Monday, April 24, 2006

William Trevor, Back in the Saddle

This week at the New Yorker is "An Afternoon," by William Trevor, the prolific and widely honored Irish fictionist. I recently bought Trevor's collected short stories, a volume of over 1200 pages, and am working my way through it (along with half a dozen other collections). Mr. Trevor was born in 1928, started writing full-time in 1965, and apparently doesn't intend to stop before it's mandatory.

"An Afternoon" is the tense tale of a girl, Jasmin, who goes to a bus stop to meet a man she talked with on a chat line. "Jasmin" is a name she has given herself, her improvement over "Angie." Jasmin's mother is cheating on her husband, with whom she cheated on Jasmin's father. The mother is, perhaps, not the best role model.

Trevor has chosen an omniscient pov. The story begins:
Someone had left a comic paper on the seat near where he sat and he read the strips while he waited. All the way to the bus station he had hurried because he liked being early for things. He liked to take his time, to settle himself, and he did so now. He knew she’d come.

Jasmin knew he was going to be different, no way he couldn’t be; no way he’d be wearing a baseball cap backward over a No. 1 cut, or be gawky like Lukie Giggs, or make the clucking noise that Darren Finn made when he was trying to get a word out. She couldn’t have guessed, all she knew was he wouldn’t be like them. Could be he’d put you in mind of the Raw Deal drummer, whatever his name was, or of Al in "Doc Martin." But the boy at the bus station wasn’t like either. And he wasn’t a boy, not for a minute.
We're never sure of Jasmin's age, although she says sixteen and later seventeen, then fifteen; the man, who tells her his name is Clive, estimates she could be as young as twelve. Clive says he is twenty-nine, but Jasmin thinks he is older, mid-thirties. We see quickly that we are witnessing an all too-common 21st-century parental nightmare: the adolescent girl seduced on-line (in this case, on a telephone line) by a pedophile.

Omniscience is a tactic that creates some distance from the characters, but which also gives Trevor license to show a great deal through the thoughts of the characters. This can be criticized as taking the easy way out; it's much easier to look inside a character's head than to dramatize what he's thinking or planning. Looking back on this story, I'm not sure that we ever really need to see inside Clive's thoughts, because Trevor provides us with all the creepy detail we need to figure it out on our own (as if the age difference isn't enough). Clive constantly invokes Jasmin's name, tells her she's pretty, wins a necklace for her, and on and on, eventually persuading her to go with him to his home, but not before stopping to have a drink. However, the occasional forays into Clive's mind arguably raise the level of menace, and the effect of this story is pure tension. We peek through our fingers, straining to see what will happen next.