Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Best American Short Stories: 2014 and O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014--Some Preliminary Remarks

Heidi Pitlor, editor of Best American Short Stories, who reads hundreds of short stories each year to pick the 120 she considers the "Best," says she has moments when it seems there are more people in the U.S. who want to write stories than there who want to read them. She acknowledges what I have noted in this blog before—that many of the people who buy the annual Best American Short Stories (and the same is true for The O. Henry Prize Stories) are "writers in training," figuring that if they read the best fiction in the country, they will learn how to write better fiction. But Pitlor ponders "What happens when writing becomes more attractive than reading?  Will we become—or are we already—a nation of performers with no audience?"
Pitlor urges that editors, writers, teachers, publishers do whatever possible to enliven readers, to create communities for them, and by this, I don't think she means "book clubs." I share Pitlor's concern. But quite frankly I don't know what to do about it. Good short stories are not always "easy" to read; you certainly can't skim them or read them only for plot. The fact of the matter is, short stories are more appreciated by other writers than they are by non-writers. My experience last month when the Wall Street Journal made Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman their book club selection reminded me that most readers have no patience with, and therefore little appreciation for, short stories, even those by Nobel Laureate Alice Munro.
The reason that writers are the most appreciative readers of short stories can be seen in Francine Prose's 2006 book, Reading Like A Writer. Prose says, "I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made."  She says her high school English teacher had recently graduated from a college where his own English professors taught the New Criticism, adding, "Luckily for me, that approach to literature was still in fashion when I graduated and went on to college."
However when she went to graduate school, Prose says she realized that her love of books was not shared by her classmates and professors; in fact, she found it hard to understand what they did love, for the warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminism, etc. were all teaching students they were reading "texts" in which ideas and politics, not the work itself, were what was important. Prose believes that a close-reading course should be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop., I suspect that most writers agree with her. However, most readers are just not the close readers that writers are; and in my opinion, to appreciate good short stories, you must be a close reader..
I attended undergraduate school from 1960 to 1963 and graduate school from 1963 to 1966, so I too was schooled in the "New Criticism" that valued "close reading." After I began teaching in 1966, I schooled myself on structuralism and deconstruction during the 1970's and 1980's.  Indeed, I created the first theory of literature course in my department, but I never relinquished close reading.  In the 1990's, when "theory" became associated with cultural criticism, postcolonial criticism, and political correctness, moving even further away from attending to the work of fiction itself, I was glad I was near retirement. In the last year I taught, my graduate students actually resented my insistence that they pay close attention to the work they were reading; they preferred to talk about social issues and politics. The only students who paid any attention to style, language, metaphor, structure, and craft were those interested in becoming fiction writers themselves.
I have just finished reading this year's O. Henry Award Stories and am now reading the 2014 Best American Short Story volume. Over the years the two books have adopted two quite different selection conventions. After Heidi Pitlor, editor of Best, has chosen 120 stories she thinks best, she sends them to a guest author/editor to pick the top 20 that will appear in the book. However, Lucy Furman, editor of the O. Henry volume is solely responsible for choosing the 20 stories that appear in that book.  She then sends those 20 (with no identification of author or place of publication) to three guest author/readers, who pick their single favorite story and then write a brief essay on their choice.  This year the three "jurors" are:
Tash Aw, a Malaysian author whose first novel The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread and the Commonwealth Writers prizes for best first novel. He had a short story in last year's O. Henry Prize Stories.
James Lasdun, a transplanted British writer now living in America, author of three collections of short stories, the most recent It's Beginning to Hurt.  I have posted blog essays on Lasdun's stories in the past.
Joan Silber, an American writer whose collection of story Ideas of Heaven was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Story Prize. She has had three stories in past O. Henry Prize Stories.
Although these three authors are called "jurors," as far as I can tell, they have nothing to do with choosing the 20 stories; they just pick out and write a short piece on their favorite one.
This year, the single guest judge who chose the final 20 in Best American, is Jennifer Egan, whose collection of linked stories, loosely parading as a novel, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book prize.
In her brief introduction, Eagan argues that  Best American Short Stories "generates excitement around the practice of writing fiction, celebrates the short story form, and energizes the fragile ecosystem of magazines that sustain it."
In her longer and more detailed introduction, Lucy Furman says that the mission of the O. Henry Prize Stories since its beginning in 1919 has been to "encourage the art of the short story.  By calling attention to their gifts, we encourage short-story writers.  When we put a story between book covers, we give it a longer life and a wider readership." Furman talks a bit about what Eagan calls the "fragile ecosystem" of magazines that sustain the short story form, lamenting that those magazines funded by public and private academic intuitions are always in peril from shrinking budgets, for those in charge of  campus money doubt that a small magazine can be as much benefit to a university as a winning football team.
Eagan says one of the primary reasons she agreed to serve as guest editor this year is that she wanted to explore "systematically" what makes a short story great—"to identify my own aesthetic standards in a more rigorous way than I've done before."  Eagan says she wants to put her biases on the table at the outset, noting first of all that she does not care very much about "genre," either as a reader of a writer. She says he does not think about short stories any differently than she does about novels or novellas or even memoirs. However, she does admit that the distillation process, which she says must take place in any narrative, has to be more extreme than in a novel. "It also must be purer; there is almost no room for mistakes."
Eagan says she is biased toward writers who take risks—formally, structurally, even in terms of subject matter—over those who do the familiar thing even exquisitely. If there is a single factor that governed her choice of stories to include, she says, it was "the basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world" by means of vivid specific language. After a compelling premise and distinctive language, she says the next factor is the story's pushing past obvious possibilities into something that felt "mysterious" or "extreme."
A few more general observations about the selections in the two books before focusing on specific stories in subsequent blog posts over the next few weeks:  If you follow the short story at all, you will see more familiar names on the table of contents of Best than the O. Henry: e.g. Charles Baxter, Ann Beattie, T.C. Boyle, Peter Cameron, Joshua Ferris, Nell Freudenberger, David Gates, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Joyce Carol Oates, and Karen Russell. It is no surprise then that more stories in the Best collection were originally published in the more successful periodicals: five from the New Yorker, ten from McSweeney's, Granta, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Zoetrope, and Glimmer Train
The O. Henry  collection has three New Yorker stories—by the three best-known writers in the collection: Louise Erdrich, William Trevor, and Tessa Hadley (who is always in the New Yorker). Most of the O. Henry stories are from such places as The American Reader, Ecotone, New Orleans Review, Cincinnati Review, Threepenny Review, Subtropics, Southwest Review, New England Review, and Southern Review—all prestigious places that any MFA student would love to appear in—even if the readership is less and the money negligible or nil.
Unless you read a great deal in small press periodicals, you may not know many of the writers in the O. Henry collection, e.g. Allison Alsup, Chanelle Benz, Olivia Clare, Halina Duraj, Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, Kristen Iskandrian, Dylan Landis, Colleen Morrissey, Robert Anthony Siegel, Kristen Valdez Quade, and Maura Stanton. No one story appears in both collections, although Laura van den Berg, a relative beginner, has stories in both.
I will finish reading all the stories—more than once--in both volumes before I begin posting essays on particular stories.  If you have not purchased your own copies of Best American Short Stories 2014 and O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014, you can pick up both either in paperback or eBook versions for around twenty bucks.  That's about 50 cents per story--the best bargain in publishing for those who love good fiction (And you have a much better chance of finding good writing in short stories than in novels; ask any writer.). 
It's too damn bad that practically nobody reviews these two books—just another example of the short shrift the short story gets from the publishing industry.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Haruki Murakami's "Scheherazade": Sex and Storytelling


Well, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been announced, and favorite Haruki Murakami did not win.  French author Patrick Modiano, not well known in the U.S., did.  Congratulations to him.

Murakami has a new short story in the recent New Yorker (Oct. 13, 2014), the title of which, "Scheherazade," immediately attracted my attention, having recently read the new translation of 1001 Nights by Hanan Al-Shakyh and Marina Warner's wonderful study, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.

