Wednesday, June 21, 2006

BOOKS: Hey Alice Munro!

If you've been playing along at home for a while now, you may recall an interesting ongoing side debate that's been happening about short story writer Alice Munro here on 50 Books.

It started when I posted quite a while ago that I'd love to live inside Munro's head for a while, and
Diablevert* replied that she'd really rather not because she finds Munro cold. I thought that was interesting, and it percolated inside my brain for a year before I posted that Diablevert's comment had made a fascinating lens through which to read Munro's latest story collection, Runaway... but I still respectfully disagreed with her.

I love discourse like this. To me, whether you love or hate Munro (not that I'm saying Diablevert
hates Munro, mind you), the fact that she merits such scrutiny is a testament to my belief (and others') that Munro is one of the most important short story writers of our time. So of course I was beyond delighted when Diablevert emailed me a couple of weeks ago, letting me know that after reading one of Munro's stories that had been published in The New Yorker, she was compelled to write a lengthy response to it on her site.

I wanted to give both the story and Diablevert's response the attention they deserve, which meant waiting a couple of weeks until I had a couple of free hours to read and think. I've done both.

(At this point, I should suggest that you first read Munro's story, "Dimension," which is available in its entirety here. Then you should read Diablevert's blog entry about the story. Then -- ideally -- you should come back here and pick up where you left off. Sorry. No one ever said the internet was always going to be easy. I should also mention tangentially that, by crazy coincidence,
Exxie recently ended her reading slump with Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and she wrote some terrific observations you might also want to read... and not just because they happen to dovetail rather nicely with my own thoughts. Heh.)

Okay, assuming that you've done all that (or else stop reading now, because spoilers aplenty are about to ensue), I'm going to go out on a limb and state that I think one of the fundamental differences Diablevert and I have in reading this story -- and it's a difference that may be the crux of the is-Munro-cold-or-compassionate debate -- is whether or not we believe that Doree is at any point actually going to reconcile with the man who murdered her children.

I did not believe it for a second.

I can see how, in the insanity of grief, and in the loneliness that accompanies enormous loss (a loneliness that is exacerbated by the fact that other people shy away from looking at grief head on, and that THIS is heightened by the fact that Doree's grief has been caused by such a monstrous event, when most people can't or won't talk nakedly about monstrosities), and with the feeling that her memories of her children are slipping away... I can see how, under all these circumstances, Doree herself might believe that she is actually considering returning to her children's killer, their father, the only other person who can remember the reality of her children as well as she can.

But. BUT. I'm going to make a bold, sweeping, totally unproveable declaration:

No sane woman -- and Doree, however ravaged by grief and loss and loneliness, is not insane -- could actually return to a man who killed her children, children who grew in her body for endless months, children she nurtured past those terrifying newborn months when babies seem so dangerously helpless and fragile, children whose smells and voices and touch she knows as well as her own. It's just not possible. I know this in my gut.

All this is why I believe that what Munro is doing in this story is taking us deep inside someone's grief, and making this grief realer and darker and more nuanced than the two-dimensional picture of grief we're given by most books and movies and TV shows.

Which brings me to the allegations that Munro is detached from her subjects. To some degree, I agree with this, though I think the detachment comes from a different place than coldness. As Exxie points our in her post, detachment seems like a necessary mode when writing about strong, strange feelings in a non-maudlin way. Trying to shed bright light on the foreign recesses of our psyches calls for some degree of almost scientific objectivity.

But rather than believe that Munro is cold, I think of the almost frightening humanity of a person who can write about something that most of us shy away from even thinking about, a person who can, with deceptive matter-of-factness, help us see through the eyes of a woman who has experienced possibly the worst thing a mother can experience, a person who seems inutterably fearless about peeling back the skin of some of our worst fears.

