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Our Alice Munro
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.
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.
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.
Shortish Take on Neil Gaiman, Reading Live and In Person
During a question and answer session between readings from his most recent books (one just published, one to appear in September), Neil Gaimanconfessed to a sold-out Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last Thursday that he seemed to have graduated into some next level of fame, when people who hadn’t actually read his work still knew something about who he was and what he did. I have to confess, too, that I haven’t actually read too much Neil Gaiman (some Sandman and a little Coraline,— and I have watched the two Doctor Who episodes he scripted in the last three years), although I’m keen now to read much, much more. I was there not so much as a fan, but just to see and hear him. What started to become compelling about this public appearance were the ways in which he both enlivened and managed his fans’ expectations. They adore him, and every time he (pretty expertly) name-dropped the title of one of his books, at least two-thirds of the audience hooted and cheered. He’s now much more than a cultish comic book and fantasy writer, but he assiduously and warmly cultivates connections with his readership, with his audience, around their willing buy-in to his myth-making: the mythworlds of his fiction, yes, but also the myth of Neil Gaiman, author and impresario of a set of collective subcultural imaginings.
His performance was excellent, and well worth the modest ticket-price. It combined reading from recent work, as I said, with him answering questions audience members had submitted on cards ahead of time. (He told us our – Vancouver’s – questions were the best he had had for the whole tour, probably an untruth, but a nice appeal to our west coast intellectual vanity.) He stayed after the reading for at least three hours, signing books and chatting – briefly, given the numbers – with his keen readers. And that extra willingness to stay on, which was anticipated in media build-up to his appearance, is the first part of his myth: he gives you the sense not of distraction but of caring engagement with his readers, making sure that they have some modicum of contact with him, that they feel that he’s present to them. Neil Gaiman takes considerable pains to offer his audience a feint of intimacy, disclosing what felt like private details of his life particularly around his relationship to femrocker Amanda Palmer – Amanda Fucking Palmer (“No Neil Fucking Gaiman tonight,” he joked) – which were the kinds of details he also occasionally lets slip via Twitter. (He recently tweeted about his happiness waking up in bed beside her, for example.) Now we all do this kind of thing on Twitter, mingling public and private idioms for an indiscriminate readership, but given the extent of Neil Gaiman’s following, as it shifts from cult to mass, it’s this feeling of access, of closeness, that seems to firm up his fan-base, to keep them attached to, immersed in, his writing.
This autobiographical myth-making particularly both frames and informs his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which bears the dedication “For Amanda, who wanted to know.” (Indeed, it’s precisely I’d say the idea of an intimate knowledge – or of a knowing intimacy – that started to become an issue here, as Gaiman read to us, in person. What exactly was it that Amanda wanted to know? How much access were we, as listeners, as over-hearers, being given to that knowledge? Something is described in the book, he told us, about his past, his childhood. This book, he said, came about because he missed his wife and wanted to make her love him by giving her a short story (which developed into a “novelette,” then a novella, then a short novel) with “something me-ish in there,” some small “slices of real life and one slice of imagination when I was a child.” Slices, maybe, like the slices of burnt toast in the passage that he read from the second chapter, which begins with the narrator’s depiction of his detachment from the world – “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else” – but which, through the slow careful accumulation of descriptive detail (like that toast), gradually reconnects the observer to what seems to be going on around him at a remove, even without him.
The narrator’s doubled perspective – a forty-year-old man recalling what he experienced as a seven-year-old – reinforces the essential interestedness (as opposed to detachment, objectivity or disinterest) of the narrator, his being-with as opposed to standing apart-from, those around him, which is how he’s positioned, or positions himself, at the discovery of a corpse (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers) in his father’s car:
I don’t remember who said what then, just that they made me stand away from the Mini. I crossed the road, and I stood there on my own while the policeman talked to my father and wrote things down in a notebook. (18)
Writing, here, is limited to sparse note-taking, and the limitations of perspective and memory are candidly foregrounded; we can’t even read over the policeman’s shoulder to see what he has written down. Intimacy or closeness, in other words, remains denied to us, Gaiman’s committed readers. He’s withholding, through the device of an unreliable juvenile focalizer. Generational dictions meld throughout the chapter (adult vocabulary often mingling with childish self-interest, for example), but you can also hear, even in this short excerpt, Gaiman’s inclination toward austerity and directness: how committed to the matter being described here is the voice doing the describing? How involved or how removed?
This point-of-view feels like objectivity, but during his presentation Thursday, when asked about the differences between writing for adults and for – or perhaps about – children, Gaiman asserted that what makes for good writing around children is to “make every word count.” (I’d suggest, too, that there is something of that directness cultivated in his writing for television and especially for graphic texts.) What we might take for empirical distance here, in other words, is shaped by close child-like observation, by the directness and directedness of a child’s eye and ear (not just for descriptive detail, but also for details of speech, of words themselves). While our narrator waits, he thinks back on his father’s constant burning of toast:
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. [The American spelling is original to the edition I have.] When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, and had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.
The doubled age of the voice in this passage, audible in the mixed diction, also maps onto a personal mythopoeia around burnt toast and the simultaneous demythologizing of those intimate patrilineal memories, as his whole childhood begins to feel “like a lie” (although likeness, it’s worth asserting, isn’t the same as it’s being a lie). The with-ness of interest, of the narrator’s and the reader’s inter-esse, is caught up in this double movement of Gaiman’s narrative, which both intimates and debunks.
I mean to approach, just so briefly, something of the dynamics of fandom that inhere in Gaiman’s own writing, and in his performance – his reading – last Thursday. The declarative clarity, the confessional candour that circles through his speaking subjects, his voice(s), isn’t so much a masterful feint as it is a self-conscious address to the capacities of language itself to disclose, to tell. Or, perhaps more clearly put, to give us what we want to know. Gaiman’s success, in this terrific new book, strikes me as in part enmeshed in a virtuosity of disavowal: the well-honed verbal craft of making his readers keep wanting, even as he gives them more of the feeling of intimacy, of personal proximity, that they crave. In a very peculiar and particular sense, what Neil Gaiman offers us all is a species of mythical close reading, a closeness both inand as reading. It’s what must keep us coming back to his work, even if it’s for the very first time.