Murakami's story is about a guy who cannot, for some undisclosed reason, leave his house. A nameless woman is assigned (but we do not know by whom) to come to his house regularly to bring him food and supplies. She also has sex with him and tells him stories; thus, he calls her Scheherazade. The main story she tells him in the story we are reading is about her breaking into the home of a boy with whom she was obsessed while in high school, (she is middle-aged now), fantasizing about him, stealing trivial items, and leaving other items in their place.

Because the story provides no background for why the man cannot leave the house or who is responsible for sending the woman to attend to his needs, the reader is apt to focus on these mysteries.  Indeed, New Yorker editor Treisman begins her interview in her weekly online feature by asking Murakami if he knows why the man cannot leave the house.

If this were the account of an actual event or even a realistic story, the question might be legitimate.  However, since Murakami does not reveal in the story why the man is confined to the house, he can quite rightfully reply to Treisman: "I don't know the exact circumstances that brought about the situation." Murakami says what caused the man's situation is not important. A fan of Kafka, he might have said it is no more relevant to the story than why Joseph K in Kafka's The Trial is arrested; it just is a given of the story that makes the story possible. In some ways, we are all locked in.

Treisman also asks Murakami why he ends his story without letting the reader hear the end of the story Scheherazade is telling the man.  Murakami says this is one of the most basic techniques of storytelling since the beginning of storytelling.  Many of the stories in 1001 Nights end only as an introit to another story within a story until the reader gets drawn so far into stories within stories that reality (whatever that is) is left so far behind one wonders if such a thing ever existed.  But readers want realism and closure, some contact with what they think is the "real world," as if their notion of "reality" is the only notion possible. This desire for closure even leads Treisman to ask Murakami if there will be a sequel--a device that Hollywood movie makers use to satisfy audiences' need for the illusion that that stuff on the screen keeps on happening even after they leave the theater.

I have only found one reader on the Internet who has read the story and commented on it—the indefatigable Betsy Pelz over on the Mookseandgripes.com website—a valuable site I have read with pleasure the past several years.  And sure enough, Ms. Pelz spends much of her discussion pondering what the guy is doing confined in the room and who is sending that woman over to tend to his needs.

Is the man a criminal, a political prisoner? She asks. Is the woman a prostitute, a sex surrogate? How does the woman manage the very practical matter of getting over to the guy's house so regularly without disrupting her own marriage? Ms. Pelz even suggests that the woman might be hired by the mob to keep the man prisoner. Frustrated by finding no answers, Ms. Polz develops her own fantasy solution that the man is actually the young boy the woman had an obsession about when she was a teenager—that he is actually now her husband and they are playing some sexual fantasy game by which she keeps him interested in her even though she is no longer young.

Perhaps concerned that  such a reading might trivialize the story as just an old Ladies Home Journal "Can this Marriage Be Saved?" piece, Ms. Pelz also suggests that the story has a social context, claiming, "The story addresses the kind of challenge a man faces in highly gendered societies such as Japan, where this story takes place and where the ideal for men is to be strong and silent."

I am not particularly attacking Betsy Pelz's reading of this story. She certainly has the freedom to read it any way she wishes. I suspect that most readers will have the same reaction to Murakami's "Scheherazade," especially if they are not as familiar with the history of storytelling beginning with 1001 Nights as Murakami is.  Indeed, Treisman's questions in the Murakami interview suggest that she is anticipating the typical reader response of trying to "normalize" this story, ground it in "realistic" motivation and "social" context.

But as Murakami's coy responses that he does not know what brought about the situation the man is in and his acknowledgement that he is using one of the most basic techniques of storytelling "handed down the millennia" suggest that "Scheherazade" is a story that can only be understood within the context of storytelling.

"Scheherazade" begins with an acknowledgement that this is a story about the ambiguous world that story creates: "Habara didn't know whether her stories were true, invented, or partly true and partly invented.  He had no way of telling.  Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives."   Stories that begin with some variation of "Once there was a man who…" often end with the reader asking the teller, "Did that really happen?"  My children often would ask me after I told  them a story, "Is that really true, Daddy, or just a story?"

Murakami's narrator says that regardless of whether Scheherazade's stories were true or not, she had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart, stories that left the listener enthralled," able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment."  Indeed, this is one of the primary effects of reading 1001 Nights.

The man in the story is puzzled by the fact that "their lovemaking and her storytelling were so closely linked, making it hard to tell where one ended and the other began." He has never experienced anything like this.  He is tightly bound to her, but he does not know why, for the sex is so-so and he doesn’t love her.  Indeed, the woman performs each sexual act as if completing an assignment in a businesslike manner.  Although their sex is not obligatory, it could not be said that their hearts are in it. Although the sex is not entirely businesslike, it is not passionate either.

Much of "Scheherazade" deals with the story the woman tells the man about her breaking into the house of the boy she was infatuated with while in high school.  She goes to his house when no one is at home and goes up to his room, sitting in his desk chair, picking up objects he has touched: "the most mundane objects became somehow radiant because they were his." She describes herself as a "Love Thief," feeling that if she takes something, she must also leave something. It is a reminder of the inextricable connection between story and sex that she takes one of the boy's pencils and leaves one of her tampons. She scribbles things in her notebook with the pencil, smells it, kisses it, even puts it in her mouth and sucks on it.  

She creates such a fantasy world that it no longer bothers her that in "the real world" the boy doesn't even seem to be aware of her existence. Murakami is exploring one of the most powerful aspects of love and sexual obsession that runs throughout 1001 Nights—that it is not the "real world" that matters—not even the "real" physical body of the other—only the powerful obsession that creates an alternate world. The fact that pornography focuses on physical events is what makes it so boring.

She continues to make trips to the boy's house, leaving strands of her hair, but also leaving the tampon, which the boy has never found because it was her first "token."  Leaving "tokens" is very common in the 1001 Nights stories; simple objects become transformed into magical emblems of the obsession that drives the story. Marina Warner talks a great deal about the importance of magical objects or tokens in her study Stranger Magic. All storytellers are aware of the metamorphosis of simple objects into sacred metaphoric ones. I have mentioned before Raymond Carver's comment about how ordinary objects become transformed in short stories.

A shift takes place after the girl takes one of the boy's soiled t-shirts from the laundry hamper and the mother discovers that someone has been breaking in the house and changes the door locks.  The girl does not need the boy, only the token of the shirt. When she puts her nose into the armpits and inhales, it is a as though she is in his embrace.  This "as if" is, of course, a key element of all storytelling. After she tells the man about the t-shirt, she asks to have sex with him one more time, and this time, instead of it being businesslike, it is violent, passionate and drawn out, and her climax is unmistakable.  Indeed, when she is having sex with the man this time, she is in her imagination having sex with the boy, and it is this imaginative sex that is central to the story.

When the girl stops the break-ins, her passion for the boy begins to cool.  She says that although the fever was passing, what she had contracted was not something like sickness, but rather the "real thing."  If a therapist or practical realist told the girl what she has been feeling was not the real thing but only an imaginative thing, such a judgment would just reflect a misunderstanding of what passion or desire or love or sex really is--always an imaginative thing.

At the end of his story, Murakami plays the little storytelling game so common in 1001 Nights, when the woman tells the man, "To tell the truth, the story doesn't end there.  A few years later, when I was in my second year of nursing school, a strange stroke of fate brought us together again."

The man wants to hear the rest of the story (as does the reader), but fears he may never see Scheherazade again and may never have the shared intimacy of sex with her again. "What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it on the other.  That was something that Scheherazade had provided in abundance—indeed her gift was inexhaustible." Indeed, this is the gift of the storyteller, the key to the treasure.  And as John Barth's genii reminds us, "The key to treasure is the treasure."

I hope Betsy Pelz will forgive me for using her discussion as a sort of straw man to emphasize what I think is a very important point about the short story as a genre—that to understand a particular story the reader must have some understanding of the nature of story and storytelling, especially the fact that good short stories are most often about some universal aspect of human desire and that "realism" is never an adequate means by which to understand them.

