty in the dialogue he and the American woman exchange. There is no awkward stumbling over words, no meanings lost in translation. The smoothness with which the conversation blossoms resonates especially strongly with the reader because it appears shortly after we are told that Guy believes that “love is conversation.” Here, it appears as if love is not only conversation for Guy, but a bridge between him and the American woman. Even though their exchanges remain superficial, there is emotional significance to this small talk because it is uninterrupted and present on the page, rather than being reported, as previous conversations have been. Additionally, this exchange points to how Guy perceives the staging of the room around him: “It was awkward, the man being there, even though he was asleep. His mood might not be pleasant if he woke up, yet it did not seem to matter; it was only awkward.” Guy’s assessment of the situation as merely “awkward” here is so understated as to be comical. His desire to have a relationship with the woman he barely knows, to have “conversation (that) would spread itself around them, their two lives tangling,” speaks to how desperate he is for conversation and the intimacy it brings.
The staging in this section further points to Guy’s active pursuit of intimacy through the increasingly physical gestures between Guy and the woman. They keep moving closer physically, and as they do so, Guy starts to believe that this physical proximity represents emotional closeness. He begins to consider his fantasies about their relationship to be shared ones: “[e]ven before they heard each other’s voices, there had been a certainty of knowing. All intuition, all just feeling across a distance, and yet more than they had ever known before.” By allowing Guy’s fantasies to grow more expansive as he moves closer to the woman, Trevor is using staging to suggest Guy’s willingness to blur the distinction between the physical and emotional. In the elevator, their shoulders touch and moments later Guy thinks of the woman as “the girl he had fallen in love with.”
However, despite showing us these incremental movements that carry the characters closer together physically, Trevor surprises us when we arrive at the anticipated crisis by making it happen entirely off the page. We never see the couple sleep together. The story skips from the moment before sex to the moment after. Though the story has been about Guy’s attempts to drop his restraint and actively pursue an intimate connection, the moment of the most obvious physical intimacy slips past us, unobserved. By relegating the crisis to a moment that happens off the page, Trevor is demonstrating a failure on Guy’s part to achieve true intimacy. Not only are we kept at a distance through this lack of scene, but so is Guy. The repercussions of the withheld crisis, as demonstrated in the interlude, render Guy stuck in his role as “visitor,” despite his attempts to break free.
Because the crisis happens off the page, the reader enters the penultimate scene with a heightened curiosity. Readers are voyeurs: we want to “see” what happens through the details of scene. As Joan Silber explains in The Art of Time in Fiction:
This is, of course, the essence of narrative time. Elements are reduced to their service to the story—time passes in order to reach the point of crisis. The beauty of selective concreteness—dialogue, gesture, sensory detail—is that it allows us to believe we have experienced the time completely. “We were there” for the good parts.
What Trevor does so surprisingly in “Le Visiteur” is to purposely make the reader absent for those “good parts.” We do not feel as if we have “experienced the time completely” in the crisis. There is none of the “beauty of selective concreteness” in the moment when Guy abandons his restraint completely and sleeps with the married woman. Such a move, which is both uncharacteristic for Guy in its spontaneity and shocking because of its impropriety (especially because the husband is present in the room) highlights Guy’s desperate desire for intimacy even as it speaks to the doomed futility of that desire. The details of the encounter elude us just as real intimacy eludes Guy. The fallout of these misguided steps is revealed to the reader through Trevor’s use of counterpoint, gesture, and names in the interlude.
Up until the crisis and the penultimate scene that follows, we have been experiencing the potency of Guy’s fantasy about a potential relationship with the American woman through gentle words and soft, inviting descriptions. The lighting in the restaurant where they steal looks is “unobtrusive.” Her hair falls “tidily” and eyes are “pale as the sky.” There is also an emphasis on her diminutiveness in “[s]o much of her was like a child, he thought: her hands as they passed over the white material…” and “[h]e had never seen a girl as thin.” Before the penultimate scene all the descriptions of the American woman work to make her appear as non-threatening and docile as possible, a further manifestation of the “openness” that Guy thinks he recognizes in her.
And yet the perceived gentleness that Guy conjures up is purposefully erased in the penultimate scene. Though we are told at the beginning of the interlude that the woman had been recently whispering and calling him “dear,” the gentleness of those details is replaced by forcefulness: “There was an urgency in her resistance to his drawing back from the act that was pressed upon him. There were no whispers now, and no caresses.” Here, Trevor is showing both a dramatic counterpoint to the gentleness of the woman as described in the previous sections and to the dynamics of their relationship introduced by sex. The words “resistance,” “press” and “the act”—a particularly clinical way to describe sleeping with her—show a sudden reluctance toward the encounter now that it has passed, while simultaneously undoing the gentle aura cultivated in the previous scenes. Later in the paragraph, when Guy compares the woman’s laugh to that of her husband’s, Trevor is employing another counterpoint. Before they slept together, Guy thought he saw himself in the woman, but after they sleep together, he can only see how much she is like her husband.