Doree notes uncomplainingly that "Nobody who knew about it would want me around. All I can do is remind people of what nobody can stand to be reminded of." She's right. It's a shaming truth, but she's right. I think that what Munro has done, in a microcosmic way, is shed some much-needed light on all the dark horrors that happen in our world that we try to avoid. I see this as a sign of her humanity, that she makes us bear witness to the total spectrum of humanity that surrounds us.

This, coincidentally enough, leads me to a recent addition to my book tally.

Hey Nostradamus!
by Douglas Coupland (#20)
I was disinclined to read this book for quite a while. First, I found the title a bit pretentious, I'm afraid to say. And second, the story's premise -- a Columbine-style tragedy -- worried me. I was afraid that the novel would be exploitive. It's not. In fact, it may be Coupland's finest, most heartfelt work to date, and I think everyone should read it.

The story is told through the eyes of four different characters, all connected to each other, but at different points in time. And while the high-school shooting spree that precipitates the story may hearken to Columbine, what this novel does is take us past the sensationalism to the real people, to the domino effect that tragedy has on the lives it touches, and to the various ways -- not all of them nice or touching or redemptively movie-of-the-weekish -- people react to tragedy when it touches them.

Most interesting, it's a story about faith and belief, which may come as a surprise to anyone who long ago wrote off "Generation X" as devoid of spirituality.

Coupland is not Munro. She, as I've mentioned, may be one of the finest living writers working in the English language. Coupland? Well, with
Hey Nostradamus! he's giving signs that he may be entering the big leagues, as well. What Munro and Coupland share is a fearlessness in writing about things most of us don't even like to think about, as well as a graceful way of tackling these things with a disconcertingly head-on honesty that respects the subject matter.

I can tell you this: while reading Munro's story and the first part of Coupland's novel, I felt my heartbeat dislocate so that its thudding felt out of step with my body's rhythm, making me feel almost sick to my stomach. I take this as a fairly obvious sign that a writer is taking you to a new, uncomfortable place. And anyone who can do this can't be cold. There's no way a cold person could tap into another human being's empathic system in such an immediate physical way.

I've been thinking about this a lot, and it's going to be swirling around in my brain for a lot longer. I'm interested to know what you all think.

*Gosh, I just realized that I've been assuming all this time that Diablevert is a woman, and I don't think I have any evidence to support this. Diablevert, if I'm wrong, my apologies! And please correct me if this is the case!


Fairfax said...

I loved Hey Nostradamus! but it's the only book by Coupland I've ever read. Am I setting myself up for disappointment if I read some of his other books?

Carrie said...

I was really intrigued by your post (and was moved to comment after lurking forever), because I have long been torn about Munro. I agree that she is one of the most skilled writers out there and enjoy reading her stories, but like Diabelvert, I have struggled with her characters. I just find them really difficult to relate to - I wrote about it in my own blog in January, when I read Runaway. I agreed with your interpretation of "Dimension", oddly enough - I didn't find Doree alien in the way that I often find Munro's characters, but thought she did an amazing job capturing the emotions of an unimaginable situation.

Also, I wanted to say how much I like your blog. I am shy to comment, but I really enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

[I'm going to sidestep the literary debate on Munro's coldness and say only that I tend to be closer to your estimation than Diablevert's.]

But, I would like to address your "bold declaration":

>No sane woman -- and Doree, however ravaged by >grief and loss and loneliness, is not insane -- >could actually return to a man who killed her >children, children who grew in her body for >endless months, children she nurtured past those >terrifying newborn months when babies seem so >dangerously helpless and fragile, children whose >smells and voices and touch she knows as well as >her own. It's just not possible. I know this in my >gut.

It is possible and indeed happens, while not frequently, probably more often than we would ever want to know. Any person who has spent time working with battered women and children can verify this.

I agree with you that Munro does not lead us to believe that Doree is permanently insane (there would possibly be an insanity element to her grief process in that type of trauma, but wouldn't it be situational rather than biological?). However, Doree was sixteen when her mother died and was 'replaced,' to a certain extent, by Lloyd. Seven years later, she was isolated from others and had not established a bond with any other person strong enough to overcome her need for him. That terminal loneliness was likely the reason that she visited him the first time at the institution, returned even after it wasn't a good experience for her, and then severed her bond with her counselor in favor of visits with Lloyd.