I am working on my essay on "Sex and Storytelling" in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. My thanks for the timely appearance of Haruki Murakami's story "Scheherazade," which reaffirms my notions about this theme in Alice Munro's stories.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Family Furnishings"



Some writers are referred to as "a writer's writer," a designation that suggests they are mainly appreciated by other writers—not bad if you treasure the approval of your fellow writers, but not so good if you want to sell your work to a larger audience than other writers--although given the burgeoning of MFA programs, the audience of writers and wannabe writers seems to be growing.
The short story writer, who used to be thought of as a money grubbing hack of the sub-literary pulp and slick paper world, is now—if he or she is any good--more often thought of as "a writers' writer" than novelists. Why is that generally true?  Alice Munro is often called a "writer's writer."  And indeed, if you read the reviews of her work by other writers, you know that other writers are almost universally rhapsodic about her short stories. Why is that specifically true of Munro?
As a side note: I did read a recent interview with Joy Williams (a writer I admire a great deal) in The Paris Review, Summer 2014, in which Williams was more than a little snide about Munro. The interviewer asked Williams if she enjoyed writing, and here is her answer:
That nice Canadian writer who recently won the Nobel—beloved, admired, prolific. Who would deny it? She said she had a “hellish good time” writing. This could be a subject for many, many panels. Get a herd of writers together and ask them, Do you have a hellish good time writing? Mostly, I believe, the answer would be no. But their going on about it could take some time.
I am disappointed with Williams' condescending reference to Munro as merely a "nice Canadian writer." But, to continue this aside for a moment, Williams did say something interesting in response to the interviewer's inevitable question—"Can you define a short story?"—a response with which she and "that nice Canadian wrier" would definitely agree.  Here it is:
What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excellent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.
(Williams echoes Frank O'Connor's "Lonely Voice" theme in the interview, affirming her belief that "what the short story, as a form, excels in is the depiction of solitude and isolation." Munro would agree with this also.  So, of course, do I, which is why I named my most recent book "I Am Your Brother.")

But back to this issue of the short story writer in general and Alice Munro in particular as a "writer's writer."  I have talked about this in some detail in an presentation I made at Angers, France a few years ago and which has appeared in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, Vol. 2, 2012, under the title "Why Many Writers Like Short Stories and Many Readers Do Not."  Because of possible copyright violations, I will not reprint that article on this blog, but can give you an idea about its content with the following quote:

It should not be a surprise that several authors anointed with that kiss-of-death designation, “writer’s writer”—Alice Munro, William Trevor, Deborah Eisenberg, Joy Williams, Steven Millhauser, David Means—are primarily short story writers.  And it should also not be a surprise that Francine Prose’s bravely titled 2006 book—Reading Like a Writer—devoted much more space to analyzing and praising the writing of short story authors than it did the writing of novelists.

I have always argued that the short story is a unique literary form that makes different demands on readers than its big-shouldered brother, the novel.  However, often, the only readers I have found who agree with me are writers of the short story. So I herewith call them to my aid.  I have rummaged through fifty years of notes and have read hundreds of author interviews, introductions, and commentaries to gather the judgments of 100 different authors on the short story. I have organized these judgments into several major categories that may prove helpful to our understanding of the short story.  It is remarkable how much in agreement the judgments of these one hundred authors are, and surprising that no one has ever gathered them together before and tried to derive some general conclusions from them.

In the essay, I discuss a number of reasons why short story writers are often referred to as "a writer's writer."  But one of the most obvious reasons that Alice Munro is so designated is she often writes stories about women who write short stories.  It may be that this is one of the reasons that so many reviewers of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage who are writers themselves have singled out "Family Furnishings" as their favorite story in the collection.

In what follows, I will note some of the aspects of the story that might identify it as a "writer's writer" story.
The introit for this story focuses on a particular day in the life of the narrator's father and his first cousin Alfrida who as children lived on adjoining farms—the day when World War I ended. The seemingly trivial event on this momentous day is the two children stomping on the ice in the furrows of the field and enjoying its crackle. When Alfrida tells this story, the father says she could not remember a thing like that and is making it up, which Alfrida denies.  The introit introduces the theme that the story later develops—whether a story is about something remembered or something invented—for when an event or a character is transformed into a story event or character, it always seems invention rather than recollection.
The first part of the story recounts the female narrator's recollections of Alfrida and her effect on her family.  Alfrida writes a column for the local newspaper as well as responses to letters to the paper.  From the narrator's perspective as a teenager, Alfrida is a sophisticated city person and has the ability to transform her rural family with her intelligence and wit. The narrator wants to escape her rural life for city sophistication, which she identifies later with her in-laws, who seem to live in a "world of storybook privilege." To the adolescent narrator, Alfrida represents a "liberated" woman, whose opinion is as valued as that of the men, although she sometimes seems to be putting on a show.  She regales the narrator with stories of people and events that the narrator has bound hints of in her reading, "but felt giddy to hear about, even at third or fourth hand, in real life."

One of the key issues here has to do with what seems most real to the writer—the stuff of writing or the stuff of the everyday. When asked if "Family Furnishings" was based on life, she says no, but when she was young writing was so important she would sacrifice anything for it.  "Because I thought of the world in which I wrote—the world I created—as somehow much more enormously alive than the world I was actually living in."  Alive in what way?  Alive in the way Chekhov says life in stories is alive, not the experiential world but the aesthetic world.
However, the one point on which the narrator's parents and Alfrida diverge is their attitude about sex.  When Alfrida asks if she can bring her male friend to visit, she is refused.  The narrator says her mother has a horror of "irregular sex or flaunted sex—of any sex, you might say, for the proper married kind was not acknowledged at all."
When the narrator wins a scholarship and goes to school in the city where Alfrida lives (Ottawa, Ontario), Alfrida invites her to visit, but she ignores the invitation and does not want to bring any of her friends to meet Alfrida, for she now understands that Alfrida is not so sophisticated and knows she would scorn the foreign films and literary novels that she and her friends read, for she has always referred to the narrator's father's classic novels as "hotshot reading."  The narrator's father pretends to agree with Alfrida about such things, even though he does read the books that Alfrida scorns.  The narrator, who wants to become a writer, says she does not want to show such contempt for things that matter to her, and that in order to not have to do that she would have to avoid those people she used to know, such as Alfrida, who has now lost all importance in her life.
When she does finally decide to go visit Alfrida, she is even more aware of the fact that Alfrida is not the sophisticated woman of the world that she once thought she was. During the visit, Alfrida talks about her mother, who died when a coal oil lamp exploded in her hands. The narrator talks a great deal about this story, especially how her aunts and her mother felt about it, seeing it as a "horrible treasure to them, something our family could claim that nobody else could, a distinction that would never be let go.  To listen to them had always made me feel as if there was some obscene connivance going on, a fond fingering of whatever was grisly or disastrous.  Their voices were like worms slithering around in my insides." (The story as treasure is interesting to me, for it seems to suggest that the writer perceives the value of significance in events that nonreaders do not.)
She is glad her fiancĂ© did not come on the visit, for he would not have wanted to hear about Alfrida's mother's death.  "He admired opera and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, but he had no time for tragedy,--for the squalor of tragedy—in ordinary life… Failures in life—failures of luck, of health, of finances—all struck him as lapses and his resolute approval of me did not extend to my ramshackle background." (Another reference here to the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary by the artist.  What, actually does so-called real life have to do with art at all?)
Alfrida tells the narrator that they would not let her in to see her mother at the hospital, even though she yelled her head off.  Alfrida says, "You know what I said? I remember saying it.  I said, But she would want to see me. She would want to see me."  Alfrida laughs at herself scornfully, adding.  "I must've thought I was a pretty big cheese, mustn't I? She would want to see me."
The narrators says she had never heard that part of the story before. But the phrase Alfrida uses strikes an important chord for her. Here we have the most important paragraph in the story:
And the minute I heard it, something happened.  It was as if a trap had snapped shut, to hold these words in my head.  I did not exactly understand what use I would have for them. I only knew how they jolted me and released me, right away, to breathe a different kind of air, available only to myself."
 She says the story she later wrote with the line, She would want to see me in it, obviously caused a rift between her and Alfrida. When her father tells her about Alfrida's being upset, she is surprised and angry that Alfrida's objects to something that seemed to have so little to do with her.  She tells her father it wasn't Alfrida at all,. "I changed it.  I wasn't even thinking about her.  It was a character.  Anybody could see that."  (This is basic paradox of art for the artist—that she is not really interested in "real life" at all, that what she takes from real life is only raw material, coarse "stuff" that she transforms into significance and meaning. )
She thinks there is a danger when she is at home with her father.  "It was the danger of seeing my life through other eyes than my own, seeing it as an ever-increasing roll of words, like barbed wire, intricate, bewildering, uncomforting—set against the rich productions the food, flowers, and knitted garments, of other women's domesticity." (And indeed, for the artist, it is the language that matters, not the stuff.)
At her father's funeral, she meets Alfrida's daughter who Alfrida gave up for adoption as a child. She tells her that Alfrida said she was smart but not as smart as she thought she was.  The daughter says Alfrida saw the narrator as a kind of "cold fish."
The story ends after  the Sunday afternoon dinner at Alfrida's as the narrator walks back alone to her rooming house.  She is glad that the people around her are people she did not know.  "What a blessing."  She goes into a drugstore for a cup of coffee and begins to feel happy to be alone. The story ends with these lines:
"I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida, but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories.  The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows.  Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.  This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be."
This is a difficult conclusion for nonwriters to accept, for it suggests that the writer is not interested in individual human people in the world, but rather the "formal," the "inhuman." I will conclude these comments by referring back to Joy Williams, who is better than her condescending remarks about Munro would suggest, a writer who is as aware of the loneliness of the writer's "cold fish" attitude toward reality than she might want to admit. Joy Williams says, short story writers love the dark and are always fumbling around in it. “The writer,” says Williams, doesn’t want to “disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. He wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.” 
Munro knows there is something obsessive and inhuman about the writer. In one of her most recent interviews, she said of her retirement, “There is a nice feeling about being just like everyone else now. But it also means that the most important thing in my life is gone." 
I am going to shut up about Alice Munro for a time on this blog, while I work on the essay on Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage I have promised Bob Thacker for a collection of essays he is editing.  I will let you know when I think I have an essay.  In the meantime, let's take a look at the forty stories in this year's O. Henry Award Stories and Best American Short Stories.



