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alice munro: patience and patterns

This month I’m reading Alice Munro’s (1998) The Love of a Good Woman. Ever since Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2013, I knew that I wanted to spend 2014 reading her stories and trying to understand how they work. Each month I’ll read a different Munro collection, and then write a bit in order to see if I can figure out what makes her writing so strong and compelling to me. These posts won’t be short or final; instead, they’ll track my thinking about the kind of moves I think she makes as a writer.

When I started reading this collection, I couldn’t help but notice that as I read each piece, I found myself wanting Munro to get to the “story” sooner. That is, her stories unfold and often start in one place – maybe with a character or during a time period – that will later help us as readers to better understand what she wants us to notice later on in the piece. Munro’s patience in opening each story is a sign of confidence and control: she knows what she wants her audience to experience, and she’ll take her time introducing her readers to the storyworld – not unlike a newcomer surveying the people, their relationships, and their history in a town where she just moved.

In other parts of my professional life, I write about how narrative is a kind of thought, and that thought centers on “trouble.” This trouble might be uncertainty, a dilemma, ambiguity, dashed hopes, breaks in expectations, surprises, and so on. I’m curious how Munro hints at the trouble that centers each of her stories, and how she shapes characters, storyworlds, and time in order to introduce her readers to that trouble.

She begins the collection with a story that the collection takes its name from, “The Love of a Good Woman.” In the first two paragraphs, we are introduced to a series of objects in a local museum. One of the objects is a red box that belonged to a dentist who drowned in local river not long ago.

“The Love of a Good Woman”

“For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.

Also there is a red box, which has the letters D.M. Willens, Optometrist printed on it, and a note beside it, saying, ‘This box of optometrist’s instruments though not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr. D.M Willens, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection’ “ (p. 3)

This opening does not introduce us to any of the central characters in the story, although we know that Willens will play a role. We’re not sure who we’re going to follow in this piece, and in fact, Munro spends the first part of the story having us follow a group of boys who find Willens and the second part of the story getting a better sense of the people in the dentist’s life. Despite not knowing who we’ll follow and despite only having a hint of the trouble that centers the story, the list of objects in the museum gives us a sense of what Walley is like and that this drowning is a significant event in the town.

Three other stories in the collection, “The Children Stay,” “Rich as Stink,” and “My Mother’s Dream” also open with a focus on parts of a storyworld. In “The Children Stay” we are introduced to the coast where a family spends its holiday, and we are introduced to the parts of that scenery, including “sunlight,” “branches,” “mist,” and “a great empty stretch of sand.” Similarly, “My Mother’s Dream” begins with a character looking out a window after a snow fall and naming what she sees (lawns, shrubs, hedges, flower gardens, trees), and we see the way the light works in making things seem not bright, but still and calm. “Rich as Stink” also begins with a character, Karen, interacting with her space as she reaches into her backpack, and we see a “black beret,” “red lipstick,” and a “long black cigarette holder.” Each of these invitations into stories only hint at the trouble we might see – maybe a grandfather who sees the world differently than the other people in his family and maybe a character who wants others to see that she has changed and grown over time.

“The Children Stay”

“Thirty years ago, a family was spending a holiday together on the east coast of Vancouver Island. A young father and mother, their two small daughters, and an older couple, the husband’s parents.

What perfect weather. Every morning, every morning it’s like this, the first pure sunlight falling through the high branches, burning away the mist over the still water of Georgia Strait. The tide out, a great empty stretch of sand still damp but easy to walk on, like cement in its very last stage of drying. The tide is actually less far out; every morning, the pavilion of sand is shrinking, but it still seems ample enough. The changes in the tide are a matter of great interest to the grandfather, not so much to anyone else” (p. 181)

“My Mother’s Dream”

“During the night – or during the time she had been asleep – there had been a heavy fall of snow.

My mother looked out from a big arched window such as you find in a mansion or an old-fashioned public building. She looked down on lawns and shrubs, hedges, flower gardens, trees, all covered by snow that lay in heaps and cushions, not leveled or disturbed by wind. The white of it did not hurt your eyes as it does in sunlight. The white was the white of snow under a clear sky just before dawn. Everything was still; it was like ‘ O Little town of Bethelehem’ except that the stars had gone out” (p. 293)

“Rich as Stink”

“While the plane was pulling up to the gate on a summer evening in 1974, Karin reached down and got some things out of her backpack. A black beret which she pulled on so it slanted over one eye, a red lipstick which she was able to apply to her mouth by using the window as a mirror – it was dark in Toronto – and a long black cigarette holder which she held ready to clamp between her teeth at the right moment. The beret and the cigarette holder had been filched from the Irma la Douce outfit her stepmother had worn to a costume party, and the lipstick was something she had bought for herself.

She knew that she could hardly manage to look like a grown-up tart. But she would not look like the ten-year-old who had got on the plane at the end of last summer, either” (p. 215)

Like “Rich as Stink,” Munro begins “Cortes Island” with a suggestion that the trouble the character faces will be one of responding to others. That is, the character we meet is troubled because others call her “little bride,” and she notes that her private and public reactions to the name are different and that her partner’s public reaction is also different than hers. Munro begins, not with objects or a story world, but with attitude and appearances.

