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Our Alice Munro

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Most Canadian readers must be over the moon about Alice Munro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last week. There’s a reactive cultural nationalism, no doubt, around the immediate rediscovery of her work, which was never really lost from view, never really in need to being recovered: Munro remains one of a handful of Canadian writers with a huge international profile. (The most-quoted blurb on Munro’s book jackets has to be from the American Cynthia Ozick, who famously called her “our Chekov”: every time I’ve seen that phrase quoted I have bristled, as I suppose many of Munro’s readers might – quietly, of course, the Anglo-Canadian way: just who is this “our” Ozick was talking about? Despite her long catalogue of stories in The New Yorker, Munro could never be taken for American.  If anything, the global enters Munro’s work through the awkward, partial lens of the local, the marginalized mundaneness of small-time Ontario or British Columbia life. Out there remains not quite here; Chekov is somebody you might read at school, and who comes from someplace else, somewhere more sophisticated, smarter, better.) What we tend to recognize, reading Munro, what we take to be “ours,” reflected back at us, is a wry, homegrown acuity – a passing and contingent certainty that these our seemingly unheralded voices might still have something to say, and something worth hearing about.
I first encountered Alice Munro’s writing in 1982, during a first-year English Lit survey course at the University of Western Ontario – which turned out, although nobody mentioned this at the time I don’t think, to have been her alma mater, or almost to have been, since she left university to get married in 1951 before finishing her prospective degree either in journalism or (like mine was to be) in English, depending on which sources you read. The course was team-taught by Richard Stingle, Donald Hair and – for one guest lecture – by the poet James Reaney, all of whom were immersed, critically at least, in the work of Northrop Frye; our reading list included Jay MacPherson, slices of Spenser, both King Lear and Twelfth Night, Reaney’s invocation to the muse of satire, The Waste Land, something from John Hollander (“Swan and Shadow”: classic), and a spate of poems and essays. I can’t remember if there was a novel or not. But there was Alice Munro: her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968.  My professors taught her writing as an example of Southwestern Ontario Gothic – the term is James Reaney’s, I think, and wasn’t given to me in that freshman class, but came out of a graduate seminar I took with him some years later. The idea, as Reaney put it, drawing heavily on Munro’s characteristically small-town, domestic mise-en-scène, was that there was something dark and unpleasant creeping under the flowery kitchen linoleum, a version of what Munro herself might come to characterize as the “open secrets” – the bad things everybody knows and no one can admit to knowing – that circulate with muted insistence around WASPish, repressed Canadian communities like her Jubilee, putatively a displaced rendering of Wingham, Ontario.
The story to which I gravitated most in Dance of the Happy Shades– it’s a great collection: early work, but in so many ways fully formed, shaped by a spare virtuosity – was the generically named “Images.” It involves narrative set-pieces that will soon become familiar to Munro’s readers: the forbidding marshland physiography anticipates the swampy grave of “The Love of a Good Woman,” and the muskrat trapping – echoing the mink farm of “Boys and Girls” – also prefigures the paternal farm of Lives of Girls and Women. In “Images,” we encounter (through the eyes of a young girl, out with her father) the figure of Joe Phippen, who wields a vaguely-threatening hatchet and lives in the cellar of his burnt-out family home off in the bush outside town. The story is built – as my Frygian professors no doubt insisted it must be – on Jungian archetypes. Joe’s house pretty obviously refigures the chapel perilous,  a trope derived from Arthurian quest romance, which as students of T. S. Eliot we had presented to us through Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. Here’s how Munro describes the entrance to his underground burrow: “We came out in a field of dead grass, and took a track across it to another, wider, field where there was something sticking out of the ground” (39). Something: hardly the highfalutin grandiloquence of some latter-day Chanson de Roland.  But the resonances and uneasiness build. We had been reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, too. “Mind your head here,” says Joe Phippen, the hatchet man, as they descend into his dark space. He’s an Anglo-Ontario clone – the settler-culture, second-hand version – of an English green man, a latter-day Wodwo.
Here is how Ted Hughes renders the chapel perilous in his translation of the poem from Middle English (we used another, more scholarly version – not Tolkien, either):
Still he could see nothing. He thought it strange.
Only a little mound, a tump, in the clearing,
Between the slope and the edge of the river, a knoll,
Over the river’s edge, at a crossing place,
The burn bubbling under as if it boiled.
[. . .]
Shaggy and overgrown with clumps of grass,
It had a hole in the end, and on each side.
Hollow within, nothing but an old cave
Or old gappy rock-heap, it could be either, or neither.
                                    (Hughes 1187)
Munro’s tump relocates – and dislocates, too – her Anglo-Celtic image pool, her genetic word-hoard. ‘Images” read this way appears to offer an unresolved passage through a waste land, a katabasis from which we cannot quite extricate ourselves – an epigone modernity, maybe. “Surely,” Hughes’s Gawain muttered, “This is desolation.” But Munro finds something else in the recounted experience as well. She must. Because what I remember most about this story is peculiar and strangely familiar detail: the candies. “Let’s see,” says Joe Phippen, down in his basement home,
“what’ve we got for the little girl to eat?”  Nothing, I hoped. But he brought out a tin of Christmas candies, which seemed to have melted then hardened then melted again, so the coloured striped had run. They had a taste of nails. (41)
Joe Phippen is a kind of anti-Santa, a figure of decimation, of bad remainders, rather than of plenitude. Munro’s prose neatly reproduces the melted fusion of the candies when she lifts out commas and lets the girl’s words blur a little – a hallmark of writerly skill, of craft. But what sticks with me aren’t the descriptive tactics, but a palpability: the taste of nails. How does this girl know what nails taste like? And how do I? Is this the taste of blood? Of poison? Do the nails suggest violence? Crucifixion? Industrial detritus? What this phrase recalls, for me, isn’t necessarily a shared “deep” image-pool, but a kind of reactive resistance built into that sharing, an experiential dissonance. The story ends with the child-narrator’s out refusal to accept the archetypal terms of the katabatic narrative, a kind of deliberate un-likeness:
Like the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after – like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word. (43)
We are both made by our stories, and by our refusal to tell them: for Munro, we don’t consist of our globally-shared typologies, or common fairy tales, but by what remains outside of telling, just beyond the dark reach of words. We are alike in our unlikeness. Munro’s sense of place, of belonging in and to a distinctively Anglo-Canadian experience, isn’t a case – as James Reaney might have put it, of re-making the global in the image of the local, but instead of resisting from within its deterministic narrative pressures, of working our way into and through its gappy cracks.
Books
Ted Hughes. Collected Poems. Ed. Paul Keegan. New York: Farrar
Straus Giroux, 2003. Print.
Alice Munro. Dance of the Happy Shades. Toronto: McGraw-Hill
Ryerson, 1968. Print.


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