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "What is Remembered"


Like other Munro stories, this story opens with an introit about an incident that does not seem plot related to the story, but might be thematically related. It takes place at some time in the past when the central character Meriel was a young woman and is putting on white summer gloves; she smiles because she remembers something that Queen Sirikit of Thailand was quoted as saying in a magazine—a quote within a quote from the Parisian fashion designer Balmain who told her "Always wear white gloves. It's best."
Meriel is smiling because the advice "It's best" seems a "soft whisper" of advice, a bit of "absurd and final wisdom." When Pierre asks her why she is smiling, she tells him, and he says, "Who is Balmain?" Since the story is entitled "What is Remembered," this introit is about a memory within a memory, just as the quote is within a quote. It prepares us for a story about the nature of memory.
We then shift to some time after the introit incident, when Meriel and her husband Pierre are getting ready to go to a funeral of Pierre's best friend Jonas, who is 29, Pierre's age. They have been friends since childhood; Pierre was a Classics student, got married, got a job, had children, while Jonas was in engineering, but never married or settled down with a steady job. When he comes to visit he likes to talk about the past and becomes irritated when the  conversation turns to the present. This prepares us for a story that is about the past dominating the present.
When Meriel tells Pierre about Jonas' death, he automatically thinks it was suicide, but is evasive when she wants to know why he thinks this. "She felt his evasion to be some sort of warning or even a rebuke. As if he suspected her of deriving from this death—or from their proximity to this death—a feeling that was discreditable and self-centered.  A morbid, preening excitement." (It is not clear what significance this reference to death has, except for the fact that it suggests that one can make use of the death of another for his or her own personal reasons.  The uses of death might be related to the uses of the past.
We now have a long paragraph about husbands in those days who had changed to suitors "desperate in their sexual agonies" and then once married changed to resolute and disapproving men, off to work every morning, days spent in unknown labors.  While the men had a lot to learn, the women could slip back into a kind of "second adolescence" in a "throwback to high school." (This suggests that the story may be about a woman's use of the past in particular)
At the funeral service, the minister compares Jonas's life to a baby in the womb. "If the baby could somehow be informed of what would happen to it in the near future, would it not be incredulous, as well as afraid?  And so are we, most of the time, but we should not be, for we have been given assurance….The baby is lapped in its ignorance." (The funeral sermon echoes the theme the story seems to be emphasizing—being caught in time in which we cannot know the future and seem dissociated from the past, thus lapped in ignorance.)
She watches Pierre at the reception after the funeral and pretends she is seeing him for the first time. She remembers a teacher's party a year or so earlier when she came up to him and talked to him as if he was a stranger and she were discreetly flirting with him. (This notion of pretending to be strangers suggests the sexual charge that climaxes (pun intentional) the story, for Meriel and the man she has sex with pretend to be husband and wife, which gives their encounter an additional sexual charge)
Meriel wants to go and visit an old woman her mother had admired, named Muriel, called Aunt Muriel, although not blood related. Mariel is named for her.  (This is an example of a common Munro technique of doubling; it is a folktale motif).  The bush doctor, Doctor Asher, who had been looking after Jonas, has flown down to the funeral and offers to drive Meriel to visit her mother's old friend. Although their conversation is polite and formal on the drive, when they arrive he offers to come in and wait for her, and his offering of his time and presence seems to have little to do with courtesy and something to do with her.
When they go in, Meriel seems changed by her knowledge of the doctor's interest. "Something had happened to her.  She had a sudden mysterious sense of power and delight, as if with every step she took, a bright message was travelling from her heels to the top of her skull." When she asks him later why he wanted to come in with her, he says, "Because I didn't want to lose sight of you."
Aunt Muriel is of Meriel's grandmother's generation; she was her mother's art teacher. She knows Meriel and the doctor are not married—can tell the difference. When the old woman says she knows he is there with Meriel, he asks how she could tell that.  She answers, "I used to be a devil myself."  
Mariel feels there is some betrayal of the past stirring in the old woman. "Some degradation was in the offing.  Meriel was upset by this, remotely excited." The old woman tells of her youth when she was a devil, and she and her friends had adventures, but all according to a script, engaging in rituals. She tells stories that hint of sexual encounters; once she was blindfolded, but says she knew who it was, for she knew all of them there.  Meriel is "Distracted, play-acting, and with a vague sense of shame." The doctor and Meriel give each other a stealthy, almost married glance, "its masquerade and its bland intimacy arousing to those who were after all not married."
When they leave, in a gesture of intimacy, he reaches over and picks at the cloth of her dress which has tuck to her damp skin while setting. (There are a number of references in this section of the story to playacting, following a script, engaging in a ritual, pretending—and all of it has to do with sex and storytelling.  The idea of masquerade and playing a role is a common one in folktale and fairytale. When it is in regard to sex, as it often is, it seems to suggest the magic of Carnival, or stepping outside of one's everyday world and engaging in a fantasy world, a kind of alternate reality.  The old woman's recollection of the past sexual encounters adds to Meriel's sense of sexual excitement.
In the car, "She was holding in a wail of disappointment, a clamor of desire."  They speak like "caricatures."  Until, "unable to put up with this any more," she says, "take me somewhere else."
We now shift to the present as Meriel recalls this moment.  She believes that the phrase "Take me somewhere else" rather than "Let's go somewhere else" is important.  "The risk, the transfer of power.  Complete risk and transfer. Let's go—that would have the risk, but not the abdication, which is the start for her—in all her reliving of this moment—of the erotic slide."  (This is a key phrase—the "erotic slide" exists in the story, in "what is remembered," not necessarily in the moment.  But of course the moment is now always in the past, is always what is remembered, and thus in the control of the one remembering, being used by the one remembering for her own purposes, and always being amended and altered and added to.)
When Meriel thinks back on their going to an apartment where the doctor has been staying, she thinks she would have preferred another scene, and she substitutes one she prefers in her memory—a hotel in West Vancouver. "There she would have to cross the little lobby with head bowed and arms clinging to her sides, her whole body permeated with exquisite shame.  And he would speak to the desk clerk in a low voice that did not advertise, but did not conceal or apologize for their purpose." She creates a new scene using the "she would, he would" tense-- what might happen but did not except in what is remembered.
"Why did she conjure up , why did she add that scene?  It was for the moment of exposure, the piercing sense of shame and pride that took over her body as she walked through the pretend lobby, and for the sound of his voice, its discretion and authority speaking to the clerk the words that she should not quite make out." (This  combination of shame and pride that the invented scene in the hotel would have created in her seems important.)
"The job she had to do, as she saw it, was to remember everything—and by remember, she meant experience it in her mind, one more time—then store it away forever.  This day's experience set in order, none of it left ragged or lying about, all of it gathered in like treasure and finished with, set aside."  (This is the most explicit reference to "The key to the Treasure is the Treasure." For her, the experience takes on significance if she can set it all in order, making use of all the details and creating details when necessary, making a treasure in the mind of the experience.  The key to this treasure is the process of making it in the mind and making use of it.)
The final part of the story projects Meriel more than thirty years later, after Pierre has died.  She recalls reading to him during his illness.  One book was Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and they have a discussion about the scene when Bazarov declares his love for Anna Sergeyevna.  Meriel wanted the scene to do differently  She thinks Anna would not have reacted as she did, that it is just Turgenev yanking them apart for reasons of his own. She thinks they should have had the sexual encounter that Bazarov wants and Anna demurs from. Pierre says that Meriel's view is romantic. "You're wrenching things around to make a happy ending."
When Pierre argues that if Anna gave in, it would be because she loved him and when the sex was over she would still love him, for that is what women are like when they are in love, but Bazarov would leave in the morning because it is his nature; he hates loving her. When Pierre asks how would that be better, Meriel repels, "They'd have something.  Their experience." (This, of course, is a reference to her experience with the doctor—that although nothing "actually" ever came of it, "what is remembered" is the treasure that remains.
Now we shift back to the past when Meriel goes home on the ferry. "What she had to go through was wave after wave of intense recollection.  And this was what she would continue to go through—at gradually lengthening intervals—for years to come.  She would keep picking up things she'd missed, and these would still jolt her." (And thus, the power of the encounter lies in the mind of the one remembering, and the reality of it is in the memory).
"She remembered his hazel-gray eyes, the close-up view of his coarse skin, a circle like an old scar beside his nose, the slick breadth of his chest as he reared up from her." "Sudden recollection of even their early, unsure, and tentative moments could still make her fold in on herself, as if to protect the raw surprise of her own body, the racketing of desire. My love—my love, she would mutter in a harsh, mechanical way, the words a secret poultice." (This suggests the use of the memory—what Eliot calls the fragments one shores up against one's ruin).
She sees the doctor's picture in the paper after his death in an air crash. "The fact that he was dead did not seem to have much effect on her daydreams—if that was what you could call them.  The ones in which she imagined chance meetings or even desperately arranged reunions, had never had a foothold on reality, in any case, and were not revised because he was dead.  They had to wear themselves out in a way she did not control and never understood." (Meriel "works" with the memory, creating possibilities that exist only in the mind—what makes the memory so powerful and important is precisely that it is a memory—that it is something one can work with creatively.)
When she was on the ferry that night, she watched the wake of the boat and the thought occurs to her "that in a certain kind of story—not the kind that anyone wrote anymore—the thing for her to do would be to throw herself into the water.  Just as she was, packed full of happiness, rewarded as she would surely never be again, every cell in her body pumped up with a swe4et self-esteem. A romantic act that could be seen—from a forbidden angle—as supremely rational." (This is the central romantic notion—one that Heathcliff would understand, that Anna Karenina would understand, that Gatsby would understand.)
After Pierre's death, she recalls one further detail—that when he takes her to the ferry, she starts to kiss him and he says, "No, I never do."  She understands this to be a kind of cautioning. "Information that could not make her happy, though it might be intended to keep her from making a serious mistake. To save her from false hopes and humiliation of a certain kind of mistake." She doesn't doubt this recollection is true. "She did not see how she could have suppressed it so successfully for all this time.  She had an idea that if she had not been able to do that, her life might have bene different."  (This act of refusing to consummate the encounter with a goodbye kiss is important, for it forces her to give up any idea of sustaining the relationship except as an idea, a dream, a fantasy, a manipulation of the past into a story.)
Meriel thinks she might not have stayed with Pierre. She thinks that trying to match what had been said at the ferry with what had been done earlier would "have made her more alert and more curious.  Pride or contrariness might have played a part—a need to have some man eat those words, as refusal to learn her lesson—but that wouldn't have been all.  There was another sort of life she could have had—which was not to say she would have preferred it.  It was probably because of her age and because of the thin cool air she breathed since Pierre's death, that she could think of that other sort of life simply as a kind of research which had its own pitfalls and achievements." She thinks that prudence, some economical sort of emotional management had been her guiding light all along.
She thinks of the "self-preserving moment" the doctor made, the kind and deadly caution, the attitude of inflexibility that had grown a bit stale with him, like an outmoded swagger. She could view him now with an everyday mystification, as if he had been a husband.  She wondered if he'd stay that way, or if she had some new role waiting for him, some use still to put him to in her mind, during the time ahead."
What is the purpose of people and the past?  For the writer, the past is for transformation into story. And for the writer, people exist to transform into characters in stories.  I have one more Munro story from the volume Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage to "read" in preparation for my essay--"Family Furnishings"-- the central story in the collection about using people and the past to create stories. I hope by this time next week to have enough material to write that essay.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Post and Beam"


