The blog has been more fallow than its usual don’t-call-it-climate-change-it’s-just-fallow state because I’m working on a long term writing project. On Alice Munro.
I haven’t been paid for my writing since we thought our computers would snap us back to the Iron Age. That dark millennial moment I took a “break” from journalism to “get smarter” in grad school.
And on Alice Munro? Even cooler than the fluff piece I wrote back then on the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Which is to say: quantum cool.
So here’s a teaser of Munroviana to tide us over.
Things I’ve Learned From Munrotopia 2015
- Her shit was always feminist. Always. Even in 1968.
- Lest one was fooled by her smiling, silver, neighborly author pics, she is capable of writing directly about sexual abuse and rape, coming right up to it, just about naming it directly.
- Her later work is better, but her early work flashes all her signals: deep attention to women’s lives, the essential strangeness and loneliness of (small town) society, the breathless leaps in time encapsulating the complex regret, resignation, and sorrow of aging, the sexual revolution and alternative religious movements as shiny ways to reinscribe patriarchy, and about 67 million ways of thinking about a disabled mother.
She was doing all that in the 60s, and she’s still doing all that now, with more subtlety and perhaps less fixation on her disabled mom.
- Her earlier collections conveniently include thesis statements about her projects.
Like this report, from “Boys and Girls,” in her first collection:
“This winter … I no longer felt safe. It seemed that in the minds of the people around me there was a steady undercurrent of thought, not to be deflected, on this one subject. The word girl had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened, like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing. A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment. Also it was a joke on me.”
Before Judith Butler, Munro was showing us that femininity is a performance, and that those who cannot convince the audience properly end up alone: with a half a career, at best, and children across the country with their stepmother.
Many of her more notable protagonists make their careers in the performing arts: in theater, radio, or television. Failing to perform femininity properly at home, they find ways to perform for the country, and are left feeling hollow anyway.
And the vaguely screwball “The Office,” about a writer/wife who tries to rent an office for her writing, since she can’t seem to find a way to get it done at home.
“A house is all right for a man to work in. He brings his work into the house, a place is cleared for it; the house rearranges itself as best it can around him. Everybody recognizes that his work exists. …He can shut his door. Imagine (I said) a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it; why, the very thought of it is outrageous to them. A woman who sits staring into space, into a country that is not her husband’s or her children’s is likewise known to be an offense against nature. So a house is not the same for a woman. She is not someone who walks into the house, to make use of it, and will walk out again. She is the house; there is no separation possible.”
A riff on the same feminist theme we’ve seen at least since Jane Austen’s Persuasion and most intensively in A Room of One’s Own. But this version of the riff is spring-loaded into a collection of stories so angry about men that I can only assume she wrote it while divorcing her first husband.
Nonetheless these early stories capture some basic truths about male dominance that persist–in Munro’s work and in our lives: that women can’t do anything right. That they’ll always be on the losing end of any proposition. And that even the most intimate, loving family relationships will end and sorrow and humiliation. For all, but mostly for women.
AND I CAN’T GET ENOUGH.
In a month or so I’m hoping to have read her entirety. 500 more ways of thinking about all of the above. And then I get to write about it. Hot diggity.