Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Alice Munro and Real Life

I first read Alice Munro in college, when a friend pressed Lives of Girls and Women on me, saying that I would relate to it. She was right. I loved that book not because I admired it, but because Munro said things about my life at that moment that I hadn't even noticed before. My own life felt larger and more rich because of her life.

But it's not her life -- it's fiction, right? I'd always assumed that there's a strong autobiographical source for much of AM's fiction, if for no other reason than the recurrence of certain motifs: the inappropriate lover, the sick mother, the bourgeois husband. And one other that I might not have noticed if it weren't for the latest story in Harper's: drowning.

"Miles City, Montana" is the big drowning story, with one drowned child in the back story and an near-drowning in the front. There's one in an old story, "Walking on Water," and a sunk car with people in it in a later story. I think there are more. Anyway, enough to make a person wonder, "So... what is it with Alice Munro and drowning?"

You wouldn't ask that of a memoirist -- she would tell you right out, and that would be that. One of the reasons I prefer fiction to memoir is because fiction lets the writer work through variations on a theme. In one story the protagonist is just a witness to a drowning; in another story she's at fault through neglect; in another she's completely to blame.

What really happened? Munro would probably say it doesn't matter, and I guess it doesn't. Knowing wouldn't make me get more out of the stories, or cause me to like them less. Still, wondering about her real life has always been a part of my experience reading AM -- thinking about how what really happened gets turned around and comes out as fiction is endlessly fascinating.


5 Red Pandas said...

"What really happened" is based on memory and so it's often hard to definitively say what really happened. You have the bare facts, but in fiction and even memoir you have the interpretation of facts.

My sister and I have had bitter fights when discussing "what really happened" during shared events. We each wrote about a significant incident that happened to both of us, and it was really interesting to see what the other focused on. They were similar stories, but distinctly different in voice.

The most interesting thing to me was to see how much she focused on dialogue, while I was much more descriptive. She now writes screenplays while I focus on fiction, which seems appropriate.

rmellis said...

That's true. In my case, my sister has an incredibly memory for everything, while mine is hazy. Maybe that's why I write and she paints -- I have to write to fill in the gaps...