To Tell a Proper Story In Celebration of Alice Munro

Ashley Wurzbacher

Nov 15, 2013

By now many people might have put down their champagne glasses after toasting to Alice Munro, celebrating her work and her legacy in the wake of her recent receipt of the Nobel Prize. But I’m still riding around on a little cloud of joy, revisiting her work and contemplating what it means to me—as a woman, as someone who loves and works in the short form, and as a writer and reader in general. Recently an article in The Daily Texan announced the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin’s possession of several rejection letters sent from Knopf to Ms. Munro. In the article Ann Cvetkovich, a professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, speculates that Munro’s early work was rejected primarily due to her nationality, explaining that “so often, good writers are not always recognized because they fall off the radar due to their gender, sexuality, race or in this case, their national background.” Having not seen the letters myself, I can’t speak for the editors who first rejected Munro’s work, and while her national background may certainly have been a factor, I’d hesitate to assert with any certainty that it was the primary one. I find it even more difficult to imagine why, even now, I still hear, and read of, writers asserting that Munro’s work is “boring” or “overrated” (I’ll refer you to Derek Askey’s post over at the Colorado Review’s blog for an overview of Bret Easton Ellis’s recent Munro-bashing). Granted, they’re the minority; I feel the vast majority of the literary community rejoicing with me in Munro’s victory, and it’s fabulous.

