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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Chacun a son gout - Provence - 1970

In an unusual departure of my obsession and compulsion to read fiction - I'm actually acknowledging that there is a whole world out there of nonfiction, too - books based on observation and experience and research, rather than on imagination and emotions and memories - who knew? Am reading Luke Barr's Provence - 1970, one of the books that makes a case for a particular meeting, game, year, date as the seminal moment or the crux or turning point at which our entire perceptions about - race, sports, politics, culture - shifted gears or planes - in other words, nonfiction that identifies a single moment as the ground zero of a paradigm shift. In this case, the shift has to do with - food. Barr argues that in that year, from late summer to the end of the year, a # of great American (mostly) food writers spent several months in Provence during which they ate and drank together, a lot, and communicated - often via letters, which have been well preserved in various university archives. Barr himself is the grand-nephew of one of the food writer, MFK Fisher, so he has access to not only his memories of her but to various family archival documents as well. What he perceives, in his recounting of the many meetings and dinners and conversations, is the beginning of a shift in attitude that the writers supported in greater or lesser degrees - from the viewpoint that the pinnacle of great cooking was (and always would be) French cuisine - as set forth for mid-20th century cooks, post WWII, by the "Bible," Mastering the Art of French Cooking. By 1970, two of the authors, Child and Beck, were completing volume II, and there was a great rift, ideological and personal, between the two: Beck unwavering in her belief in traditional French cooking (by which none of the writers means hotel or restaurant cooking, but home cooking - though some argued that the Michelin restaurants had raised cooking to its pinnacle and others disdained the formalities of restaurants, cruise ships, et al.); Child obviously was the popularizer, making French accessible to American cooks, and now in 1970 starting to think about branching out, getting more interested in regional American cooking, accepting that with some effort you could find great ingredients, and great restaurants, in the U.S. James Beard was ahead of her on this. Those are the dynamics, and Barr traces the arguments back and forth, with some good bitchy gossip as well, largely seen through Fisher's notes and diaries (and published writing), but also a lot about the Childses, Beck and spouse, a writer I'd never heard of named Richard Olney, Eliz. Davis (an English snob), and some assorted others. The descriptions of the dinners are amazingly well re-created and astonishing; the idea of so many great chefs sharing kitchen space, ideas, skills, and stories is incredible - couldn't really happen today. Book feels a little drawn out, though, as do so many books based on a magazine article, that maybe ought to have been left at that - this one seems maybe based on several mag articles, which leads to a little repetition; still a good read, which I'll stay with - and then return to fiction no doubt.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The "surprise" ending of the New Yorker story Road Kill

Let's face it, the story Road Kill in current New Yorker, by possibly Indian-Sri Lankan author?, Romesh Gunesekera (?), is in the magazine primarily because of its exoticism - story of a hired driver taking a wealthy couple through the lately war-ravaged countryside of Sri Lanka and stopping overnight at a rather dismal and somewhat frightening hotel, where he (the driver, also narrator) engages in some desultory conversation with the hotel manager, a woman whose life has obviously been formed by the Sri Lankan rebal wars - she bears some scars, visible and not visible, and is decidedly brusque and almost wooden in her foundering attempts to be hospitable. Not a lot happens, and the narrative voice is not especially distinct. Would this story have been published in NYer had it take place in, say, Nevada? Well, maybe. But first of all - part of why we read fiction is to understand other times, places, and consciousness, and I do admire the NYer for broadening the scope of fiction accessible and known to the wide (I hope) audience of at least semi-serious American readers. Second, the story might well work in another setting, transposed - there's an element of creepiness and darkness that depends only in part on the background of civil war and disruption. Which comes down to: What does the narrator discover in the hotel? I don't want to "give it away," but I wonder how others interpret this story: given the title, and all the references to horrible food, and the statement at the end that there are some things the narrator does not want to know, aren't we meant to understand that the hotel is serving not chicken but the scampering rats, such as the one the manager kills with a well-tossed (though had to believe) bottle?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The women in Munro's stories

