Sunday, July 15, 2007

Alice Munro's "Fiction"

I always read with extra care those Alice Munro stories that don't end up in the New Yorker. What did they find wrong with this one? is the question I ask myself. Too discursive? Too familiar? Too long? This is probably not worth doing, I know--maybe the only reason she goes elsewhere is that the New Yorker already has one of hers in the pipeline. In any event, this new story is in Harper's, and while it isn't the kind of knockout shocker that her last story was (that would be the one, I forget the title, about the woman who almost reconciles with the man who murdered their children), it's superb: wry, knowing, and heartbreaking, with all the seemingly effortless detail that she uses to create such a thoroughly imagined reality.

The story opens with a marriage being ruined--the protagonist's husband has an affair with his wood shop apprentice, whose nine-year-old daughter is the protagonist's violin student. Jump twenty years into the future: the protagonist, Joyce, is having a party with her second husband, an academic, and various family, colleagues, and students are in attendance. A young woman in a black skirt catches her eye: Joyce doesn't like the look of her. Turns out she's a writer, and her first story collection has just come out. (In a comic aside, we get Joyce's reaction to the idea of a story collection:

This fact by itself is disappointing. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

Ho ho!, that Alice!)

Lo and behold, one of the stories is about her, Joyce: turns out the writer is her first husband's apprentice's daughter! Joyce is moved by the story, and goes to the book signing at the store where she bought the collection...where she is unceremoniously (actually, come to think of it, ceremoniously) snubbed by author and bookseller alike. The story ends with a casual dismissal: "This could turn into a fairly funny story someday."

In the comments from a couple posts ago, W6 chum 5redpandas wrote, "the writing was terrific, but the plot was a bit- eh." I sympathize--a lot of the usual Munrovian elements are there, marriages, affairs, huge leaps in time, subverted epiphanies. But I dunno, that's a bit like hearing a Beethoven sonata and groaning, "E-flat again?" Personally, I could listen to Munro play this tune all day long. It's the details of lived live that make the story great--Joyce's cheerfully semi-antagonistic closeness with her gay son, Tommy; the way her second husband snorts with derision at what he's reading in bed; the wood shavings that cling to the apprentice's thick sweaters. And the way Munro uses unspectacular but unexpected words, so that descriptions cleave more powerfully to their antecedents: the first husband's wine-making method as "strict and successful," or this description of the way, after the separation, Joyce's drunken confidences to friends grow sour: "All that drunken insight, the exhilaration, had been cast out of her, like vomit."

So while I understand where 5RP is coming from, I can't help but love this might not be new ground for Munro, but I have no complaints about watching the master crack her knuckles and get to work.


Rich said...

For what its worth, i completely agree. Munro could rewrite the phone book and i'd probably enjoy reading it. A while ago you mentioned Munro's autobiography had been on your coffee table for some time. Did you ever get to it?

Anonymous said...

No, not yet! I wouldn't call it an autobiography though...more like fictionalized family stories. I definitely need to get to it, I don't understand why I'm so unnerved by it...

the individual voice said...

As a new writer-blogger who has just discovered and linked to this varied writer site, I like what you say about Munro's use of "unspectacular but unexpected words." I couldn't put my finger on what she is doing with language. It's so seamless and invisible. Thank you for the insight.
Your enthusiasm for her work is contagious and your observations astute.