But if I use my imagination and try to do my own speculating on what may have driven—and may still drive—certain readers away from Munro’s work, my feeling is that their unappreciation stems not simply from her nationality or her femininity, but from the femininity of her prose itself, and its domestic, internal subject matter. Moreover, it might be because of the way that she breaks every rule of a “proper story,” experimenting with point of view, examining the limitations of narrative, playing with time. I’ll examine two of my favorite Munro stories—“The Ottawa Valley” (1974) and “Friend of My Youth” (1990)—for a few examples of the way Munro’s work challenges the reader. The narrator of “The Ottawa Valley” remembers a trip she took with her mother, who has since died of Parkinson’s disease, back to her childhood home. The story offers little in terms of plot; its narrator recalls moments (like a memory of her mother giving her a safety pin during a church service), snippets of a narrative, but no single, linear “arc” of obvious significance. The story maintains tension not by prompting us to wonder what will happen next, but by commenting on its own metafictional work, and the way that that work must inevitably fail—the narrator is unable to capture, through narrative, the essence of her mother, and this failure is the heart of the story. The epiphany is that there is no epiphany—or at least, not enough of an epiphany to provide catharsis to the narrator. The narrator comments on the structure and conventions of her own story, observing where and how perhaps it “ought” to have ended and critiquing her own (in)ability to capture her mother:
For 50 years, WWF has been protecting the future of nature. The world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by 1.2 million members in the United States and close to 5 million globally. If I had been making a proper story out of this, I would have ended it, I think,with my mother not answering and going ahead of me across the pasture. That would have done. I didn’t stop there, I suppose, because I wanted to find out more, remember more. I wanted to bring back all I could. Now I look at what I have done and it is like a series of snapshots, like the brownish snapshots with fancy borders that my parents’ old camera used to take.
This is the story—the ending—that might have been; but it isn’t our story. So what of our story? Is it not a “proper story”? What is a “proper story”? What is the norm against which this narrator—and Munro herself—is positioning herself?
Something neater than what we get, apparently, with a natural break point, a logical ending-place. Perhaps a narrative with a clear “dramatic movement” that points to meaning in a focused way, and that knows when to stop—that reaches a conclusion. Some of Munro’s early work does provide these things. The stories in her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, for instance, are epiphanic in a straightforward, Joycean kind of way—at the end, characters come to on-the-page realizations about the things they’ve witnessed throughout the story (I think of the title story and “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” for instance). However, the vast majority of Munro’s work refuses to operate by the criteria for a “proper story” that is implied by the narrator of “The Ottawa Valley.” That narrator—and, I’d argue, Munro herself—aligns herself with a more feminine form, one that reaches for meaning and circles back, that eschews linearity and a focus on the present in favor of ambiguity and a search for a connection between past and present—a search that is fraught with emotional baggage and shaped by the tricks and limitations of memory. Consider her narrator’s confession that things, essences, people, cannot be adequately captured or tidily expressed:
The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did….and I could go on, and on, applying what skills I have, using what tricks I know, and it would always be the same.
Here writing is the mechanism not only for conversations and connections between generations, between the sexes, between women across differences and distances, or between living and dead. It is also a mechanism for exorcism, or at least its attempt; it gives access to memories and, in the act of relating them, attempts to free the writer from them. It lets us reach for understanding, but that reaching is all there is—we can never completely grasp it. The spirit of the mother can neither be expressed nor exorcised; she can only haunt this narrator and her narrative, give us a piece of a bygone generation, a snapshot, to do with what we will. (Yes, men’s postmodern writing performs many of these same moves—rejecting the notion of absolute truth, providing metafictional commentary on itself and on the limitations of language—but Munro’s work differs from theirs in several key ways: its quiet, contemplative tone; its focus on domestic subjects and settings and on relationships between women; the way that it is always subtle, never flashy or demonstrative in its theorizing or its rule-breaking; the way she examines, again and again, not only the concept of storytelling in general, but also the way that storytelling affects women’s gender identities. Due to space constraints, I won’t belabor this point.) “Friend of My Youth” introduces us to a similar narrator in a similar situation. Her mother, too, has died of what seems to have been Parkinson’s. This narrator tells the story of Flora, a woman with whom her mother boarded many years in the past when she was a schoolteacher in the Ottawa Valley preparing to marry. The narrator recalls and recasts her mother’s stories of Flora, resisting her mother’s interpretation of her and her story, and imagining telling an alternative version in which Flora is a villain rather than a dignified, long-suffering saint. Through telling and re-telling the story of Flora, the narrator attempts to come to terms with her relationship with her mother, their many differences, and her mother’s death.
Again, Munro uses her story to discuss the limitations of narrative through narrative, as well as the gendered politics of writing. The narrator of “Friend of My Youth” notes her mother’s wish to have been a writer: “In later years, when she sometimes talked about the things she might have been, or done, she would say, ‘If I could have been a writer—I do think I could have been; I could have been a writer—then I would have written the story of Flora’s life.’” The narrator, the daughter, has access to this artistic privilege that her mother did not have; the story itself is an exercise of a freedom, a license, a kind of creative confidence that her mother never had. The mother’s storytelling is oral, sentimental, moralizing, subject to revision and rejection by the daughter. The daughter imagines that she understands the “true” Flora better than her mother did. She imagines meeting Flora, telling her all that she has come to know about her through her mother: “I would have wanted to tell her that I knew, I knew her story, though we had never met.” While in “The Ottawa Valley” narrativizing constituted an attempt at exorcism, at release from the woman being described, here it is a way of getting closer, a way of forging a connection with a stranger known only through another woman’s stories. But in the narrator’s dream of meeting Flora—another narrative within the narrative—Flora rejects the notion that she could really have come to know her, either through her own stories or through her mother’s: “She is not surprised that I am telling her this, but she is weary of it, of me and my idea of her, my information, my notion that I can know anything about her.” Again Munro’s characters create mystery rather than dispelling or solving it. The story backs away from suggesting that any person can be truly, completely representable by another, and the narrative itself is presented as a reaching for—but never really reaching—an elusive truth about the way that people, women in particular, are connected. Comprehension and solidarity are fantasies, things both made and destroyed through storytelling; and yet, these things aren’t useless; they’re not wasted. Rather, our attempts at them, our cobbled-together, mostly-fictionalized constructions of them—our failure to tell, express, fully understand—sustain us. There’s a frustration that comes from reading this kind of failure to capture, just as, for Munro’s narrators, there is often frustration in the attempt itself. Munro doesn’t make things easy for us, doesn’t follow the “rules” of the old guard. Her stories perform other tricks, too: her characters can take on a kind of community consciousness, telling us what “everyone knows” about a particular quirky or marginalized character within the town she’s describing. She often incorporates elements of the epistolary form, or takes huge leaps forward or backward in time. I could go on and on. Munro’s storytellers (including the narrator of “The Ottawa Valley,” in one of the passages I’ve quoted above) often refer to the “tricks” that are employed in their telling—“lovely tricks, honest tricks,” as they are called in “Material” (1974), and perhaps this trickery, this rejection of the conventions of a “proper story,” explain why some of her work—especially her novel in stories, Lives of Girls and Women—met initially with rejection. It’s also a large part of why her work means so much to me, and why it has so wonderfully, happily been recognized through the Nobel for its contribution to the literary world. Her work shatters our illusions of control over ourselves and others. It shatters the writer’s hubris in believing that he or she can impose order on a chaotic universe. It eschews linearity and resists easy apprehension. It treats the domestic sphere with the respect it deserves as a place of conflict and complexity. It is circular, doubling back and questioning itself; it understands that it is constructed, that it is subject to whims and flaws of memory, that it lacks absolute authority; it is feminine in sensibility. It is humble (as is Munro herself, with the Montreal Gazette calling her win “a triumph of modesty and humility”) in its unadorned language and its confession of its own limitations, and it humbles us in return. It suggest that while we may fail to fully tell or capture each other, we can still forge connections—across genders, across the years and generations, across differences—through our attempts at telling. It breaks every rule—of point of view, time, and structure. In refusing to be “proper” stories, her stories teach us that there is no such thing, that the possibilities of narrative are simultaneously limited and limitless. As far as I’m concerned, paradoxically, this is precisely what a “proper” story should do. This is my open thank-you to you, Ms. Munro, for what you’ve given us. I won’t be finished toasting to you anytime soon.
Munro and Margaret Atwood toasting!