In my never-ending effort to figure out why most people prefer novels to short stories, one of my suspicions is that what holds novels together is more familiar to readers than what unifies short stories. I think it is pretty obvious that in order to be a long narrative, there usually has to be enough stuff to make the narrative long—e.g. social context, physical setting, multiple characters, multiple events, ruminations, ideas, etc.—all  to keep the damn thing going, one thing after another usually in a long linear line in time.
In short narratives, the writerly compulsion is not to keep the damn thing going, but rather to make it mean something. In a novel, what happens on page six does not have to be closely related to what happens on page two hundred and thirty-five. However, in a short story, what happens in line six should have something to do with what happens in line two hundred and fifty-six.  A novel can unwind in an illusion of natural sequence, heading on into the future or recollecting the past, going on and on seemingly indefinitely—nothing to stop it but death or marriage, depending on whether it is tragic or comic.
However, a short story does not create an illusion of natural sequence, even if it does move onward in time or backward in recollection. It seems to be compelled by some inner necessity to "mean something." I am not saying that novels don't mean anything, but they don't seem to ned to have a unified thematic meaning. They can just be realistic reflectors of reality. Short stories, however, do seem thus compelled, or else they don't seem to be much of anything at all.
Part of this is due to the nature of small things, which seem to have an inner compulsion to cohere, but it is also due to the tradition of the short story. From the beginning, a story that is short was told by someone who often began with a variation of "a funny thing happened" or "once upon a time." In either case, the compulsion to tell the story derived from a sense of mystery that this thing that happened meant something and that by relating it the teller might somehow figure it out or urge someone else to figure it out. Moreover, short narratives, such as parables, fables and exempla often illustrated a moral or truth or concept.
Yeah, I know, this is all a bit obvious. But it might have some interesting implications about why people would rather read novels than read short stories. When reading a novel, one can simply get lost in the story, even relaxing while being pulled or pushed along. But when reading a short story, the cryptic sense of mystery that the story "means" something does not allow such relaxation. If the reader drifts away while reading a short story, he or she just gets lost. Instead of completing the work with a sense of satisfaction, the reader may feel, "what the hell was that all about?"
In the following account of my "reading" of Alice Munro's "Post and Beam" from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, I hope to illustrate this compulsion for the short story to "mean" something—to hold together by virtue of its "theme" rather than by virtue of its characters or plot. I hope to show that this theme, which is most often a universal aspect of human experience, is developed by an emerging pattern of repeated and related "motifs" that come together like a poem or a piece of music rather than like a mimetic mirror of so-called "real life," whatever that is.  Wasn't it Nabokov who said that whenever one used the world "reality," it should always be with quotation marks around it?
"Post and Beam" has an introit—a brief dialogue account of  about a dozen lines in which the character Lionel tells that just before his mother died, she asked for her makeup, saying "This will take about an hour." When she finishes and he says that it didn't take an hour, she says she hadn't meant that—that she had meant to die. When he asks her if she wants him to call her husband or the minister, she asks, "What for?" The introit suggests that neither the husband nor the minister can have any effect on the inevitability of death. With or without them, it will happen.  She missed her prediction by only about five minutes. We have no idea what the point of this introit is, what relevance to the story it has. The mother plays no major role in the events that follow; consequently, we suspect that it must be related to the meaning or theme of the story, not simply its plot.
We now get some background: The character Lionel had been Brendan's (the husband of the main character Lorna)  student, the brightest mathematical mind he had ever seen. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he dropped out of sight until recently when Brendan met him in a supermarket and invited him to come and meet his wife. Lionel is skeptical about marriage. He works in the Diocese of the Archbishop and says he feels sometimes that he is in a Dickens novel. He had spent some time in a hospital after his breakdown and had shock treatments, the result of which he is short of memories and details and wants Lorna to tell him her memories.
Lorna tells about her Aunt Beatrice and her older cousin Polly who lived next door to her when she was a child. She also tells him her only memory of her mother: They are downtown and saw on the Post Office clock that the time had come for the soap opera she and her mother listened to on the radio. "She felt a deep concern, not because of missing the story but because she wondered what would happen to the people in the story, with the radio not turned on, and her mother and herself not listening."(This is a variant of the old "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" concept. It has to do with the mystery of what people do when you are not there, and more broadly the mystery of what "reality" actually is. This is related to the idealism of the eighteenth century philosopher George Berkeley.
Lionel tells a story about his own mother when she had taken him to the museum and he was scared of the mummies, and she had told him they were not really dead, but could get out of their cases when everyone went home. (This is another reference to the mystery of what happens when you are not there or the unknown of what is meant by "really.")
There is a tacit tension between Lorna and Lionel, for Lorna is another Alice Munro woman who has longings for another man, but does nothing about it, because to do so would be to forfeit the ideality she wants. Lorna does not "really" want Lionel, but rather ideally.  In some sense, all great love stories in Western Literature are based on this ideality.  It is why Romeo cannot "really" have Juliet or Heathcliff cannot "really" have Cathy.
Lionel sends Lorna a poem once a week or so. She felt about the poems the way she does about the Buddhist religion: "that they were a resource she might be able to comprehend, to tap into, in the future, but that she couldn't do that just now." (This notion appears in "Nettles," for the main character shores up the fragments of her experience against her ruin, as does the woman in "What is Remembered.") Lionel does not send love poems; there's nothing personal about them; "They reminded her of those faint impressions you can sometimes make out on the sidewalks in spring—shadows, left by wet leaves plastered there the year before." (This evokes a common Munro motif of fossils, remnants, what is left, the marks of the past).  Many of her stories are about what marks the past.) More about that next week in the story "What is Remembered."
Polly, who is five years older than Lorna, is coming to visit, but Lorna cannot tell Brendan or Lionel. You cannot talk about such things to Lionel, she says: "You could not speak to him about anything seen seriously as a problem. To speak of problems meant to search for, to hope for, solutions. And that was not interesting; it did not indicate an interesting attitude towards life. Rather a shallow and tiresome hopefulness. Ordinary anxieties, uncomplicated emotions, were not what he enjoyed hearing about.  He preferred things to be utterly bewildering and past bearing, yet ironically, even merrily, borne." (This could be a description of what Alice Munro prefers in her short stories. It is a key concept in the\is story; indeed, it is a key concept in many of Alice Munro's stories, indicating one of the central characteristics of the short story as a form.)
Lionel thinks of himself as a character in a Dickens novel; Lorna pretends she is in a sentimental play. Often Alice Munro's characters think of themselves as characters in a fiction—which of course they are; it's just they are not supposed to know that.