Many more contrapuntal details follow that illustrate the change in the way Guy perceives the woman after he sleeps with her: she is naked after sex, but dressed in angelic white before sex. After sex, she gives Guy a “stranger’s gaze,” while beforehand, he perceived “openness” in her expression. In these details of precise, diametric opposition, Trevor not only disassembles the fantasy Guy has entertained about this woman, but smashes it to pieces. When Trevor tells readers that “[t]here was destruction present in the room; Guy was aware of that,” he is referring not only to the retaliatory destruction that Guy comes to understand the woman had hoped to wreak by sleeping with him, but to a destruction of Guy’s hopes for meaningful connection. Because “destruction” is such a strong word in such a quiet story, its implications are strong. By choosing it, Trevor highlights the degree to which Guy has been blindsided by the reality of his isolation.
Additionally, by allowing the closeness the reader had experienced through gesture and dialogue to disappear through dramatic counterpoint, Trevor indicates that the real intimacy in the story never rested in the consummation of their relationship but in that “openness” that Guy perceived in the restaurant. In her essay “The Space Between,” Stacey D’Erasmo discusses how intimacy often is much more than a physical closeness between characters:
The intimacy we feel as readers is often generated far less by characters… saying or doing intimate things than by a kind of textual atmosphere, or maybe I should say biosphere, a zone that both emanates from the characters and acts upon them deeply and personally. That odd and powerful space between isn’t only the medium for intimacy; sometimes it is intimacy itself.
It is this “biosphere” of intimacy between Guy and the American woman that so dramatically changes within the interlude.
Moreover, the “biosphere” of intimacy also represents one of the biggest differences in the penultimate scenes of “Le Visiteur” and “The Stone Boy.” In “The Stone Boy,” intimacy is noteworthy primarily for its absence. Because the family’s lives are shaped by toil, the physical is valued over the emotional. Words, which in Guy’s story are the very definition of “love,” are of little to no importance in Arnold’s world. Arnold seeks comfort through conversation. His rejection is tragic, but ultimately unsurprising, given the emotional inaccessibility of his family. However, in “Le Visiteur,” Guy knows that intimacy is available in his world, and he feels the loss of it more keenly precisely because he knows that other people around him have achieved it. When we are told that “Colette, who for a time had been Guy’s financee…had become engaged to Andre Delespaul,” and when we are shown Guy observing “Monsieur Buissonnet (placing) a hand over one of his wife’s,” we are seeing how Guy’s noticing eye registers a closeness that seems to be available to everyone but himself. We even see Guy go so far as to project the same details of the Buissonnet’s relationship upon his fantasy future with the American woman: “[t]hey would have a marriage like the Buissonnets’; in the farmhouse it would be like that.”
As opposed to Arnold, Guy does have such a model of intimacy from others in his life that makes his dramatic counterpoint of isolation so powerful. Not only has Guy failed to achieve the intimacy the Buissonnets have, the intimacy the story seemed to be setting us up for, but he has also inadvertently stumbled into a counterpoint to his own relationship with them. In his attempts to replicate their intimacy, Guy unwittingly moves from one grouping of three people in which he does not truly belong, into another grouping of three people in which he also does not truly belong. Not only is he a third wheel once again, but this time, he discovers that he has been used carelessly in an ongoing drama between the married American couple. Guy already feels out of place with the Buissonnets, and when he tries to finally connect with the American woman, he is made to feel even more like a visitor than ever:
“I’m having a bath. You’ll have to wait.”
She spoke in English. Guy understood the first sentence but had to think about the second, and in thinking realized that it was the sleeping man who was addressed, that he himself should already have gone away.
In this exchange, we see Guy’s recognition of his own insignificance in the woman’s life, and we see Trevor demonstrating another interruption to an established pattern during the interlude. Though all along Guy and the woman have been speaking English, it is noteworthy that only during this exchange does Guy experience any hesitation in understanding her. The sudden difficulty in communicating with her is a counterpoint to the ease with which he has been able to communicate with her before they sleep together.
In his discussion of staging in The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter asserts:
Staging in fiction involves putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed. Staging may include how close or how far away the characters are from each other, what their particular gestures and facial expressions might be at moments of dramatic emphasis, exactly how their words are said, and what props appear inside or outside.
