Assent and Lamentation

by Ruth Franklin | February 25, 2002

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship,
Loveship, Marriage 

by Alice Munro 

(Alfred A. Knopf, 323 pp., $24)

The short story is the single mother of the literary family. No matter how hard it strives or how many esteemed advocates it summons, its detractors will never be convinced that it deserves the moral legitimacy of the novel. Even in the case of Alice Munro, who has produced ten consistently distinguished volumes of stories over the past thirty years, the acclaim acquires a strange aftertaste as it piles up. She is "Canada's greatest writer of short fiction"--but how many other Canadian short-story writers can you name? "One of the best short-story writers alive," or "perhaps the best short-story writer of our time"--does that make her, then, one of the best writers, period? One reviewer just came out and said what all were thinking: "Alice Munro should write a novel."

Actually Alice Munro has written a novel, but that is not the point. She, too, says that she prefers the novel to the short story, and she says this in, of all places, the preface to her Selected Stories, which serves as an introduction to more than six hundred pages' worth of exceptional work:

I did not "choose" to write short stories. I hoped to write novels. When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it's hard to arrange for large chunks of time....You're better to stick with something you can keep in mind and hope to do in a few weeks, or a couple of months at most.

These lines, and the homely directness with which they are delivered, will sound familiar to anyone who knows Munro's fiction, in which women are often put upon to make choices that are not choices at all. For an ars poetica, though, the passage expresses a stunning amount of resignation. And for all its plainspokenness, there is something in this confession that feels false. Whatever the demands of diapers and laundry, it hardly needs pointing out that for many women they have not proved an insurmountable obstacle to sustained achievement. Why could Munro not instead unburden herself of the cult of the novel, and reject the anxiety, the feeling of inadequacy or illegitimacy, that it imposes on the practitioners of other forms? Beauty and wisdom, after all, come in many forms, even in many fictional forms.

Happily, Munro's fiction shows her to be as much engaged with transcending life's obstacles as she is with chronicling them. And the next few paragraphs of her preface offer a vindication of sorts. She describes herself, fifteen years old, standing at the window of the public library, looking down upon the town scales. A team of horses, pulling a sleigh, moves onto the scales, as snow falls around them. That's it. But the scene is "alive and potent, and it gave me something like a blow to the chest," she writes. "The man and the horses are not symbolic or picturesque, they are moving through a story which is hidden, and now, for a moment, carelessly revealed. How can you get your finger on it, feel that life beating?"

Munro focuses on that life beating with the intensity of a microscope, and she writes until she has exhausted all its possibilities. Even if she did not "choose" to write short stories, her stumble into them is certainly a happy accident, because the short story is the form that accords most exactly with the way she views the world: as a collection of images, such as the horses on the scale, that reveal something of the lives around them. Her single novel, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), has the verisimilitude of her stories but not their tight control, their sense that nothing has been left out. This "novel" is no different in form from The Beggar Maid, the collection of "linked stories" that came a few years later; and yet the later book--which covers far more emotional ground than the novel, following a single character through ten stories, from childhood to middle age--is one of Munro's most accomplished. It is as if Munro, nodding ruefully to her critics, felt that she ought to write a novel, and once it was over with she could shamelessly get back to what she does best. The shame is that they are still trying to force it upon her.

You might call the title story of Munro's newest collection "novelistic," if that word did not suggest that the repetition of patterns and symbols, and the use of multiple perspectives, and the convolutions of plot, and the gradual development of characters, are exclusively the novel's purview. Johanna Parry, housekeeper to the elderly Mr. McCauley and his granddaughter Sabitha, suddenly hops a train to Saskatchewan, taking with her a set of furniture that belongs to Ken Boudreau, Sabitha's deadbeat father. Johanna has fallen in love with him after receiving a series of increasingly romantic letters that she believes to be from him; the letters, however, were written by Sabitha and her friend Edith as a joke. Ken Boudreau is perennially in debt, an itinerant, and a womanizer; the stolid Johanna seems an unlikely match for him. But when she arrives, she finds him collapsed with bronchitis, the hotel he is running in disrepair. In the wreckage of his life, Johanna's patient take-charge attitude is comforting, as is the bankbook balance he discovers while snooping in her purse. Johanna, for her part, is not disappointed to find such a desperate character in place of the romancer of the letters. "Her heart had been dry, and she had considered it might always be so. And now such a warm commotion, such busy love."