Munro's emotional acumen was evident in the development of Doree's character. She was a girl who could have done the unthinkable and returned to the man who murdered her children. (Reread the section about him giving her the glimpse of the children's happiness - as wrong as she knew it was, he was, he was also the only other one who understood.) Dangerous territory. Had it not been for the grace of that accident, I am not as certain as you about the outcome....

Uncertainty aside, thank you so much for your thoughtful blog! I look forward to each new post and have discovered many new literary loves through your entries.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your terrific and thoughtful analysis of "Dimension". I think I agree with Carrie that Doree could have returned to Lloyd, but I didn't read it as "returning" to him as wife to husband. I saw it as her going to the only person she thought could understand her anguish (even though he caused it), to whom she wouldn't have to explain what had happened or hide from what he might think of her for "allowing" it to happen, and could help her keep the memories of her children alive. I also thought she felt so guilty, since he killed the children as a way to punish her for leaving, that she maybe felt comfortable in the jail environment - does that seem at all likely to you? Not that she thought she should be locked up, but that she almost felt she didn't deserve anything better than spending time there with him.

Tammy said...

Blogger's still making it impossible for some people to leave comments, but Katie emailed me this, and it's way too good not to share, even if she doesn't really agree with me. Heh.

I think that going from the phrase, "They never spoke of Lloyd, in those days. Doree never thought of him if she could help it, and then only as if he were some terrible accident of nature," to the fact that she began to spend her days thinking of what Lloyd had told her, written her, means that Doree had already gone back to him. I don't know whether Doree thought he was all she deserved, because she "brought it all on herself," the residue of his brainwashing, or whether it was the terrible loneliness of losing the person with whom you share such a bond, even if it's a horrible bond (like Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin), but I think that, in spirit, Doree had gone back to Lloyd. I don't think that she was trying to find out why he had done it or looking for an admission from him that he knew all along that it wasn't her fault - I think that she put Lloyd over the children over and over again, and she was far into the process of doing the same thing again.

I read the story as much as an indictment of Doree as Lloyd. She's punishing herself for her part of the murders, but not enough. I think that the boy's breath on her cheek breaks the bell jar and serves as the kiss that wakes the sleeping, hypnotized princess and sets her free, but just think about what happens next, after the bell jar breaks and the emotions flood in. I don't think Munro is cold, perhaps, as that she writes cold characters. (And I think that I mean cold as frozen, rather than unemotional.) I don't have children and that is my detachment - I can't convey the bond between mother and child because I don't know it. Munro writes like she doesn't either, but I think that she's just writing a character who is trying to forget that she ever had such a bond. The words "crib" and "bruises" give it away to me that neither Munro or Doree can deny that bond.

Good Lord, this is long and I've changed my mind 15 times about whether I agree with you or Diablevert or think you're both wrong, but I've had more fun stretching my brain for 24 hours.

You all have written some interesting things. I'm going to have to let them simmer for a bit before I come back and reply...

spacepotatoes said...

My thinking was along the lines of rachel's, from her above comment.

I think for Doree, Llyod is the only connection she has left to her children and to that time in her life. She was not able to talk about it or even think about it before Lloyd's letter, so it may have been something of a release or a sense of comfort for her and I think that's what drew her back to Lloyd. Not forgiveness or even love, just that connection that she doesn't have with anyone else.

One thing that stands out in the observations here is that everyone seems to agree the accident stopped Doree's otherwise inevitable fate of returning to life with Lloyd, though this was actually left ambiguous (unless I missed something...). For all we know, she still may have gone after the fact. I believe she would have still gone to see Lloyd again at some point even after the accident, but that her need to see Lloyd wouldn't have been as strong anymore. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, but I can't think of a better way to articulate it right now.