In the interlude, we can see how Trevor stages both the scene and the conversation in such a way to imply distance. The closed door functions on a physical level to keep the woman at distance, but the language barrier functions on an emotional one. It prevents conversation, the type of intimacy that Guy most desires. In the interlude, Guy simply can’t understand her as effortlessly as he did before. Crossing the threshold of “false” intimacy by sleeping with her, he has paradoxically destroyed the “real” intimacy that he already had, marked by easy conversation and close physical proximity.
When the penultimate scene ends, it ends both wordlessly and soundlessly. The bustle of the scene from earlier in the night is counterpointed by painful silence. In fact, Guy never speaks in the penultimate space, not even through reported dialogue. While before the crisis, Guy has been finding his voice, in the penultimate space he loses it. Even his footsteps are “soundless on the carpet as he moved away.”
In the last line of the interlude, Trevor chooses to remind us that Guy never learns the names of either the woman or her husband. Though upon first consideration this could seem like a simple expression of regret, after reading this story several times, I have come to believe that there is a deeper significance to Trevor’s insistence on namelessness here.
During the earlier conversations that are largely reported and unspecific, there is an obvious insistence on specific names. We are told the names of Guy’s brothers, his ex-fiancée, and her new fiancé. We are even told the names of several people in Guy’s life whose relationship to him is never explained. Beside Guy and the Buissonnets, the story contains references to Perdreu, Gerald, Jean-Claude, Colette, Andre, Jean-Pierre, Michele, Dominique, and Adrien. In fact, so many names are used out of context that it becomes confusing for the reader to keep them straight.
This craft choice works on two levels. First, by giving readers names without context, Trevor is commenting upon the lack of intimacy that Guy feels. The constant name-dropping in the narration comes off as a case in which Guy “doth protest too much.” His insistence on names, especially without context, makes him seem as if he is trying to convince himself (and us) of an emotional connection with others that we already know he doesn’t actually have. Names make him feel, however falsely, that he “belongs” to the people in his life, a telling detail for a story about an illegitimate child. And yet, because of the insistence on names within the story, when the American couple’s names are ultimately withheld from him, we understand that this is a form of rejection. Because Guy never learns their names, he can’t create the illusion of intimacy with them as he has with others. When the penultimate scene ends with the wistful line, “[h]e wondered what his name was, hers too, before he left the room,” we understand that namelessness represents the degree to which Guy now recognizes himself as someone who doesn’t belong anywhere.
It is even possible that Trevor has been playing with the way intimacy can be suggested by names in calling his protagonist “Guy” in the first place. Though it is a common name in France, to the American woman “Guy” could mean something else entirely. It could suggest that he is as unimportant and disposable as she eventually treats him. When she says that the name “Guy was nice…especially as it was said in France,” she suggests that the name “Guy” isn’t quite as “nice” where she comes from, an allusion to the generic and non-descript connotations of the name in English.
While “The Stone Boy” ends with Arnold emerging with a firmer idea of who he is after experiencing the interlude of the penultimate scene, “Le Visiteur” ends with Guy emerging from the interlude with an even weaker grasp on his own identity. Having no legitimacy, and having not found a place of belonging, he is without an identity. Guy is just a “guy”—not an acknowledged son to Mr. Buissonnet, not an appreciated paramour of the American woman.
When the story ends, Guy is isolated emotionally and physically, alone on the beach “among the rocks.” Though the story’s last line insinuates that Guy finds “his solitude a comfort,” we feel little comfort when the story ends. The interlude during which Guy experienced such “destruction” of his hopes of belonging has marked him with a pessimism that was not present in the opening of the story. Though in the story’s opening, we see Guy suffering, we also see a desire to stop the suffering. The focus on the habitual works to create a restlessness in Guy that leads him to action. By actively pursuing the woman, he thinks he is bettering his situation, even though the reader understands that his action is tragically misguided. Yet at the end of the story, we experience a change in Guy because of these attempts. The active longing has been replaced by a quiet resignation. He is not only alone, but he is immobile, a “rock” himself, like Arnold’s “stone,” hardened against the idea of future happiness, wondering, pessimistically if “he would ever tell anyone, and if he did how exactly he would put it. It was how they lived, he might say; it was how they belonged to one another, not that he understood.” This admission that he doesn’t understand what “belonging” feels like is an acknowledgement of a shift in the way he perceives both relationships in the story—his relationship with the Buissonnets and his relationship with the American woman. The fact that he can finally see himself clearly as a third wheel in both situations demonstrates the change in Guy facilitated by counterpoint introduced in the interlude. In the penultimate scene, Guy’s life comes into full focus for him, so that in the conclusion he can see clearly for the first time just how much he is doomed to never belong. At the end of the story, because we are told that he finds “comfort” in his solitude, we intuit that he will no longer seek intimacy. And without intimacy, he will never actually belong anywhere. He will always be nameless; he will always be “a visitor.”
