Taking the Risk

 

 

The View from Castle Rock: Stories

By Alice Munro

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 349 pp., $25.95 Hardcover

 

The Light of Evening

By Edna O’Brien

New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, 304 pp., $25.00 Hardcover

   

Reviewed by Rebecca Meacham

              When I teach fiction writing, it generally takes until midterm before I give The Lecture.  “Your main character spends the entire story watching her family through a keyhole,” I’ll tell a student. Or: “Your narrator spends this entire story in a jail cell, confessing his crimes.”  Whether the characters are ruminating on a bar stool or reflecting in a hospital bed, the ones that drive me to issue The Lecture are all alike: passive, pensive, backward-looking, and rooted. They never take action in the present moment or, heaven forbid, interact with another character. “There is no tension here,” I’ll admonish. “This is safe, namby pamby writing!  Where is the risk?”            I scold my students because I was once like them, conflating pretty language with active storytelling, when good writing requires both.  Creating a character who remembers and muses is relatively easy. But the real labor of narrative, of putting characters together at a dinner table or on a boat—or worse yet, in bed—and getting them to talk and fight and interrupt and sulk is intensely difficult. Such work makes writers uncomfortable. And so I conclude The Lecture with this tip: “If you don’t feel anxious when you write, how will you make your readers worry?”            By way of example, I’ll distribute an Alice Munro story like “Floating Bridge,” published in her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and the winner of an O. Henry Award. One fraught scene takes place in a van driven by Neal, the husband of Jinny, as the couple prepares for the final stages of Jinny’s cancer. When Helen, whom the couple has hired to be Jinny’s nurse, enters the van, Neal brims “with silly bliss.” Soon, Neal invents a nickname for Helen, and she commands the group to drive in new directions. Jinny detaches as Neal and Helen fill the gaps her death will leave. But Jinny has a secret—all great Munro characters have secrets—and it is both shocking and inevitable when Jinny shares another car ride, this time with stranger down a lonely road. From beginning to end, we grip the armrests, wondering where Munro’s narrative roads will take us.

            Nervy, bold, and deeply felt, the storytelling of Alice Munro generates anxiety despite the ordinariness of the porches, neighbors, and barns dotting her fictional countrysides.  Her short stories are famously lengthy, and at first, her style seems ambling, lazing over descriptions of landscapes and characters without apparent purpose.  But like the calm facades of her characters, the sprawl is deceiving. Indeed, Munro’s fictions are carefully designed to create tension. They accumulate mass, force, and intensity until we hurtle toward endings that seem like relief.

            The works in Munro’s eleventh collection, The View from Castle Rock, are a species all their own: not quite fiction, not quite memoir.  As such, their design is unique and Munro is less invested in twists and turns, momentum, or suspense. In her foreword, Munro observes that writing these pieces entailed “doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring my own life…I put myself in the center and wrote about that self.” Still, Munro’s search for her “self” wanders into fiction, and she finds that her relatives and neighbors have “moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.” You couldn’t swear on the truth of these lives, she cautions.  But whatever their ingredients, Munro insists, “these are stories.

            When Munro applies both the imagination and the techniques of fiction—dramatic scenes, engaging points of view, conflicted characters—these works offer much both to my students and story lovers in general. The pleasures of The View from Castle Rock are various.  Between the foreword and an epilogue, the book is divided into two sections. The five stories in part one, “No Advantages,” begin in the hardscrabble environment of Munro’s ancestral Scotland and follow her relatives as they settle in North America.  The six stories in part two, “Home,” detail Munro’s experiences growing up near Lake Huron and culminate with her search for self.

            Stories about ancestry can be deadly boring, particularly when they emphasize information: names, dates, and places pile on, pinning down the story like a toppled tombstone.  Fortunately, only the first piece in this collection, “No Advantages,” suffers under such weight. This piece chronicles Munro’s family’s rain-soaked origins as shepherds and farmers in the Ettrick Valley in Scotland, where some become involved in the making of folklore and poetry.  In this piece is the thematic DNA threading each story in the collection: one strand investigates how characters are shaped by landscape; another explores the ways we invent ourselves through language. The problem with “No Advantages” is that as Munro lays the factual foundation of bloodlines, the results feel staid.  We’re held at a distance by the narrative equivalent of a family tree, with dry, didactic writing and characters branching off into isolation. Missing is Munro’s usual empathy—the insights that reveal the insecurities, anxieties, and yearnings of her characters. In other words, the stuff of stories.

            Indeed, once Munro puts her characters together and sets them in motion, on a ship to America, the stories fill with dangerous intimacies and colliding desires. The title story is masterful. In it, Munro enters the minds of multiple characters as they journey across the ocean: her ancestor, Old James; his dutiful son, Andrew; Andrew’s blunt wife, Agnes, wearily pregnant with their second child; Andrew’s sister, Mary, so meek she’s called “Poor Mary”; and Walter, Andrew’s brother, who keeps a journal about the trip.  As the boat sails on, Munro moves us through the mind of each character, to breathtaking effect.  Coming from a family of weavers skilled in the “arts of cutting each other down to size,” Agnes is “surprised by the rigid manners, the deferences and silences in her husband’s family. She thought from the beginning that they were a queer sort of people, and thinks so still.” After her baby is born in a harrowing delivery, we, too, see these deferences when Andrew visits: “[H]e stiffens up…doused with fire. It isn’t just what she has said, it is the whole scene, the smell of the infant and the milk and blood, most of all the basin, the cloths, the women standing by, with their proper looks that can seem to a man both admonishing and full of derision.”  