The metaphor of the post and beam house, which gives the story its title, indicate a house left unpainted, made to fit in with the original forests. It is plain and functional from the outside and inside the beams are exposed. The architecture is always preeminent. (There may be a thematic significance to something that uses artifice to appear to be natural). This does not mean it is "phony," but that it is a transformation that tries to conceal the transforming process—artifice pretending to be natural.
One of the central images in the story to suggest Lorna's desire for, not the physicality but the ideality of Lionel occurs when she goes to his room "to be for a moment inside the space where he lived, breathe his air, look out his window." The image of freedom here is to sink into the room. "To stay in this room where there was nobody who knew her or wanted a thing from her.  To stay here for a long, long time, growing sharper and lighter, light as a needle" This notion of freedom from all actual connections is central to the story "Family Furnishings" in this collection. More about that later.
Lorna feels both fortunate and trapped in her marriage, she is "installed" as a wife. Polly is both envious and scornful of her marriage. There is some basic discontent in Polly. When Lorna comes into her room she sees her in bed with a sheet pulled up around her like a shroud. She is a "mound of misery, one solid accusation." Lorna feels Polly is leeching off her, "becoming part of Lorna's good fortune, Lorna's transformed world." Lorna asks what right she has to do this, and the answer is that "Family gives Polly the right."
Lorna is drawn to idea, not physicality: When she met Brendan, a math professor, she fell in love with what is inside his head, excited by a knowledge a man might have that was "utterly strange" to her. Auto mechanic would have done as well.
She worries what might happen to Polly while she is away from her, that she might commit suicide. Munro uses the verb tense of imaginary events to describe her fear: "they would find the door locked; they would unlock it; they would hurry around to the front door." Raymond Carver uses this very effectively in the story "Errand," as Chekhov's wife tells the young porter to go get the doctor, telling of the action she wants him to perform as if it were happening. Lorna imagines a story to happen—how Polly's body would look, what she would be wearing, "Her long pale legs dangling down, her head twisted fatally on its delicate neck. In front of her body would be the kitchen chair she had climbed onto, and then stepped from, or jumped from, to see how misery could finish itself."
Lorna remembers a time when she had been alone with Polly for a day and Polly had left her to go to the store, taking her outside and telling her to stay there until she returned.  When she comes back she kisses Lorna all around her head, for the thought had occurred to her that she might have been spotted by kidnappers. "She had prayed all the way back for this not to have happened." (This is another example of imagining what might happen when one is not present—the central  recurring theme throughout the story.)
The most important example of the theme of things happening when one is not present is Lorna thinking of the years since she got married and Polly staying the same while Lorna passed her by; she now thinks it is unseemly that Polly has shown up to come "clawing for her share."
Lorna feels is afraid Polly will commit suicide, even as she calls it stupid melodrama and even though she, an unbeliever, feels the need to pray, "Let it not have happened."  She thinks that there is one thing left to do—make a bargain. She rejects the idea of bargaining the children and thinks she did not love Brendan enough to bargain him, "there is a little hum of hate running along beside her love, nearly all the time." She thinks she must make the bargain without knowing the terms, promising to honor the bargain even though she does not know what it is.
When Lorna returns home, Lionel is there; he looks straight into her face with a smile "from which all subtlety, secrecy, ironic complicity, and mysterious devotion had been removed.  All complications, all private messages had been removed."
Lorna thinks Lionel must be punishing her for going to his room, and she thinks of what she might say to him.  She thinks there must be a bond between them, "not to be made explicit, but to be relied on."  But she knows she had been wrong, that she had presumed too much.  She thinks that because of her offense Lionel had taken up with Polly, or "perhaps not."   (This is typical Alice Munro—the mystery of motivation—the not knowing why people do what they do.  It is not just that one does not know what happens when one is absent, but that one is always absent, one never can be there where the other is. This continues when Lorna thinks maybe it is because Polly is Lionel's choice or maybe it is simply that he is happier.  When she sees them together, it is "A scene so ordinary and amazing, come about as if by magic. Everybody happy." (This theme of things happening mysterious as if by magic is a common one for Munro—and for the short story in general.)
Lionel watches Polly blow up the child's  pool, thinking, at least in Lorna's mind, that he wants a woman competent and sensible, pliant but solid. "Someone not vain or dreamy or dissatisfied." (as she obviously is) (This is, of course, the ironic happy ending of the title story "Hateship") Lorna thinks Lionel might marry such a woman, and then change and maybe fall in love with some other woman.  "That might happen…Or it might not." The mystery of what might happen is a persistent theme in this story.
Lorna recalls her vision of Polly's suicide and is surprised by, as you are long after waking by the recollection of a dream. "It had the a dream's potency and shamefulness.  A dream's uselessness, as well." To think back on a dream as if it were a past event is another challenge to the notion of what "really" happened vs. what one has "imagined" has happened or might happen.
Lorna thinks of the bargain she had made and realizes it is not a bargain at all, for it has no specificity; it is a promise that has no meaning. "But as she tried out various possibilities, almost as if she were "shaping this story to be told to someone… as an entertainment," she thinks, "give up reading books." This story emphasizes one of Alice Munro's central themes—the relationship between fiction and reality, or how fiction influences reality.  Lorna sits on the bed tired by all this "sport, this irrelevance," all these possibilities of a story. "What made more sense was that the bargain she was bound to was to go on living as she had been doing.  The bargain was already in force. To accept what had happened and be clear about what would happen."
Lorna understands she was counting on something happening to change her life. "So nothing now but what she or anybody could sensibly foresee. That was to be her happiness, that was what she had bargained for. Nothing secret or strange."  "Pay attention to this, she thought." She has a dramatic notion of getting on her knees. "This is serious."  Just then, she hears her daughter calling "Mommy, Mommy. Come here" With the interruption of this present immediacy, the story ends with the storytelling lines: "It was a long time ago that this happened. In North Vancouver, when they lived in the Post and Beam house.  When she was twenty-four years old, and new to bargaining."
If one focuses only on plot and character in this story, it doesn't seem to be about much of anything, except Polly's unhappiness at not having what Lorna does, and Lorna's schoolgirl crush on Lionel—the stuff of popular fiction.  But Alice Munro is interested in something more profound that this.  She explores the complex human problem of not knowing what motivates the other and not being sure of what is happening when one is not present.  Only by reading the story more than once, identifying the persistent theme that keeps repeating throughout, and then reorganizing the themes in a meaningful pattern, does one begin to understand and thus appreciate the subtlety and complexity of Munro's exploration of the universal human situation of not knowing what the other is thinking, not knowing how to make the right decisions about our behavior with the other, not knowing what is happening when we are not present, and feeling helpless in face of this lack of knowledge. Not many people care to spend this much time with a piece of fiction this demanding, especially a short piece of fiction.  Too much work for too little payoff.

