June 02, 2006

Speaking of Canadiens....

There's this book blog I read and enjoy, 50 Books. One day, ages ago, she posted about Alice Munro, saying spefically that she'd always wanted to lounge for an afternoon somewhere in Munro's cerebellum, she admired Munro's writing so much.

I had just read Munro's latest book of short stories at the time, a book called Runaway, and so I added a comment to her post, where I agreed that Munro was an excellent writer but said I didn't think I'd dig hanging in her cranium, as I found a certain strain of coldness through all her stories. (Amusingly, Itunes has thrown up Bonnie Prince Billy's "I See A Darkness," for me to type this "Alice Munro has a black black heart" post to.)

To my surprise, months later when the lovely Doppleganger had herself read Runaway she posted about it and referenced my comment, saying that upon reflection, she politely disagreed with my assesment.

I was flattered that she'd remembered such a trifle, but, being a ho, I still thought I was right and started off writing a long response post about how, really when you get right down to it, Munro is a bad-ass mamajamma, a stone cold mo-fo who looks deep into the human condition, spits to the side and says, "So wha'?" (See below.)


But I'm lazy and my computer was busted at the time and so I never finished it.

Just this week, however, there's a new Munro story in the New Yorker which started me thinking about this whole thing again. You'll have to read the story for the rest of this to make any sense at all, so any of who started losing interest about three paragraphs ago will probably want to check out entirely now.

And we're off!

First off: Franzen was right, you know --- this story is "Runaway" all over again. The same four characters are in play: the timid and confused young woman, the abusive husband, the wise older woman, the innocent victim. The crime here is much greater --- the husband in "Runaway," had some serious bastard potential, but nothing this bad --- and the older woman character recedes into the background. In "Runaway," the reader's sympathies are split between the women. Here the older one recedes; she must, she is too reasonable, too rational, too much like us readers, and therefore we cannot be let into her mind. Not if Munro is to accomplish the feat she challenges herself with in this story: to make us believe that a woman, a mother, would return to the man who killed her children. That's what holds you through the story, the fear --- the bone-cold fear -- that Doree will go back to him.
To accomplish that, the natural, damn-near universal reaction to the very concept of such an act --- acid revulsion and burning anger --- must be surpressed. Munro holds your head under the surface of that narrative voice, submerging you into that bleak, beaten, ice-cold world, until your eyes are blinded with the grey murk of it, until the pressure and the chill of it sink into you too. And she succeeds. You believe it; you understand it, the queer need and familiar weakness that draws Doreen back to Lloyd.
She succeeds so well even she must relent in the end, and let in a flicker of warmth, the boy racer's hot breath on Doree's cheek at the very end. That's enough to save Doree --- and us, and the world --- from the icy doom to which she was heading.
So, you're saying, if Doree is saved from doom, how can I say that Munro is cold?
Because Doree's salvation is an accident. Dues Ex Machina. Chance.
Damn few writers could have pulled it off --- to spend ten pages bringing a character to a terrible fate, and release them from that fate in three paragraphs of spring-loaded redemption --- and make the reader believe that too.
But it seems to me an unecesary ending. Most writers spend their whole damn lives trying to cultivate their ability to create necesary endings, work and slog and tweak and revise to get to a point where the whole time you're reading you don't know exactly what's going to happen, but when it does, you realize that it was the only thing that could happen. Most readers resist an unecessay ending, a fake ending. Even if they'd like an ending to be happy, if the whole of the story, the rules of the world that story's created, suggest that what ought to happen is something sad, something bad, then they would rather that than false happiness tacked on, crammed in.
That's most of the magic in good writing, to string you along though a whole story, gasping "And then?" one minute and exhaling, "Of course," the next. To do what Munro does here, string you along and then pull up slack at then end --- is technique so advanced most writers could but dream of pulling it off, dream and fail, like imitating Hemmingway.
But if the fact that she's able to pull it off at all is evidence of her greatness, it still seems to me that nothing in the story calls for it. The relief the reader feels --- at least this reader --- is the very opposite of the catharsis the Greeks were always on about, the emotional release of seeing the end you feared was coming, come. Doree was fated, and she was spared, and we are glad because we think her fate too terrible, past endurance.
Exploring Doree's mindset is the purpose of this story. Some would call it compassion to make you understand such an otherness; it is one of the reasons of art. Another reason is to confront the reader with a truth. Certainly Munro's truths might seem ugly, frightening. He kills her kids, and she goes back to him. Her need for his certainties is greater than her grief, capable of overwhelming it, becoming something she can cling too, clings to despite every rational voice begging her not too. That's frightening.
But usually, behind the desire to confront is an outrage, a longing for the world to be otherwise, an anger: Look, you fools, here is what the world is really like. But Munro seems to me to lack that outrage entirely. She lays it out for you: "Look. Here. Do you see?" and when you gasp in horror she turns to you and says, "And did you expect otherwise?" Juliet at the end of her trilogy, alone on her couch reading the Greeks: She will never see her daughter again. And did you expect otherwise?
Tessa in "Powers," hugging Olly and hearing, unknowing, the papers that will put her in the nuthouse crinkle in his pocket. But you already knew he betrayed her. Carla in "Runaway," getting off the bus and turning right back around: Did you really think she'd leave him?
And when you, the reader, turn back to Munro and stammer, "Well, yes, I did think, at least, I hoped ...." only then do her eyes cloud over, as she murmurs, "Oh, really? Why?"
And that is why I think she is cold.

Posted by Diablevert at June 2, 2006 05:45 PM

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