The action of the story is now essentially over, but at this point the perspective, after flickering around her for awhile, moves to Edith. Sabitha has moved away, leaving her behind to worry about what will happen if anyone discovers that they wrote the letters. Soon she learns that Johanna and Ken Boudreau have not only gotten married but have also had a child. And now her fear of being found out transmutes into something larger: the fear of what she has wrought. Munro may seem to tip her hand a little too baldly in the story's final scene: Edith learns of the baby's existence as she is doing her Latin homework, puzzling over Horace's line, "You must not ask, it is forbidden to us to know what fate has in store for me, or for you." And yet this stroke is not so broad as it appears. For the story is not really about the workings of fate, but about the power, and the powerlessness, of the writer. Edith, smart and "old for her age," is the one who originally hatches the idea of writing the letters. And she is able to perfectly imitate Ken Boudreau's voice, as well as to pitch the letters at just the right tone to seduce Johanna. But then Sabitha goes away on vacation with her rich cousins, and she comes back with new expressions, a new hairstyle, newly developed breasts. Suddenly the letters are the only hold Edith has over her friend. This is Edith's first discovery of the power of the written word--followed quickly by her surprise at its effects.

But the writer's fundamental paradox--possessing some ability to shape life, but only to a certain extent--has been in the background all along. The "Hateship, Friendship ..." ritual from which the story takes its name is a child's game, a variation on the age-old "he loves me, he loves me not," and in the context of the story it can be accepted metaphorically. You write your full name on a piece of paper, and next to it the name of the boy you have a crush on. Then you cross out the letters that the two names have in common, and with the jumble that remains you count through the words "hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage." The one on which you end up is "the verdict on what could happen between you and that boy." To play the game, you must write the names down. But once they are on the piece of paper, chance takes over. Thus the game mimics the act of writing fiction: the writer presides over her created world, doling out blessings and judgments as she desires. But as soon as they leave her hand, her words--be they stories, poems, letters--take on a life of their own, which she cannot govern.

Though the "hateship" story has much thematically in common with Munro's other stories about writing, in another way it is an oddity--in this book and in Munro's work in general. It ends happily, with a marriage and a baby, despite Munro's demonstrations elsewhere that the greatest purpose marriage has in a woman's life is to limit it. Throughout her work, the various bits and pieces of domesticity recur as a feminine variation of the proverbial ball and chain, and Hateship is no exception. Here is a typical passage, from "Post and Beam," in which Lorna, who has a crush on her husband's student Lionel, is mortified by the trappings of her wifehood. Although these lines ostensibly depict Lionel's reaction to Lorna's family life, we see him through Lorna's eyes, as the last sentence makes clear:

 The slight intrusions of domestic life--the cry of the baby reaching them through an open window, the scolding Brendan sometimes had to give Lorna about toys left lying about on the grass, instead of being put back in the sandbox, the call from the kitchen asking if she had remembered to buy limes for the gin and tonic--all seemed to cause a shiver, a tightening of Lionel's tall, narrow body and intent, distrustful face....Once he sang very softly, to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," "O married life, o married life." He smiled slightly, or Lorna thought he did, in the dark.

Worse than the banality of toys and sandboxes, marriage can be the source of true cruelty--and this cruelty, too, is met with the same resignation that we have already seen. The title character of "Queenie" has run away from home at the age of eighteen with the much older Mr. Vorguilla, who soon turns abusive. At one point he refuses to speak to her for days when he suspects her of having given a cake that she cannot locate to another man. Though the cake finally turns up, Queenie refuses to avenge herself, to the consternation of Chrissy, who protests, "But he was wrong." "Well, of course he was wrong," Queenie replies. "Men are not normal, Chrissy. That's one thing you'll learn if you ever get married." In fact women do not even have to be married to understand the sacrifices of power and of dignity that it requires. In "Family Furnishings," the spinster Alfrida comments that the narrator, her cousin, will soon be a married woman: "By her tone, this could mean either `I have to allow that you're grown up now' or `Pretty soon you'll have to toe the line.'"

