Catherine recently e-mailed me and asked what it was I loved about Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.” I was about to write back and then decided I would answer here. I love the idea that this blog could be a place to carry on conversations between us, now we don’t often get the chance to have them across a kitchen table. And to have them, maybe, with other people too. Since look, here we are on the internet, where everyone lives!
Anyway, I guess in the simplest terms what I love about this story is what I always love about MG. How she couples perfectly irony and tenderness for her characters. You are immediately distanced fromthese characters, certainly from Peter and Sheila, in the first sentence where “world affairs” is trivialized by Sheila’s glib reference to “doing the international thing.” Just like that, you know they’re silly people. Dour, earnest, Protestant-ethic-minded Agnes is a little silly too. Her dignity and her plodding seem embarrassing to us for the same reason they do to Peter. But then somehow, by the end, for all this distance, you are suddenly, for a second, or a line or two, whisper-close to Peter and Agnes both. So intimately and tenderly, their particular tragedies (Agnes is gone, Peter is lost) are laid out bald in those last damn-incredible paragraphs. Peter and Sheila’s lives are obviously as hollow as ever, but that doesn’t seem like a punch line. And there is something briefly, strangely vital and precious about Agnes, a very tiny light that would probably go out if it could still be seen.
It’s such an odd combination of tactics. I don’t know anyone else who does it well (do you? I’d really love to know). If it were all ironic like that, I’d think it was smart and good and sensationally written, but I wouldn’t die a little reading it. If it were all tender, well, it would probably be sentimental. Or just less interesting than it is.
And then there are the sentences. My god. This is not necessarily my favourite MG story. Probably isn’t actually. But it is just so unbelievably precise and lovely. Perfect is the word, I guess. All those perfect sentences dropping away and then you’re just left with a thought or mood (pity, epiphany, I don’t know) you couldn’t describe except to tell the story all over again.
Anyway, I could write more and better about it, if I reread it and gave this more thought. But I just thought I’d try not to inhibit a normal conversation about books by trying to be informed! This is more like how I bluster in real-life. What did you think, Katie?