Next time, I will "read" Munro's story "What is Remembered" and talk a bit about the relationship of the past to the present in short stories.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Nettles"


The Wall Street Journal has a book club on Facebook. I signed on recently because the book of the month of August was Alice Munro's Love of a Good Woman. I thought it might be fun to join in a conversation about one of my favorite authors.

However, it surprised me that so many of the readers had no patience with Alice Munro's stories. Fairly typical was one who said that Munro would not be on her future reading list because she was too "depressing." Others said they just did not "get" her stories, or else they just did not like short stories. And even those who found the stories intriguing did not seem to know what to make of them. The writer Curtis Sittenfield, who is moderating this discussion of the Munro collection, is going to do a live video on Thursday, August 28 at 12 noon EST. You can tweet her with questions at hashtag #WSJbookclub or check her out on the Facebook WSJ Book Club.

The responses I read on the WSJ Book club reminded me of one of the problems of reading a short story that aims to be more than mere escapist entertainment. In order to appreciate a good short story, you just have to read it more than once. It usually does not exist as a simple temporal "one damn thing after another" plot line in which some interesting character gets involved in an entertaining dilemma and somehow manages to get out of it, or get something out of it, so that the reader gets something out of it. 

And let's, face it, not many folks want to read a story more than once, for they think of a short story as an account of a temporal action that, well, you know, tells a story--not a work of art that is always there for further observation or deliberation. We don't feel this way about a piece of music, which we might listen to over and over again, or a painting or sculpture that we might look at many times.. But for some reason, we do feel this way about a story. Novels usually provide a more immediate plot-based pleasure than short stories, which often leave us scratching our heads or shrugging our shoulders.

I suggest that novels are usually written with the understanding that they will be read one time and placed on the shelf or given to the used bookseller, never to be read again. And indeed, one reading may be all that is necessary to "get it"--that is, to understand it. But short stories, which are more like poems than novels, deserve to be read again and again, indeed, insist on being read again. For short stories are more dependent on artifice, pattern, structure, language, significance, etc.,. than novels, which are more dependent on "what happened"--just as paintings depend more on pattern, color, design, etc. rather than answering the question, "what the hell is that?"

 I know, I know, there are many exceptions to this. I have read Melville's Moby Dick at least a dozen times, and I have read Joyce's Ulysses at least half a dozen times. But by and large, the distinction holds true and goes a long way toward explaining why many people don't like short stories, even the short stories of a Nobel Prize winner, which they probably think they should like, that is, unless they can dismiss them as "pseudo intellectualism," which one reader on the WSJ Book club did with the stories of Alice Munro.

I doubt I will ever be able to nudge folks who read fiction for character and plot away from the novel to the short story.  At the Alice Munro Symposium in Ottawa last month, folks spent three days listening to the most avid Alice Munro critics praise her work with great enthusiasm.  And then, on the last day of the conference, one man raised his hand and said that for all that rhapsodic praise he still did not like short stories and had little or no desire to try to learn to  like them, even by the Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro. By God, he liked novels, something you could get your teeth into, something that had heft and bulk and therefore significance. There was just something a little too "artsy" about short stories. And he sure as hell had no intention of reading one of those puny little things twice.

So as my elderly Irish mother-in-law is wont to say, "there you are and where are you?" Well, where I have always been, I reckon--trying to get folks to love short stories as much as I do and be willing to read them two or three times.  In what follows, I offer the results of my usual fourth reading of Alice Munro's story "Nettles" from the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage—focusing on those passages I thought most important, trying to find the pattern of significance that Munro herself must have discovered as she wrote the story.

Curtis Sittenfeld, trying to get folks on the WSJ book club to engage seriously with the stories of Alice Munro in Love of a Good Woman, pointed out that a much-discussed aspect of Munro's work is her treatment of time, asking, "What do you think of Ms. Munro's treatment of time? Do you enjoy the jumps in narrative, or do you find them confusing?"

And indeed, on the first page of the story "Nettles," we are thrown into three different time periods: the summer of 1979, when the central character walks into the kitchen of her friend Sunny and sees a man standing at the counter making himself a ketchup sandwich; some time much later as she is driving northeast of Toronto with her second husband (not the one she had left that summer of 1979) idly looking for the house, but failing to find it; and then the past when the narrator was a child and she recalls drinking from their well and thinking of "black rocks where the water ran sparkling like diamonds." This image is more than just a description; it is a poetic image of a magical other world—a reference to the "in another country" theme common to the short story.

In this period of childhood, we meet the narrator at age 8 and her friend Mike McCallum at age 9. He is the well digger's son (also named Mike McCallum, suggesting  a doubling typical of folk tale.)

We have an image of the two children washing Ranger the dog in tomato soup because of being sprayed by a skunk; it suggests to her the rather ominous notion of washing him in blood, and she wonders how many people or horses or elephants would it take to supply that much blood. She is familiar with animal killing, for her father shot and butchered horses to feed the foxes  and mink on his farm. She recalls the wire shed with "the long, pale horses' carcasses hung from brutal hooks" and the "trodden blood-soaked ground where they had changed from live horses into those supplies of meat." The notion that the horses are transformed from one thing to another suggests a magical metamorphosis--the brutal change from life to death.

She describes the way she sees things, like the trees which had an attitude and presence—the elms serene, the oat threatening, the maples friendly and workaday, the hawthorn old and crabby. This is all romantic animism, in which sacred reality possesses things. She says her friend Mike saw them differently than she did: "My way was by its very nature incommunicable, so that it had to stay secret. His had to do with immediate advantage." This is a reference to the archetypal dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, the practical and the poetic. Hers is the world of the writer, a magic world of spirit and transformations and the ideal. His is the profane, secular world of everyday reality.