But no woman can toe the line forever. If Munro's book has an overriding theme, it is infidelity: seven of the nine stories involve romantic encounters, or fantasies of them, that occur outside marriage. The majority of the encounters go no further than a kiss (the only story that includes an actual sexual act is the weakest in the book). What matters is not the act itself, but the freedom--the rejection of resignation--that it represents. Jinny, who has just learned that her cancer is in remission, celebrates the news by kissing a much younger boy while her husband visits with his parents. She literally has just met him, and she expects nothing more from him; the kiss is a pure moment of joy, a stepping outside of her ordinary life. When Lionel leaves for vacation, Lorna persuades his landlady to let her into his apartment. While her children call to her from outside, she enjoys the wonderment of inhabiting his space for the first time: "What she really wanted to do was ... to sit for hours not so much looking at this room as sinking into it. To stay in this room where there was nobody who knew her or wanted a thing from her. To stay here for a long, long time, growing sharper and lighter, light as a needle." Lorna has become so submissive in her marriage that even her escape fantasy is fundamentally passive. But it still represents a moment of transcending her resignation, of imagining a way out, even if it is only imaginary.

These visions of happiness are beautiful, but they are also repetitive. Versions of this epiphanic moment appear in at least five stories in this book. Munro is most successful when she abandons the pattern, as she does in the last story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," which examines an unconventional infidelity that occurs within a long and loving marriage. Fiona has begun to show the signs of Alzheimer's, requiring labels on each drawer to remind her of the contents and getting lost on her way home from the supermarket, and her husband Grant must put her in a nursing home. Grant, a college professor, once did his share of middle-aged philandering, which resulted in a minor scandal when a student with whom he had been involved threatened to commit suicide. But the incident ended tidily, Fiona never found out the whole story, and Grant is glad that those days are behind him.

When Grant first visits Fiona--the nursing home requires him to wait a month--he discovers that she and Aubrey, another resident, have become a couple. Aubrey demands that Fiona help him with the cards while he plays bridge, and Fiona seems to have forgotten about Grant entirely. But Aubrey is only in the institution temporarily, and when his wife takes him home Fiona becomes distraught. She refuses to eat, and her health declines. The only solution Grant can see is to bring Aubrey back to her, even just for a visit, and he must persuade Aubrey's wife to do so.

Munro's style is largely invisible in its economy. She constructs her stories out of long strings of detailed observations, each of them exactly right. Sometimes the shortest sentence is enough, as in this description of the behavior of Lionel's co-workers: "Everybody munched on secret eats and never shared." Or the narrator of "Nettles," describing the efforts she must make for her new lover after having left her husband: "We exchanged news--I made sure I had news." In "Hateship," the railway clerk, assessing Johanna's appearance, comments that "her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument." Edith's mother appears in exactly one scene and yet gets one of the deftest lines in the book: "Since her own operation--for gallstones--she spoke knowledgeably and with a placid satisfaction about the afflictions of other people."

In "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," Munro uses this technique powerfully to evoke the world of the nursing home, the center of Grant and Fiona's lives, starting with the mundane cruelty of its institutional routine: "New residents were not to be visited during the first thirty days. Most people needed that time to get settled in. Before the rule had been put in place, there had been pleas and tears and tantrums, even from those who had come in willingly." Even secondary characters seem to emerge from her head fully formed, such as Kristy, the attendant, "a heavy young woman who looked as if she had given up in every department except her hair. That was blond and voluminous. All the puffed-up luxury of a cocktail waitress's style, or a stripper's, on top of such a workaday face and body." Though the building is freshly painted and appointed with modern electronics, the reading room contains only "old novels about chaste love, and lost-and-regained fortunes, that could have been the discards of some long-ago village or Sunday school library." There is also a fountain, and Grant finds himself wondering if coins have been glued to its tiles as "another feature of the building's encouraging decoration," since he has never actually seen anyone make a wish.

Writers who concentrate so fiercely on particulars can run the risk of sounding too shrewd, too gratified by their own tricks of verisimilitude. But Munro is never knowing for the sake of being knowing, in the manner of Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections with his corporate gardens. Though the reading room's old novels and the attendant's puffy hair are clearly meant to provoke a grin of amused recognition, she is too sympathetic to her characters to be sarcastic only for the purpose of sarcasm. Each of her details is part of the fully realized portrait of the nursing home microcosmos, and each one also has a meaning that extends beyond mere adornment. Grant's thoughts about Kristy's hair, blond and voluminous--those sentences are in his voice--serves to characterize his impression of her, as well as his attitude toward certain women in general; but they are also a reminder of the loss of Fiona, whose hair, "light as milkweed fluff," has "gone from pale blond to white somehow without Grant's noticing exactly when." Those old novels about chaste love suddenly seem an ironic commentary on Fiona's relationship with Aubrey, which even in its chastity has all the infinite pain of any betrayal; and Grant, after nearly losing Fiona in the episode with the student, regained her only to lose her again to Aubrey. And how bitter is Grant's comment on the coins, especially since both the building's inhabitants and its visitors have so much to wish for, and so little chance of having their wishes granted.

