The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, March 19, 2007

Perfect Generosity: The Art of Alice Munro

by Andrew Tibbetts

An on-line writers group I belong to is working our way through The Best American Short Stories of 2006, edited by Ann Patchett with series editor Katrina Kenison. We recently hit the ubiquitous Alice Munro story. There’s always a Munro in the Best American- this year’s model is “The View from Castle Rock.” Another on-line writers group I belong to takes up each week’s New Yorker story so I’ve already had an earful about this piece when it first came out in the New Yorker. For a nice Canadian lady she sure has stirred things up. Talk about love/hate: “too long-winded”, “too many characters,” “all tell and no show,” “I was swept away in the first few paragraphs,” “I couldn’t finish it,” “I didn’t want it to end,” “it’s a ‘bunch of character sketches with no story arc,” “it’s a mess,” “her prose is so precise, without stretching to the metaphorical she lets the words do their job to tell a story,” “too saga-y,”, “it uses present tense for a story that takes place 200 years ago!” “Like reading material in a history book,” “the best story the New Yorker has published in a long, long time,” “name, not readability, determines what the New Yorker publishes,” “love, love, love it”, “hated, hated, hated this story,” etc, etc, etc. Phew.

Alice Munro writes short stories and story sequences, nothing else. She may be the most lionized fiction writer of the form. The other ‘greats’- Chekov and Joyce, dabbled in stories but are more widely known for plays and novels. The quality of raves she gets is weird enough, but the roster of ravers is even stranger- Jonathan Franzen, John Updike, Alan Hollinghurst, Cynthia Ozick, John Gardner, David Leavitt, and on and on, strange bedfellows united in superlatives for our demure Canadian. But what exactly is it that she does? Take a look at a few of her most successful works. “Meneseteung” is a mystery disguised as a poetry review. “The Albanian Virgin” is a period adventure story (with pistols and disguises) wrapped in a chilly slice of bleak contemporary bad-marriage realism. “The Dance of the Happy Shades” is- what?- a rant about evolution, an existential wail, a scurrying away from the secret of happiness?- whatever it’s hidden heart, it is disguised as a children’s concert review. Everything looks simple but is constructed in a complex and sophisticated manner. Look at it and there’s almost nothing there. Look away and suddenly there’s a dark secret gnawing at you. Look back and it’s gone: a story about a rape without a rape in it, a tale of murder without the actual murder, sexual abuse that is never mentioned, violence without a sighted bruise, jealousy, envy, longing, despair and anger all safely tucked behind the Southern Ontario buffet and hutch. Would you like some tea? Some flat ginger-ale?

Her art is the art of concealment, repression- an aria about not singing, a bare stage about a crowded house, a story about what isn’t told. But her architecture, the structures she creates to perform these tricks of emotional transubstantiation, is complex and epic. I’d like to suggest that her single greatest contribution to the art of the short story is in the area of architecture, and “The View from Castle Rock” is one of her masterpieces.

We are on board a ship full of Scots immigrating to Canada in the 1800’s. Nothing much happens or a lot happens, depending on how you look at it. But this nothing/everything is told in overlapping waves. It is structured as a sequence of flash fiction pieces: the waves of mini-narrative wash over each other, some cresting, turning on themselves, shifting p.o.v. from one voyager to another, deftly, and some simply seeing some small thing, some plain moment, almost static. Characters pop up and disappear. Storylines crest foam and dissipate. A pig is hoist through the air, bangs into some of the passengers, and is never seen again. It’s a surrealism of perspective. It’s the perfect structure for a story set on the ocean. It’s the perfect structure for a story about the waves of immigration that swept over North America. It’s the perfect Munro architecture; it feels totally organic- this happened, and then this, look over here, remember that guy, oh that reminds me to tell you about what happened to that woman over there- and yet it is a stream-lined technological wonder designed to punch home a single and singular experience of humanity. It is a vision of the world, felt, not thought.

Tossed among the relentless waves of the story are all kinds of treasure- there is the wonder of the deformed sister, the secret language of the child prodigy, the joy of the doomed girl, the journal that hides everything with weather, the rawness of women’s birthing, the sweet and strange feeling of watching your husband dance with other women, the suddenness of an old man’s descent to bitterness and nostalgia, the vagaries of disease and death, the way a kind word can hurt, the things that topple class divisions and the things that can’t- so much. But not too much. Alice Munro is generous, but never sloppy.