The childhood memory focuses on both the idyllic sense that life is an adventure that will never change and the anxiety that the future threatens unknown dangers. She and Mike wade in the river and walk to the bridge that separates the country from the town, which threatens with town boys who were loudmouthed and hostile, tramps who sleep under the bridge, a fisherman who swears at them for making noise. The bridge is, like the bridge in "Floating Bridge," a demarcation line, and when she goes into the shadow of the bridge where she has never been in her life, she is frightened of this movement into a strange other country.  They join the boys and girls in the town playing a game of war, using balls of clay as weapons. When a boy was hit, one of the girls had to attend to him. When Mike is injured, she presses leaves to his forehead and to his "pale, tender stomach, with its sweet and vulnerable belly button." (This is flesh, but idealized flesh).

 When the hired man sees them and says they look like they have been rolling in the mud, adding "First thing you know you gonna have to get married," her mother reproves him, saying they are more like brothers and sisters. However, this rolling around and coming away marked occurs again in the climactic scene when the doctor says they look like they have been rolling in nettles.

But the narrator says her mother is wrong and that the hired man was closer to the truth, adding they were more like "sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression."  She says she knows the hired man was talking about sex, and she hated him for it, for she knows he is wrong. "We did not go in for any showings and rubbings and guilty intimacies—there was none of that bothered search for hiding places, none of the twiddling pleasure and frustration and immediate, raw shame."

She makes a distinction between her feelings for Mike and those specific sexual "escapades," which she would only consider with those who disgusted her, "as those randy abhorrent itches disgusted me with myself."  With Mike she worships the "back of his neck and the shape of his head…his smell." With him the "localized demon was transformed into a diffuse excitement and tenderness spread everywhere under the skin."

Weeks after Mike moves away, she hears a woman call "Mike" and runs after the woman, but it is only a boy of five. "I stopped and stared at this child in disbelief, as if an outrageous, an unfair enchantment  had taken place before my eyes." She says her heart is beating in big thumps in her chest, "like howls happening in my chest." (This theme of enchantment will be taken up later in the central climactic scene in the nettles).  Much of this story is about the nature of enchantment, as in fairy tales.

The story now shifts to the time of the central event when she goes to visit her friend Sunny, a friend when she lived in Vancouver. She summarizes her marriage and children and divorce. When she takes her daughters to the airport to go to her husband, they play a game in which you pick out a number and then you count the men you saw out the window of the car; when the number came up, he would be the man you were to marry. (More childhood games predicting or setting up the future as in the title story.)

The early poetic images now are justified when we learn that after her divorce she lives alone, hoping to make her living as a writer: "The idea of being so far freed from domesticity enchanted me."  (And there's that word again)

She recalls the man for whom she left her husband. "all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex, fused people's best selves.  I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman  of my age." (It is not clear why she thinks sex fuses people's "best selves," but this issue of sex as being physical, but also idealized is an important theme in the story.)

She thinks of the lies or half lies she would have told Sunny: "I am learning to leave a man free and to be free myself.  I am learning to take sex lightly, which is hard for me because that's not the way I started out and I'm not young but I am learning." (How to take sex, what sex means, the uses of sex—all are part of this story.)

And this is when she walks into Sunny's kitchen and sees Mike McCallum spreading ketchup on a piece of bread.

The feelings she has in the presence of Mike are idealizations, not physical encounters.  This are not about what actually happens, but what might happen. This is the nature of fictional reality. She wants to brush against him, to lay a finger against his bare neck. When she sleeps in the same sheets he has slept in, she says she does not have a peaceful night. (This is like sleeping with a phantom, a trace of the past).  "In my dreams, though not in reality, they smelled of water-weeds, river-mud, and reeds in the hot sun." (This is the central statement of the idealization from the past). "My sleep was shallow, my dreams monotonously lustful, with irritating and unpleasant subplots."  The subplots she dreams have to do with obstacles in the way of their physically getting together. She says she sometimes awakes "stranded on a dry patch. Unwelcome lucidity." For she knows nothing about this man.

When they go to play golf, she idealizes them as a couple, with her in the wife's seat, feeling a kind of adolescent girl's pleasure. The notion (not the actuality) of being a wife beguiles her. "Could I really have settle in, with a true love, and somehow just got rid of the parts of me that did not fit, and been happy?" (This is typical of idealization, getting rid of the parts that do not fit. It is the nature of narrative reality, storytelling, fiction.)

On the golf course, she feels all she has to do is just follow him around, give him an "amplified, an extended notion of himself. A more comfortable notion, you  might say, a reassuring sense of human padding around his solitude."  She says a pleasure comes over her on the links. "Lust that had given me shooting pains in the night was all chastened and trimmed back now into a tidy pilot flame, attentively, wifely." (But this is still idealization, not actuality). It has all the pleasures of life together, but none of the reality, all the pleasures of imagining physicality, but not the physical itself.

When the rain begins they go into the tall weeds that grew between the course and the river, as in a childhood retreat. The weeds include nettles. "It was almost as if we were looking through a window, and not quite believing that the window would shatter, until it did, and rain and wind hit us, all together, and my hair was lifted and fanned out above my head.  I felt as if my skin might do that next." (This creates the magical enchanted enclosure surrounded by the storm. She is transformed into an otherworldly creature in another country of  enchantment. He covers her with his body. "Then we kissed and pressed together briefly. This was more of a ritual, a recognition of survival rather than of our bodies' inclinations." It is as close to sex as they get, like the kiss on the bridge in "Floating Bridge."

After the rain when they walk in the open, he tells her about his three-year-old son who was killed last summer when he accidently ran over him backing out of the driveway. Although he does not say it was his fault and that he would never forgive himself, she knows this, knows that he was a person "who had hit rock bottom, a person who knew—as I did not know, did not come near knowing—exactly what rock bottom was like." When she says it is not fair, meaning both the "dealing out of idle punishments" and "what has this got to do with us?" he says "Fairness being neither here nor there."

When they get back to the car, he wonders what happened to the guy who was parked here before. "Mystery," he said and then "Well." This is a word she heard as a child. "A bridge between one thing and another, or a conclusion, or a way of saying something that couldn't be any more fully said, or thought."  And the joking answer was always "A well is a hole in the ground." This seems like a minor detail.  But it emphasizes mystery, the enchanted nature of their seclusion in the nettles, in which time ceases to exist and the stuff of the real world mysteriously vanishes. The reference to the word "well" as a bridge between one thing and another recalls the bridge in "Floating Bridge"—a well being like a gravel pit, a hole into which one can fall, a "deep subject" that poses a mystery.

They are covered with welts and blotches from the nettles. The doctor says they must have been rolling in them. "The fact that we had chosen to go off together and that we had this adventure—an adventure that left its evidence on our bodies—seemed to rouse in Sunny and Johnston a teasing excitement. Droll looks from him, a bright solicitousness from her. If we had brought back evidence of real misdoing—welts on the buttocks, red splashes on the thighs and belly—they would not of course have been so charmed and forgiving." (It is important that it is playful, not actual.)

She knows it would be the same old thing if they ever met again or didn't. "Love that was not usable, that knew its place. (Some would say not real, because it would never risk getting its neck wrung, or turning into a bad joke, or sadly wearing out.) Not risking a thing yet staying alive as in a sweet trickle, an  underground resource. With the weight of this new stillness on it, this seal." (This is the key passage about love that is "not real," but it suggests the only way that love is real—an idealization.  The underground resource recalls that deep well mentioned at the beginning which she images are diamonds.

A final paragraph about the nettles, which it turns out were not nettles, but joe-pye weed. What they got into are more insignificant than nettles, with fine, skin-piercing and inflaming spines. "Those would be present too, unnoticed, in all the flourishing of the waste meadow." This final paragraph is a sort of coda that suggests the significant that is insignificant, the imagined that is real, the real that is imagined.


Next: Reading Alice Munro's story: "Post and Beam"