“Cortes Island”

“Little bride. I was twenty years old, five feet seven inches tall, weighing between a hundred and thirty-five and a hundred and forty pounds, but some people – Chess’s boss’s wife, and the older secretary in his office, and Mrs. Gorrie upstairs, referred to me as a little bride. Our little bride, sometimes. Chess and I made a joke of it, but his public reaction was a look fond and cherishing. Mine was a pouty smile – bashful, acquiescent” (p. 117).

Murno lets the reader hear the attitude by having the character speak directly to the reader with the use of “I” and “me.” Munro starts with the phrase that causes the trouble, “little bride,” and it suggests this larger trouble that we might see play out in ways other than this phrase – maybe we will see a pattern of trouble that stems from the character’s public and private reactions to how she thinks others see and understand her.

We see a similar kind of trouble in other stories too. In particular, “Save the Reaper” begins with a grandma playing a game in the car with her grandson. It’s a game that has him in control, and it reminds her of when she played the game with her daughter (his mom). Munro has readers meet the characters by naming the characters in terms of the grandma’s recollection and in the explanation of how the game works.

“Save the Reaper”

“The game they played was almost the same one that Eve had played with Sophie, on long dull car trips when Sophie was a little girl. Then it was spies – now it was aliens. Sophie’s children, Phillip and Daisy, were sitting in the backseat. Daisy was barely three and could not understand what was going on. Phillip was seven, and in control. He was the one who picked the car they were to follow, in which there were newly arrived space travellers on their way to the secret headquarters, the invaders’ lair. They go their directions from the signals offered by plausible-looking people in other cars or from somebody standing by a mailbox or even riding a tractor in a field. Many aliens had already arrived on earth and been translated – this was Phillip’s word – so that anybody might be one. Gas station attendants or women pushing baby carriages or even the babies riding the carriages. The could be giving signals” (p. 146)

Games aren’t the only things that have rules to them, though. In “Jakarta,” for example, we meet two characters, Kath and Sonje, who have rules about where they try to sit at a beach so they can’t be seen by another group of characters.

“Jakarta”

“Kath and Sonje have a place of their own on the beach, behind some large logs. They have chosen this not only for shelter from the occasional sharp wind – they’ve got Kath’s baby with them – but because they want to be out of sight of a group of women who use the beach every day. They call these women the Monicas” (p. 79)

In starting the story this way, Munro suggests that we will learn about how Kath and Sonje do or don’t make peace with the people in their lives. Later in the story Munro has us follow one of these characters much later in her life, and this opening scene helps us see a pattern of behavior and outlook. We might wonder if the character grows or stalls by the end, but by starting with this opening scene and moving us through some of the characters’ histories over time, Munro allows us to see a larger pattern that might be the bigger, more important “trouble” – not unlike what we experience as we grow older in our own lives.

Finally, in “Before the Change,” Munro begins with one character writing to another character. As readers, it can feel like we’re eavesdropping or watching something more intimate unfold. The letter writer mentions an event (Kennedy v Nixon debate), describes an object (the television and rabbit ears), locates that object in the space (in front of the sideboard in the dining room,” provides some commentary about the location of the object (why there when there’s nowhere to sit or no way to get to the silver and linin), and speculates with a hint of gossip (they’ve forgotten they have a living room or Mrs. Barrie wants to watch it during dinner).

“Before the Change”

DEAR R. My father and I watched Kennedy debate Nixon. He’s got a television since you were here. A small screen and rabbit ears. It sits out in front of the sideboard in the dining room so that there’s no easy way now to get at the good silver or the table linen even if anybody wanted to. Why in the dining room where there’s not one really comfortable chair? Because it’s a while since they’ve remembered they have a living room. Or because Mrs. Barrie wants to watch it at suppertime” (p. 254)

As I think about these openings to Munro’s stories, I notice what she doesn’t do: she doesn’t include dialogue between characters; she doesn’t start with a direct conflict; she doesn’t trail off into long descriptions about the place; she doesn’t begin with a ton of immediate action.

Instead, she’s opening a door to her readers and inviting them into the storyworld by taking her time revealing what they should notice. Usually those observations are about how people interact with their place, their objects, their fellow characters, their histories. Munro is helping us notice relationships, and oftentimes, what she wants us to notice is a pattern of how her characters see themselves in relation to their slice of the world and the people who are in it. Her story openings establish those patterns, and then the rest of the story unfolds to see where her characters decide to continue those patterns of relationships or to break those patterns and take on a new course.

This is human and humane. By this I mean that this collection of Munro stories introduces us to the choices characters make in their lives. She uses her introductions as invitations, as opportunities to help us see what her characters see so that when those chances to break those patterns appear later on, we understand what the characters see as possibilities and what the characters can’t see at all. By showing us these histories and patterns that inform her characters’ lives, we readers have a better chance of seeing the opportunities to understand the patterns in our own lives.

Reviews of The Love of a Good Woman:
Michael Gorra, NY Times
Goodreads reviews

Comments

  1. Jim,
    I look forward to these monthly posts. this was really interesting, and forms a sort of invitation itself to a reader, such as myself, who has never really warmed to Munro.
    I just might have to try again, to be prepared for next month’s post.

  2. Paula Uriarte says:

    Ok I am still on the picture…