The other architectural element alongside this formless collage is sequence of precisely calibrated mirrors- the way the ship-bound epic is bookended by extraneous scenes about viewing, the first with the father and son looking across the ocean and into their future, the last with Alice Munro herself looking at gravestones and into her ancestral past, the way a full-of-life-boy who dies is mirrored by a cheerful girl-who-will-not-live-for-long. The way a man’s two wives split the female role in his story and their two gravestones say differently “wife” and “mother”, the way Agnes’ labour of Inez is mirrored by the toothless woman’s easy time of it, how lifestock that is hoisted on board in Scotland and lifestock is rowed out to the ship from Canada., the way the two most important women in his life react so differently to young James’s magical language, the way the two important men in her life react so differently to the doomed girl’s joy and desire, the way the forests of Ettrick are mirrored in the forests of the new world, nothing in the story is without at least one reflected twin. Mirrors everywhere- making a chandelier of the waves, a glorious flickering of human interaction, a god’s eye.

The combination of this organic flow through this intricate reflective symmetry is a structural tour-de-force. There’s nothing like it in literature. The only comparison in art that I can think of is something like the middle period music of Elliot Carter, the Symphony of Three Orchestras, or the Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord- those massive structures of metrical precision containing those wild, chaotic random-seeming splashes of sound. However, Munro does Carter one better, she’s the Fred Astaire of literary complexity- she makes it read easy. Carter’s music sounds difficult, complex. Munro’s complexity reads as naturally as taking in the gossip while doing the dishes at a party.

And this brings us to the other glory of Munro: we now have the lives of girls and women on the page. Who’s given us them before? The precise observations of John Updike, or say, Carver or Cheever, or other contemporary short story masters, are the documentation of masculine existence. In “The View from Castle Rock” we are taken into the sensations of women’s loins, and of course women’s hearts, in the same way Updike takes us into the groins and souls of his American men. I don’t know what it is like to be sore from childbirth, but I’ve never come closer than while reading this story. This is why she is essential. For all her glories of style and structure, if she had nothing new to say, she’d be a charming doilies-maker.

And this brings me at last to the connection between her style and substance. Alice Munro tells us about the lived experience of the female, but she tells it in a way that grows out of woman’s traditional ways of telling. She isn’t a novelist. Her palette is small. And yet she is massive. Like the women who weren’t allowed to paint, who quilted. Or who weren’t allowed to make speeches so they made banquets. She finds a way to pour everything into her task. Her architecture of dichotomy- telling so much and hiding so much- is derived from traditional women’s power- the power of knowledge, of gossip, or putting on a show for the neighbours, of hiding the truth, or pretending to try to hide the truth while secretly giving away the whole picture- to whoever can read the code. Or whoever can see. Or whoever can listen.

Munro demands seeing and listening from the reader. She will not tell you what happens to the goat in “Runaway”, for example, but if you are with her, you will know. For all she tells you about the people on this boat, there is so much more she will not tell you. She’s the perfect gossip.


Blogger acwo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Mon Mar 19, 09:30:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for this, Andrew. I'm an Alice Munro groupie! She said once that she was influenced by Mavis Gallant -- inspired by Gallant's writing about "ordinary" people and domestic issues, "woman's work," as you will. I like your analogy to gossip, because gossip is complex with so much unsaid crouching in a corner.

Thoughtful analysis and beautiful writing, Andrew.

Mon Mar 19, 12:37:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superb insight and writing on the subject of writing - Alice's to be specific.

Thanks AT.

Diane Smith
The Maple Room

Mon Mar 19, 02:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I keep checking to see if Alice has dropped in to say something about this! So far: nope.

Mon Mar 19, 04:22:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Dear Andrew,
Thank you for your superlative assessment. You are spot-on, if I must say so myself.
Your friend,

Tue Mar 20, 05:03:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks, Andrew. I still haven't gotten into Munro, although I have a couple of her collections. Reading your post has got me thinking it might be time to check her out. I'll start with the stories you mention.

Wed Mar 21, 06:27:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a marvelous essay. ;)

There is no doubt that Alice Munro is a one-of-a-kind writer--an absolute master of the "long short story" form--whose work is, not incidentally, as difficult to categorize and analyze as it is a joy to read.

Andrew Tibbett's ample literary acumen is on full display here--& it's obvious that his critical skills are "up to the task" at hand--as I'm sure Ms. Munro would be the first to agree.

Bravo, indeed Andrew.

ps... If you are taking requests, I could really go for a retrospective on Leonard Cohen next!

Best Regards,


Tue Apr 10, 07:54:00 pm GMT-4  

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