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How does Alice do it?

August 24, 2009

P1010483

Wow, talk about neglected.  Since the last post there’ve been adventures in Big Sur [above], Napa, LA and San Francisco; gigs by TV on the Radio, Fever Ray and Grizzly Bear — three vying for ‘best gig of the year’ status — and more books than I ought to mention. Posts on these may or may not follow!

Top of the books heap at the moment is Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, the new collection from the winner of this year’s International Man Booker Prize and, as widely acknowledged, the world’s greatest living short story writer. I’ve still one story to go — the final and longest story in the book, a historical piece just about long enough to be a novella — but I thought it a good time to start thinking about what Munro does that justifies the praise. It’s worth noting, by the by, that I largely agree with the consensus: she’s a terrific writer, and I’ve been awaiting Too Much Happiness with what used to be called bated breath, especially since the publicity for her previous book, the more than usually autobiographical The View from Castle Rock (2006), saw her on more than one occasion suggest that would be her final book.

I once tried breaking down one of her older stories into a synopsis, attempting to work out some of the ways it worked its peculiarly mesmeric and satisfying effect. This, it transpires, was an unrewarding task. For a start, although Munro’s subject matter tends towards the domestic and her style is low-key and stately, summarising her stories can make them sound quite the opposite. A woman whose mentally ill husband murdered their three children, and towards whom she is shamed to feel a responsibility, finds relief only when she witnesses a near-fatal motor accident. That’s what you get when you try and boil down ‘Dimensions’, the opening story from Too Much Happiness, in whose remaining stories we furthermore find self-harm, horrendous accidents, murder, sexual perversion, housebreakers and fatal illnesses (the last two occur in the same story). Yet the impression one is left with at the normally bittersweet conclusion of each is not of hair-raising incident, but of reflection and comparative calm.

Usually this is because the characters caught up in such scarifying events are carrying out that customary business of the short story. By means of some catalyst (an accident, a crime, a chance encounter) the character’s status quo gets shaken up; by the end of the story it has in some way settled down. Like a broken limb, sometimes it sets well (by the end of ‘Wood’, a self-aware fairytale, a transformation of character, of affect and of situation has been effected, neatly but crucially without seeming neat on the author’s part), sometimes badly (the narrator of ‘Child’s Play’ is made to remember a horrifying childhood incident, the effect of which recollection on her is nicely uncertain).

This sort of ambiguity is everywhere in Munro’s stories. What is happening in ‘Wenlock Edge’ when a teenage girl visits her roommate’s elderly lover and is asked to remove all her clothes before dining with and reading poetry to him, while he remains clothed? The (unnamed) narrator understands she could have refused the request: she is not forced to disrobe, she chooses to, having been in some way mesmerised by the harrowing life-story the room-mate Nina has previously told her. The story might have been content with being Nina’s story, or the account of the visit to the poetry lover, or even the narrator’s experiences in the beautifully, briskly evoked boarding house where she lives. Instead it keeps going, however, as the narrator returns from her encounter to discover her room-mate has vanished in the meantime — and even then the story goes on, turning twice more, as a parallel is drawn between Nina’s lover and the narrator’s beaming, faintly peculiar uncle;  and the narrator performs one final act, out of what must be a combination of bad feeling against Nina and against herself.

Spelled out like that, you come up against the other problem inherent in trying to summarise a Munro story, and that much-repeated (but no less accurate for it) saw: she packs a novel’s worth of incident and plot  into a story thirty-odd pages long (her stories customarily range from twenty to seventy pages). Summarising, therefore, can easily make them sound little more than unmediated rushes of ideas, one incident piled on the next, exhausting.

That’s where Munro’s control comes in. Sometimes a plot development is alluded to more than spelled out, as in the final twist of ‘Wenlock Edge’; always there is interiority at work, reaction, memory, retelling, an interpolated distance. The feeling you get from a Munro story is of things recalled and forgotten: many of her characters think themselves back to childhood incidents, putting the stories into a sort of hazy liminal timezone which might, horribly, be summarised as ‘yesteryear’, though it doesn’t suffer under the weight of undue nostalgia. I tend to think of ‘Munro period’ as the 1950s, based on admittedly scant detail; more from the colour of the stories, somehow (or perhaps for personal reasons, the fifties being sufficiently far back that I have no real knowledge of them and can happily slot all manner of types of stories into them). Even when a story, such as ‘Wood’ here, is set in what might be the present day, there are few telling chronological details. Cellphones appear once in a while, but her characters wouldn’t know what to do with iPods, satellite dishes, even television sets.  Her strangest title is ‘Spaceships Have Landed’, in Dance of the Happy Shades, suggesting a strange new direction thankfully not taken.

This in turn leads to a recognition of a playfulness which again helps to leaven the stories and give them breathing space. Often it’s a ridiculously black absurdist type of humour, though subtle, not least since outright gags would be grotesque in the context of such tragedies and horrors as her stories tell of.  In ‘Wood’, though, which I’m coming to think of as my favourite of the new stories (thus far), while the tone remains as even, effortless and mesmerising as ever, the story seems almost jokey: a woodcutter, a haunted forest, an almost farcical misunderstanding (a blessing misinterpreted as a curse) and even a female character awoken from a sort of sleep: this seems to be new territory for Munro. She ventures in, fearless; returns triumphant. Again, there’s more than simply the summary can do justice to: in this instance there is — words I never thought I would write — a fascinating digression on different types of tree bark. Beautifully written, and meticulously researched, yet still light and unclunky, it reminded me of her famous, equally detailed depiction of a turkey-gutting factory in ‘Turkey Season’, a story in The Moons of Jupiter (1982).

The only criticism that I regularly, if not consistently, have felt to make about Munro’s stories concerns a certain pat quality to some of the conclusions. ‘Wood’ is spared this, since the whole setup demands a joyful and above all neat tying up of loose ends. But ‘Dimensions’ finds its ‘catalyst incident’ altogether too neatly in the form of an actual, literal deus ex machina, which if it’s meant to be playful, seems to be at odds with the grim story that’s gone before, shutting down a tale of grieving and illness with an inappropriately light final scene. And the least impressive story here, ‘Free Radicals’, takes a strange nosedive halfway through, again having followed a magnificently subtle and sinister opening, ending with the kind of convenient disaster that you might have used to finish a story at school when you couldn’t work out how to tie up the loose ends.  Sometimes it’s even just the words she uses, the last line or two: not that they’re superfluous (at least, imagining them gone doesn’t usually lead to a better closing sentence two lines above) but just that, after the masterly ambiguity and richness of what’s come before, it can seem dismaying to conclude on an isolated line, summarising the ‘lesson’ learnt.

Small niggles, though. And on consulting her other books, I discover that these pat last lines are largely something I seem to have invented: for every one (“…this is how I wanted my life to be.” (‘Family Furnishings’, Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage (2001)) there are half a dozen or more that don’t fit the pattern and are, in some cases, marvellous: “I would have liked to get their attention […]. I would have liked for one of them to see my pale pajamas moving in the dark, and to scream out in earnest, thinking I was a real ghost.” (‘My Mother’s Dream’, The Love of a Good Woman (1998)). One more lesson learnt.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus, h/b £18.99. The other collections mentioned are available in paperback, published by Vintage.

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  1. Dear Life – Alice Munro « The Fire Show

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