Thursday, February 09, 2006

BOOKS: Let's All Learn to Use Our Feeling Words

I'm a bit late posting today, but The Fabulous Suzi phoned me from London this morning, and when The Fabulous Suzi calls, you take the call. Because she's fabulous.

Runaway by Alice Munro
Almost a year ago, I waxed rhapsodic about Alice Munro, who I claimed "has never written a bad sentence in her life." I went on to say that I'd love to inhabit Munro's head for just an hour, in a
Being John Malkovich sort of way, so that I could see the world with the clarity and complexity that her prose reflects.

In the comments section of that entry,
Diablevert agreed that Munro is brilliant, but respectfully disagreed with me about the fact that sharing thoughtspace with Munro would be as uplifting as I hoped:
But all her main characters are cold --- cold hearts and warm brains, people who are capable of tremendous intellectual excitement and tremendous personal detachment. The pressure in the stories is almost always about the attempt of a bright, passionate individual to break free of a repressive, constrained society, and that bright individual never has any pity for those who would confine it, be they their mothers or fathers or children...
This assertion has lived ghostily in the back of my brain for months, and I brought it out and used it as a lens through which I (finally!) read Munro's latest short story collection, Runaway, and I'm going to have to respectfully disagree myself. While I concede Diablevert's point in much of Munro's earlier work, Runaway comprises a set of stories that surprised me with the breadth of its characters and their motivations, as well as with Munro's newfound (or newly discovered, anyway, because I'm slow-witted that way) to drop a twist at the end of her stories that makes you gasp (for real, an honest-to-god gasp) just the slightest.

In the eponymous first story, the main characters are Sylvia, a recent widow, Carla, a naive, almost childlike younger woman whom Silvia has befriended, and Clark, Carla's husband, who is what psychologists might call "verbally abusive," which is longhand for "an asshole." seeing Carla particularly upset one day, Sylvia warmly encourages her to leave her husband and arranges for her to travel to Toronto and stay with a friend. The outcome of these events is an encounter between Sylvia and Clark that, in typically subtle Munro fashion, forges a strange bond between them. And again in typical Munro fashion, the dynamics of all the relationships in the story shift and settle, unsettling you with the reminder that relationships are transient and as likely to be changed by minute, uncontrollable events as by cataclysmic, see-it-coming-from-a-mile-away ones.

This idea pops up again and again in this collection, including in my favourite story, "Trespasses", which is told from the perspective of 13-year-old Lauren. One of Munro's stock characters is the wise child, but of course in her hands this character is anything but stock. Lauren, raised by her liberal, wordly parents, Eileen and Harry, appears to her peers to be priggish and innocent precisely because she has seen and done so much.
And that was what separated her, just as much as knowing how to pronounce L'Anse aux Meadows and having read The Lord of the Rings. She had drunk half a bottle of beer when she was five and puffed on a joint when she was six, though she had not liked either one. She sometimes had a little wine with dinner, and she liked that all right. She knew about oral sex and all methods of birth control and what homosexuals did. She had regularly seen Harry and Eileen naked, also a party of their friends naked around a campfire in the woods. On that same holiday she had sneaked out with other children to watch fathers slipping into the tents of mothers who were not their wives. One of the boys had suggested sex to her and she had agreed, but he could not make any progress and they became cross with each other and later she hated the sight of him.
This passage sets up beautifully Lauren's adult worldiness alongside the childlike detachment and acceptance she has not yet lost, but never in this story do you get the sense that Lauren is cold or without feeling. In the way of most intelligent children, she struggles to maintain a calm surface while grappling with adult revelations. Her parents, by comparison, affect a sophistication that masks their immature selfishness and self-absorption.

The narrative follows the development of Lauren's friendship with another grown-up, Delphine, and the subsequent revelation of the facts surrounding Lauren's birth. In all this, you get a picture of Lauren as a child surrounded by adults who claim to be speaking and acting in her best interests but who in actuality are as self-absorbed as always. Lauren, who has been exposed to so many superficial adult activities, finally begins to internalize the fact that being an adult also means that what you do and say on the surface doesn't always match your true motivations.

These stories seemed, to me, to be populated not with cold, emotionally unavailable characters; quite the opposite, actually. In the stories I've mentioned, as well as "Tricks" and "Powers" (single-word titles are a motif in this collection), the characters seem emotionally unsophisticated (which is not the same as "simple"), as if they haven't learned to use their "feeling words" (to borrow a tongue-in-cheek phrase from my saucy sociologist-friend Katie).

One of the things I was hyper aware of throughout these stories is Munro's way of building her stories. She generally follows conventional linear narratives, but she also adds layer upon layer of detail, insights, and minor epiphanies. Like a painting in which the colours are added in layers, the full picture isn't revealed until the last brushstroke. (I don't know if that analogy makes sense to you, but it helped me, so I'm tossing it out there.)

As predictably excellent as this set of stories is, I have to mention that I still prefer Munro's previous collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. I mean, ideally you should read every single thing Munro has ever written, but if you only pick up one book, make it that one. The final story knocked my socks clean off my feet.


Anonymous said...

I LOVED this collection, although I was disappointed to discover that I'd already read 5 of the 8 stories when they appeared in the New Yorker -- I'd been expecting 8 new-even-to-me stories. Here's what I wrote in my own review: The stories are often sad, and hauntingly so, about missed opportunities and crossed signals and the unexpected and unfair twists and turns of life. Her characters are the kind that come back to you much later, and you try to remember where you knew that person -- only to recall that it was just a character in a short story.

I've got Hateship... on my Amazon wish list.

Anonymous said...

I just love Munro's slow, subtle way. I'm reminded of her when I read Raymond Carver (and vice versa), because I always finish stories by either one of them feeling like someone just very slowly stabbed me in the gut.

Tammy said...

Diablevert! I hope it was clear in my post that your comment stuck with me in a good way. Because that's really the case. I got to thinking, "Hm, maybe Diablevert's right. I must look into that." Because when I thought back over Munro's work, it did seem like I could remember a lot of characters being as you described them. It added another nuance to my reading of Runaway because, among other things, I was analyzing that aspect of Munro's characters. And some of them -- such as... oh man, I forget her name, but the story about the working-class chick who dates the wealthy guy and befriends his mother -- pretty much followed your description. So it was good, really!

And thanks for mentioning Mavis Gallant. I really should read more of her stories soon.

Sarah D. Bunting said...

I like the "emotionally unsophisticated" analysis, I think it's dead-on. Her recent stories in The New Yorker have showcased that, too, that certain remoteness from the self that her characters have at times.

I would say, though, that "emotionally unsophisticated" and "emotionally unavailable" aren't mutually exclusive for some of her characters. The former can lead to the latter, and in some of her stories, the women in particular seem divorced from their own feelings in a way that seems more deliberate than just not having the vocabulary.

Anita said...

I loved this book so much and am glad you did as well. Now I need to by the other collection you reference . . .

And yes, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said:

"She generally follows conventional linear narratives, but she also adds layer upon layer of detail, insights, and minor epiphanies. Like a painting in which the colours are added in layers, the full picture isn't revealed until the last brushstroke."

If only I could write 1/4 as well as Munro, I'd be a very happy woman.