An excerpt from the opening pages:
Mavis Gallant's stylistic brilliance, assured narrative control, and challenging technique firmly resist "de-authorization." Her fictions garner, as Janice Kulyk Keefer notes, "accusations of 'chilling indifference'" (1984, 732), perhaps not unsurprising since the prime narrative feature of Gallant's writing is undoubtedly irony, in all its varied forms. The trope of irony indeed pervades Gallant's knotted narratives, what she has referred to as those "locked situations" of her characters' lives.
In Gallant's fictive creations, irony arises from what the characters ostensibly know and what we, as readers of those characters' lives, actually know; yet Gallant also imposes external constraints on her readers, effectively limiting their agency. Having positioned her readers thus, Gallant appears to invite them to become her truly privileged audience. She initiates a secret dialogue with them, to let them in on her reasons for articulating life's "ugly mysteries." Yet even here, the dialogue comes close to a monologue, with Gallant doing much of the talking and the readers doing much of the nodding. This is not a passive act of alignment on the reader's behalf, since the reader, through the very act of reading, ultimately concretizes the text. Gallant's authorial control in delineating her ironic portraitures guides the reader to her inevitable conclusions about locked situations; the correct or "authorized" interpretation(s), combined with the reader's hesitancy to forgo other narrative responses, results in a disentangling of the "multiplicity of writing"those narrative knotswhich, ultimately, divulges, rather than deciphers, meaning.
Gallant describes how these knots are further tightened by things such as obstinacy or wilfulness, thus exposing phenomena such as what she has called fascism's "small possibilities in people." Gallant's "ironic scorches" (Kulyk Keefer 1989, 27), then are distinctly instructive, as well as aesthetically pleasing. The purpose of irony in much of Gallant's fiction is to open up for the reader the realm of possibilities not seen or ignored by the characters. Gallant invites the reader to become entangled in story while, simultaneously, breathing in the air of aesthetic achievement.
Misreading Gallant's fiction will tend to leave the reader bereft of both the story's knotted "meanings" and aesthetic involvement. Gallant's intentionher own real plot behind the pseudo-plotis to engage the reader in moral as well as aesthetic reflection, and this is especially evident in historical narratives, such as "The Pegnitz Junction." Correct perception of irony is crucial to this project in that the reader must not end up like Gallant's self-subversive characters, locked in a situation of their own creation. Kulyk Keefer writes that Gallant's distinctive brand of irony proceeds not by simple opposites, but by creating a puzzling distance between narrator, characters and readers. One of the principal targets of Gallant's irony is the belief that we can make clear and sweeping judgments of people and situations: she shows us not only that we do not know more about a certain character than that character knows about her or himself, but also that we do not know nearly as much as we think we do about our own responses to others and the desires that provoke those responses. Again, the un-comfortable principle of extension operates here: not only Gallant's characters but also her readers are revealed as self-deceived and imperfectly aware. (1989, 45)
The discomforted reader, struggling against the closure of a locked situation and toward a suitable interpretation, is, simultaneously, forced to face his or her own (moral) reactions to the story.
Yet the key to evading the fate of the characters would appear to lie in spanning the "distance" between oneself and Gallant's seemingly disinterested narrators, to accept the knot as something given, and move to an aesthetic appreciation of how Gallant has orchestrated the reader's participation by including her or him in the narrative wherein the reader is forced to judge and become a moral agent. We can close the gap, then, by entering into that secret dialogue. The distance between author and reader is revealed as emblematic of ironic breadth: the more we see ourselves as exiles from pretensions to erroneous knowledge of self and others, the more we can understand how Gallant's narratives work to frame their characters in limited situations, with the result that we can resist becoming caught within her narrative knots.
Kulyk Keefer, Janice. Reading Mavis Gallant. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.
---. "Strange Fashions of Forsaking: Criticism and the Fiction of Mavis Gallant."
Dalhousie Review 64.4 (1984-85): 721-735.