ASSIGNED READING: William Trevor’s “On the Streets” (Part 3 of 3)
In ASSIGNED READING, we read something together — a story, novel excerpt, essay, play, poem — and talk about how and why it works. This is the third of a three-part look at William Trevor’s 2003 short story “On the Streets.”
So what are we to make of this story? Why does it exist? I talked in the last post about asking if there were revelations or epiphanies in “On the Streets” — and if so, for whom did they happen?
The trick to “On the Streets,” and to a lot of William Trevor’s work, is in who experiences a Moment Of Recognition. Because that’s what we mean by revelation and epiphany, isn’t it? It’s that thing you sometimes experience in life where everything seems to freeze for a second and you think, “Oh. I know what’s really going on here.” And it’s usually either great or awful. It’s very rarely in-between.
But in “On the Streets,” who has that moment? Let’s go through the very short list. Is it Arthurs? Arthurs stays essentially the same throughout the story. He’s who he is, from beginning to end.
So it must be Cheryl, then, right? Except…well, Cheryl seems to kind of know what’s going on. And this is happening tonight (in the “tonight” of the story) the same way it happens all the other nights. I mentioned how a story is generally about THE time something happened, right? And how it’s different from the other times? But is that the case with “On the Streets”?
It is not. This time is exactly, we learn, like all the other times. (Unless it’s not, of course.) So what’s different? If this isn’t all news to Arthurs and it’s not news to Cheryl, then to whom is it news? What’s the variable?
The variable is YOU. The reader. “On the Streets,” like a lot of William Trevor stories, is really about THE time that YOU stumbled onto an odd situation and slowly realized what was really going on.
In this case, we get a pretty full picture of Arthurs’ and Cheryl’s post-marriage life, but we get it in scraps. A corner here, a strip there. By the end, we’re looking at them in a new way. They, though, are just the people in the picture. Same as they were before it was torn up, same as they were before we came on the scene. They haven’t changed. WE have.
I don’t mean this in a “William Trevor changed my life” kind of way. That may be the case for some readers. But if you go most of the way through a story understanding things one way and come out with a completely different picture of things, you have changed.
How does he do this? In “On the Streets,” William Trevor is using all the same tools every writer uses. He’s withholding information and parceling it out according to a carefully considered plan. He’s using voice and point of view to present two different sets of perspectives. He’s relying on the reader’s knowledge of other stories and genres to create a set of expectations which Trevor can then subvert. (For instance, some readers may assume Arthurs will murder Cheryl, or will have killed her friend Daph.)
He’s also, and the importance of this can’t be understated, treating them like people. These are fully considered characters who have histories and quirks and manners of speech and real-seeming thoughts. While the revelation happens to the reader, it’s not a cheap trick. It doesn’t rely merely on surprise. What it does is create a world for us to visit, a world that happens to contain some surprising things.
Consider, again, how carefully everything is drawn here. In a short story, we might not ordinarily know exactly how a character cleans an office, or how another puts on his coat to avoid knocking over his beer. But this story is all about how the little details add up to the illusion of something bigger, so they make sense here. In fact, they create the illusion of something bigger for the reader, too — the world of Cheryl and Arthurs — which is the job of fictional language.
So the question again: Did he really kill the woman this time? I feel bad saying this, but it doesn’t really matter. In another story, that would be the big revelation. Here, it’s a question. I personally don’t think Arthurs will ever really kill anyone, because that’s not what he’s after and because then what? What would be the point of his days, if he weren’t stewing about the lunchtime slight and trying to poke a reaction out of his ex-wife?
But the revelation here is just what I said before: That THIS is what these two do, and that they do it all the time. And that it seems to work for them. It sends a chill up your spine, but they, in the end, just go about their business. You always hear people saying, “Communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship,” but no one ever says exactly what that communication should entail….
If you liked “On the Streets,” you will probably like a lot of William Trevor’s stories. In particular, I recommend his collections The Hill Bachelors and After Rain. If you didn’t like “On the Streets,” don’t worry: We’ll look at something very different next time! Thank you for reading.