02 January 2009

Munro, Alice. "Some Women". The New Yorker. 22 & 29 Dec 2008. 69-77.

I like everything Alice Munro writes, pretty much. I know what this reveals about me. I mean, I'm "one of those" writers. Like, in the AWP Chronicle there was this article titled "How to Write a Story Like Alice Munro" or some such, and, while on every level I found the idea behind such an article odious and disgusting and so terribly depressing it still makes me want to slit my wrists all over the millions of photocopied workshop-story pages written by all us faceless creative-writing graduate students around the country hoping one day our dull stories about nothing will be as sought after by the New Yorker as Munro's great ones about nothing are, I devoured the article happily, even if I didn't necessarily learn anything by it.

But the last one in the New Yorker? or maybe Harper's? the one about the woman who sits alone in her kitchen and then some maniac stops by to try to kill her? the Flannery O'Connor one? I didn't like that one. I think the reason is that Alice Munro + two characters = a waste of her talents. She's always so good at four or even five characters. "Some Women" is about this time in the life of the narrator when she had a job taking care of a man dying of leukemia, back in the first half of the 20th century. Taking away the mother of the narrator (who only butts in to counter certain attitudes and desires of her daughter's), there are five characters in this story, and right when you think you have the antagonist pinned down (the invalid's mother) Munro introduces another character to take her place (the invalid's wife) and yet once you think now you've got a grip on the story there's a new character, the invalid's stepmother's masseuse of all people, who enters the story and maybe works as an antagonist, but more correctly just complicates things to the point where no one's an antagonist, or everyone is.

Every step, as always, she takes is a surprise. And that's why I like Alice Munro. Her stories are so happily inscrutable. But you know who hates Alice Munro? Like, not the kind woman living in Canada but the writer showing up in magazine pages far more often than he does? Ben Marcus. And I like Ben Marcus. Or, at least, I like what I've read of his (chiefly Notable American Women, which was incredible), but when it comes to criticizing Alice Munro's disinterest in pushing the boundaries of language, and how depressing it is that readers flock to her and her stories and not to Marcus's or, like, Gary Lutz's or somebody, Marcus can suck on it.

Because Munro's paying as close attention to language as he is. To gloss over the following sentences and not recognize a love for and mastery over language as compelling and valid as Marcus's is to be as poor and limited a reader as our departing president:

"None of us mattered to her—not me, or her critics, or her defenders. We were no more than bugs on a lampshade" (70).

Don't be all, "Dude, Marcus is looking for more than an apt simile," because I read his Harper's article, too. Here are sentences jut as full as the kind of word-rubbing going on in the sentences Lutz argues for in that Believer reprint everyone's blogging about this week. Maybe Munro doesn't have to crowbar a noun into some verb's syntactic spot (though undoubtedly she can and has), but her sentences demand our writerly, nerdly attentions and earn them.

I wonder why she doesn't write novels.


Blogger A. Peterson said...

Wait, are you talking about noted Southern Ontario Gothic writer Alice Munro?

God, I still love that. Canadians!

5:52 PM  

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