I hope that this will not be true, but there is an elegiac mood to this book that makes it feel as if it might be Munro's last. Her characters have tended to age along with her--she is now seventy--and Hateship is markedly focused on the pains and the desires of the elderly. Moreover, several of the stories read as answers to stories that Munro has written before, particularly "Family Furnishings," one of the book's few first-person narratives. Many of its elements, some of them likely autobiographical, have frequently appeared in stories past: the slightly comical spinster, the rural childhood, the narrator's engagement to a man of a higher class than she, the embarrassments of relatives, the responses of loved ones to one's writing. Here Munro synthesizes them all in the space of thirty-three pages, finally coming back to rest on the most fundamental question of all: the purpose of her art, the justification for it. "Family Furnishings" begins with a demonstration of the deception that writing makes possible. Alfrida, the narrator's plainspoken, unmarried older cousin, writes in a flowery style about china and beauty treatments for the weddings column, and gives advice under the name Flora Simpson on the "Flora Simpson Housewives' Page." But Alfrida bears no resemblance to "the plump woman with the crimped gray hair and the forgiving smile who was pictured at the top of the page": a "career girl" and a "city person," she talks about politics and smokes cigarettes, which she calls "ciggie-boos." The narrator is fascinated by her, especially in contrast to her parents' other relatives, who talk only of diseases and debts. At one meal, she mimics a comment that her uncle has made:

 

 

“Looks like the roundworms have got into the hogs,” I said. “Yup.”
Except for the “yup,” this was just what my uncle had said, and he had said it at this very table, being overcome by an uncharacteristic need to break the silence or to pass on something important that had just come to mind. And I said it with just his stately grunts, his innocent solemnity.
Alfrida gave a great, approving laugh, showing her festive teeth. “That’s it, she’s got him to a T.” My father bent over his plate, as if to hide how he was laughing too, but of course not really hiding it, and my mother shook her head, biting her lips, smiling. I felt a keen triumph. Nothing was said to put me in my place, no reproof for what was sometimes called my sarcasm, my being smart. The word “smart” when it was used about me, in the family, might mean intelligent, and then it was used rather grudgingly… or it might be used to mean pushy, attention-seeking, obnoxious. Don’t be so smart.

The narrator wins a scholarship to go to college in the city where Alfrida lives, but she avoids her for as long as possible. The days when people could tell her to hide her brains are over, and she wants no reminders of her background, especially after she becomes engaged to marry a man who is much wealthier. She and Alfrida have one awkward meal together, at which Alfrida tells her the story of her mother's death--she died when a lamp exploded in her hands. And then the narrator has an epiphany: "It was as if a trap had snapped shut, to hold these words in my head. I did not exactly understand what use I would have for them. I only knew how they jolted me and released me, right away, to breathe a different kind of air, available only to myself." Years later she learns from her father that Alfrida was upset by the story she wrote based on this incident, and that a rift has developed between them because of it. And at her father's funeral, she meets Alfrida's illegitimate daughter, given up for adoption at birth, who exacts revenge:

"You want to know what Alfrida said about you? ... She said you were smart, but you weren't ever quite as smart as you thought you were."
But the story circles back to end with the narrator's epiphany. She is drinking a cup of coffee in a diner after her lunch with Alfrida. It is Sunday, and she has the day to herself.
Such happiness, to be alone. To see the hot late-afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows. To hear from the back of the shop the sounds of the ball game that the man who had served me was listening to on the radio. I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida--not of that in particular--but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories. The cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation. This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.

With the Munro heroine's usual hesitation, the narrator first claims that she did not know what use she would have for Alfrida's story. And yet by the end of the afternoon she comes out with the artistic credo for which we have been waiting. "More like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories"--we are back with the teenaged Munro, looking out the window at the horses on the scale, at the image that reveals the story that falls into place around it. And here it is not something to be fit in between diaper changes, but "the work I wanted to do." The short story has been chosen after all.

 

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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