One last thing, I'm glad I'm not the only one who started reading this and though "wait a minute, isn't this just Runaway?"

Anonymous said...

Wow; this hit me hard; hard enough to de-lurk me! I hadn't read Munro before and got something completely different out of this. Reminds me very much of my reaction to Lolita, which I read for the first time just a few years ago. I was completely horrified; it was so different from what I expected and I hated it. To me that was the ultimate in cold. Only after reading Reading Lolita in Tehran and having somebody else's perspective on it, did I start to think that maybe the author wasn't a cold-hearted bastard for telling the story the way he did.

My feeling (now) is that an author who can inspire such strong feelings in the reader is far from cold. The fact that a story could affect so strongly is proof that the author knows people very well, no matter how detached the story seems.

As far as Dimension: I don't know how things turned out for Doree; maybe she did go back to Lloyd afterward. But the accident gave her some experience of her own strength and ability, a hopeful thing especially when she's feeling her life means nothing without Lloyd and "her family". This in particular doesn't seem cold to me; it seems like real life.

My two cents; sorry it's so long!

adventures in disaster said...

I have to admit after years of reading Alice Munro I can honestly say gackkkk. All her characters are written from a weird third person godlike if she were an ambivalent judge makes her characters all surface, no depth.
She can add descriptors that should make them seem real but it doesn't work for me.
Munro obsesses over tragedy but lurking underneath she has no experience with it.
Tragedy is grotesque....the murder of your children, the horrific betrayal, the devastation of a five lives deserves better treatment.
I feel when I read Munro (and I really try not to) is she is a lazy house cat toying with a mouse in a terrible way. She is playing gleefully at the bowl of grief while everyone else has shoved their head under.

I work everyday surrounded by tragedy, nothing Munro writes strikes a chord of truth.
Yes, she plays with language nicely but she has no understanding of the emotions that underpin the language.
She can describe only her own ambivalence and ultimately that is unsatisfying and for me unsettling.

I love Douglas Coupland because he lacks that ambivalence, he is willing to go in, guts, blood and tears..I have loved almost everything he has written..Microserfs sucked though. All families are psychotic is a much better book than Hey Nostradamus though. Coupland can find that awful funny moment that anyone who has experienced tragedy has experienced...Munro appears to have no sense of humour at all.

I guess I feel like Coupland is alive, in contact with the real world .Munro seems to me like someone who stays on the periphery of life, noting it's events but not feeling them personally. Her books reflect that in my opinion.

I also want to howl "hey Canadians aren't like this by the way..we are passionate people, we do feel, don't judge us by the way Munro writes..please".

heh..I think Munro really scarred me for my life..I avoid Margaret Atwood too.

Anonymous said...

Alice Munro typifies the entertainer who parades horrifying psychopathic states of evil, scarifying men, debasing women, and presenting herself as the source of good and wisdom in the stories. She sucks. Evil and narcissistic.

Jesse said...

I work everyday surrounded by tragedy, nothing Munro writes strikes a chord of truth.

-- adventures in disaster [June 24, 2006 10:54 PM]

I can't think of a stronger prose stylist working today than Munro, but I sure resonate with AID's comment.

I grew up in a family with four suicides and a murder plus the usual range of alcohol, drugs, and mental illness that fit such a profile, but none of us -- except for when overly drunk or drugged -- wandered around in that detached, semi-traumatized fog that afflicts Munro characters.

Munro's approach makes for some arresting literary effects, but for me it's like reading Kafka without the fantastic exaggerations.

Anonymous said...

Open Secrets indeed. Unlike fiction, there are consequence in the real world for aiding and abetting a pedophile. The Criminal Code of Canada is explicit on this point. Should truth and justice prevail we will one day discover the where Alice gets her inspiration for the twisted, perverted and amoral characters in her works of 'fiction'.
Best of luck. May time run out before the long arm of the Law reach out and nab two people who should have been held to account decades ago.