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.
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!