If the “interlude” of the penultimate scenes in “The Stone Boy” and “Le Visiteur” provide disruption to the narratives, then the conclusions demonstrate how the narratives have changed because of that disruption. The changes introduced in the interludes allow for the characters to have a different understanding of themselves at the close and for us to have a different understanding of the characters. We recognize the terrible consequences of Arnold’s rejection by his mother, just as we recognize the terrible consequences of Guy’s rejection by the nameless woman. Though Arnold responds to his rejection by acting differently at the end of the story, more mature, more “manly,” Guy is even more resigned to loneliness than he was at the beginning of the story. Guy’s response is to reaffirm the way he was before the crisis, while Arnold’s response is to change because of the crisis. Both courses of action represent a change—an active one on Arnold’s part and a passive one on Guy’s part. By providing breathing spaces in these interludes, the characters have time for necessary contemplation, during which the changes precipitated by the crises can “cure” before coming to maturity in the stories’ conclusions.
In his lecture, “The Big I.F.: fImitative Fallacy and Structural Integrity,” Michael Parker references Roland Barthes’s claim that “readers deserve narrative structure. We anticipate the unveiling of truth; the pace of narrative and the rhythms of reading… fluctuate and propel us toward that reward.” The interludes created by the penultimate scenes of “The Stone Boy” and “Le Visiteur” demonstrate such fluctuations. I began this essay with the hope that by studying penultimate scenes in other short stories, I would have a better idea for what was lacking in my own. I thought the essay would provide me with better ideas for material to add to my stories. But now I realize that the problem wasn’t rooted in choosing the wrong material, so much as in not honoring the “rhythm of the reading.” The penultimate scene of a story can honor that rhythm by providing the time and space that the characters (and the readers) need to process the crisis after it has been experienced. Berriault’s and Trevor’s careful craft choices demonstrate how the penultimate section of a story can bring about that emotional curing. And just like grief in “The Stone Boy” and intimacy in “Le Visiteur,” such curing requires time. It, too, cannot be rushed.
IV. The Camera’s Eye, Redux
The best endings, they say, are the ones that open a story up, instead of closing it down. When we insist on too much closure in our stories, we risk neglecting the possibility of a rest of a story, the part that can continue off the page, after the book is closed, and after we re-enter the world, ourselves changed, like our characters, for what we have just participated in.
As we have seen, the penultimate scene of a short story can be the place where that sense of opening up enters into the story for the first time. After creating established patterns, Berriault and Trevor allow for those patterns to abruptly disappear just before we come to the “end,” a disruption that is necessary for the change that the stories demand of their characters. When the world returns to the way it once was, it is only because of the disruption provided by the penultimate scene that we are able to enter into the story’s afterlife.
Which brings us back to the ghost that began this essay, the one haunting the photo album in the back of my parents’ coat closet in my childhood home. Eventually, as I got older, the novelty of looking at that photo album grew old, and I no longer cared so much to study the man who was my mother’s first husband. The more established my own life became, the less I cared to think about a mysterious “might have been.” But it occurs to me now, all these years later, when I revisit that photo album in my memory, this time as a parent with children who are closer to the age of my mother at the time of her first wedding than I am, that all the hours I spent pouring over the photographs of the man who wasn’t related to me caused me to neglect proper consideration of the face of the man who was related to me. In short, in trying to understand the story of that other life of my mother’s with her first husband, I was concentrating on the wrong man.
By passing over too quickly the photographs of my mother’s father in the hospital room, I missed the most important and necessary movement of that wedding story—the penultimate scene, the interlude that foreshadowed the true conclusion. Because, after all, where that first wedding album left off, the next one on the shelf in the closet began. And that’s the one where my father came in. And in the album after that, where I came in too.
As a child, I considered the wrong details of the story to be the important ones: the dresses, the hairstyles, and, of course, the mysterious, temporary groom. But now that I have a more nuanced idea of story, particularly the importance of those fleeting “almost endings” of a narrative, I can turn my own noticing eye on what I had previously overlooked in this tale, that is, how terribly complicated it is to be a parent and to want your child to be happy, even if it means turning a blind eye in order to allow her to make her own mistakes. This is what my own noticing eye is drawn to now that I revisit these photographsthe lesson only revealed on the penultimate pages, in that fleeting look on my grandfather’s face, onto which an astute reader can project the rest of the story. Because the doomed marriage, as it turns out, was not the end of my mother’s story. Rather, her story opens up at the end of that album to the life depicted in the other albums that follow. Without pausing to consider the quick grimace captured by the camera during the hospital interlude, the viewer of the album could miss the first sign of the important transformation that is forthcoming, a transformation that is not the beginning of just any story, but my story in particular. Indeed, it is the only reason I am here in the first place.