While Andrew and Agnes can’t be bothered with their son, Young James, Poor Mary adores the boy and dreads losing him. Munro writes:

The truth is that she loves even his howls and his rages and his kicks and his bites. She loves his dirty and his curdled smells as well as his fresh ones. As his drowsiness leaves him his clear blue eyes, looking into hers, fill with a marvelous intelligence and imperious will, which seem to her to come straight from Heaven.

 

As the family nears the shore, the piece gathers speed, pulling multiple stories inward until they converge in the abduction of Young James during a whale sighting. Then, Munro switches modes, leaving the boat to inform us about the real lives and deaths of Andrew, Agnes, and James—merging the fiction writer’s imperative of action with the memoirist’s skill of reflection. Here and elsewhere, the mix is satisfying.

            Other stories vary in plot and pacing, but many still surprise us. Like the title story, “Illinois” dramatizes a journey that imperils a child, as Andrew is dispatched to move his widowed sister-in-law and her children to Ontario. Most bitter about Uncle Andrew’s arrival, and the move, is young Jamie:

His uncle hated him. Naturally he did. When his mother had said in her hopeful, foolish way, “This is my man of the house now,” his uncle had said, “Oh, aye,” as if to say that she was badly off, if that was all she could come up with.

 

While Jamie’s hostility launches a story-like conflict, other works read more like themed essays. In “Working for a Living,” Munro recounts her parents’ experiences as furriers, from her father’s boyhood trapping adventures through her mother’s spectacular saleswomanship—and beyond, to her father’s second career working at the local foundry.  And in “Fathers,” Munro contrasts her father with those of two girls at her school: the abusive Mr. Newcome, and the solicitous Mr. Wainwright, whose “insistence—the too-closeness—of his soft footsteps in fat plaid slippers” awakens a self-loathing in young Alice.

Admittedly, as I read of Alice fumbling in the brush with a stable boy or polishing counters as a “hired girl,” I sometimes wondered if my interest was voyeuristic, a wish to spy the truth behind her fiction.  My unease was keenest with “Messenger,” in which Alice’s discovery of a lump in her breast echoes the experience of the fictional Jinny in “Floating Bridge.” And yet, as Munro places her life among those of her relatives, with their “cream cans on the porch…the stable warmed in winter by the bodies and breath of cows, the cold waxed parlor where the coffin was put when people died,” it’s clear that writing with clarity and candor, whether in truth or in fiction, is a risk we are lucky that Munro takes.  

 

Like Munro, Edna O’Brien blends reality and fantasy in The Light of Evening, her twentieth work of fiction. An exploration of the lives of a mother, Dilly, and her daughter, Eleanora, the novel incorporates actual letters from O’Brien’s own Irish mother. These letters, O’Brien has said in interviews, helped her shape an imagined version of her life—a version also featuring a famous author daughter who, like O’Brien, marries a “foreigner” and moves to London—yet the book is not an autobiography.  However, because of its marked lack of dramatized conflict, I’d hesitate to call this work a story, either. Indeed, to illustrate what not to do with storytelling, I’d assign my students this novel.

The novel opens with the elderly Dilly visiting a faith healer and checking into a hospital to diagnose a lingering illness.  Then, in a safe and familiar convention, Dilly sits in her hospital bed and “sees her life pass before her eyes… like pages from a book.” On cue, Dilly begins recollecting her own trip to America in the 1920s and her adventures finding work and falling in love. To be sure, O’Brien is a lovely stylist, and in this section the descriptions wink and charm us like the “scoundrel” photographer who snaps Dilly’s photo:

Walking up the hill toward home, the lamplight roosting in the trees that skirted the park, we’d stop and laugh and go over every bit of it, his lips puce as if he’d painted them, his coffee-colored suit, his waddle, the Turkish Delight he fed us on a wooden spatula, wiping the sherbet off our lips, and the sudden venom in him at being called a scoundrel.

 

Believing a rumor about her lover’s disloyalty, and drawn by her mother’s letters, Dilly returns to Ireland and marries.  The next major section, “Scenes from a Marriage,” offers glimpses not of Dilly’s marriage but of her daughter’s, who has been born, grown up, and apparently begun disappointing her mother somehow in Scenes We’ve Never Seen. Curiously for a novel about a mother-daughter rift, we see almost no conflict, since mother and daughter rarely inhabit the same continent, let alone the same room. Rather, the novel is structured in parallel tracks: Dilly’s life before Eleanora shifts over to Eleanora’s married life without Dilly, and the two meet only briefly in flashbacks, and even more briefly in the hospital. Absent is just about every opportunity for these characters to interact: to share a meal, visit a schoolteacher, say the wrong thing, hug awkwardly.  As a result, it’s unclear why Dilly sits in a hospital awaiting her daughter’s visit—or why we should care much when she arrives.

Despite the beauty of O’Brien’s language, her storytelling here is woefully risk-free, relying on journal entries and letters—and even more passively, letters never sent. As narrative devices, letters can be problematic: they are, by design, recollections, and the action they describe has already occurred. Save for suicide notes, we can be confident that the writer is alive; save for bomb threats, we’re sure the character reading has the time and comfort to do so.  Of course, some novels use letters to create delicious conflict, exposing secrets or motives or dreams otherwise tucked into the corners of apron pockets. But because there’s no smiling façade to undermine, O’Brien’s letters do not create conflict. Instead, they commemorate. In the end, the novel collapses in a heap of journal entries and letters she leaves for us to sift through, the mysteries of memory and relief of tension made clerical.

  

Rebecca Meacham is the author of the award-winning story collection Let’s Do. She lives and teaches in Wisconsin.

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