When I first read through Alice Munro's The Wilderness Station I was somewhat disappointed, thought it was a story that began really well - an epistolary story that recounts the early life of a woman who goes off to remote Ontario as something like a mail-order bride in about 1850, lives w/ two brothers married to one; her husband dies apparently struck by a falling tree limb, she and surviving brother bury him and both leave the remote farm - she goes off to a nearby town where she turns up at the prison and confesses to murdering her husband - but her story is not credible; through a set of letters she writes from prison we learn the true circumstances - one brother killed the other and they conspire to bury the dead and claim the death was accidental. Then the story jumps to the near present, as we get a long letter from a woman to a historian recounting an event of her youth - when she took the woman - Old Annie, she was called - to visit the surviving brother whom she had not seen since the fateful events. On first reading, I thought this concluding section didn't give us a great deal of new information - they go to the surviving brother, now an old man with a long white beard, but we don't know what Old Annie says to him or he in return. Old Annie reports he didn't say much but she did. On reflection, though, I have come to think that this is a terrific and mysterious conclusion to the story: obviously, Old Annie told him her story, that she had spent her entire life in near seclusion and eccentricity because she agreed to cover up his murderous act - while he has become a patriarch of a reasonably prosperous farm family. She has suffered for his sins, and he has not - or seems not to have. Munro is usually more direct and "maximal" in her story lines, but this is a rare occasion of her telling truth through ellipsis - the silence of the story speaks to the horror and sadness of the experience, to the lives broken by a single act, and of course to the repression and sublimation of the woman - taking on all of the burden, freeing the man. Munro has been called a feminist writer I'm sure, but though that may be true she is never didactic or polemical - her protagonists are often repressed, disappointed in life, shy, silent, observers - often librarians, teachers (in remote settings), bookstore owners (in Vancouver) - but they also almost always push the boundaries of their personalities and of the expectations of society - they are rebels, unconventional, sometimes mean and foolhardy (several of them end marriages or betray husbands - who are generally kind and thoughtful if dull and conventional) - even abandon children; they're not perfect, they're often victims (especially in the 21st-century stories). Again, I come away from a series of stories in Munro's 1996 Seleccted Stories amazed at how much material each story contains - so many could be made into movies (few have), so many could be developed into novels (fortunately, Munro remains true to the beauty of the short story - even as she breaks w/ convention in so many ways).

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Contradictions in Munro's fiction

A brief look at some of the apparent contradictions in Alice Munro's fiction: stories are incredibly complex for a narrative standpoint with many layers of narration, mixture of documentary and imagined material, jumps in time, shifts in focus, but - the stories are extremely clear and straightforward because Munro's style is simple, vivid, richly detailed, and devoid for the most part of fantasy, surrealism, and narrative gimmickry, firmly in the naturalistic tradition. Her stories are almost all set in Canada in one of only 3 types of settings, often about characters of limited life experience (shy librarians and bookstore owners and would-be writers, characters, we would believe, much like the young Munro), but - her stories cover a vast range of time and include a tremendous amount of incident, drama, and insight so they never feel nostalgic or provincial (as old friend Seth F. once noted - to win a Canadian fiction contest you have to write a story called My Saskatchewan Childhood - which does not describe Munro's work at all). Her characters are generally observers rather than actors, why and withdrawn and suffering from a Canadian inferiority complex, but - her stories are steaming with sexuality and infidelity and sudden outbursts of violence and vengeance. Her entire body of work consists of short stories, just about (1 novel out there early in her career), but - almost every one of her stories has as much going on as any given novel, they are models of efficiency and compression, and they show the incredible breadth of her imagination.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A rare moment of surrealism in an Alice Munro story

Joked w/ J's b-f M, lover of pro football esp Oakland Raiders and video games, looked at large book on dining room table and asked about it - Alice Munro 1996 Selected Stories - and I told him the book probably wasn't for him, but the Alice Munro video game is awesome: here comes that Methodist minister over the horizon - blam! - and here's that Carstairs, Ontario, spinster librarian - Pow! - and that buggy-shop owner on the shores of Lake Huron - Kapow! And yet, and yet - isn't there a surprising amount of violence in Munro's stories, so placid and elegant in tone and mode, but concealing great reserves of emotion and violence and death and betrayal. Like the long (3 sections) story about the above-referenced librarian in the small town, living in the "commercial hotel" - in some ways, for Munro, a simple plot: during the First World War librarian receives mash-y letters from GI in Europe who'd eyed her on the job, and they begin seriously flirting via mail, she sends him a picture - kind of expects to see him after the war, never does, she thinks he's ashamed or shy, then reads in paper that he has married - we learn he had a sweetheart/fiancee in town all along - so why did he start this rather cruel fake courtship? (Interesting how the other Alice, whom I've just read, echos this theme in her novel Someone.) Then - we jump forward a # of years - we see the librarian lose her virginity to a traveling salesman who's staying at the hotel - surprising she is still a virgin (was surprising to him) but maybe that's true of the time - and, there's a terrible accident, the ex-GI is beheaded when he gets caught in a buzzsaw machine at the factory where he works. The factory owner comes to pay condolence to the widow, and she gives him a pile of books to return to the library. So the ex-GI had been going to the library all these years! And when he returns the books - in a cute plot twist atypical of the hard-edged Munro, he, too, falls for the librarian, and eventually they marry. What any reader will remember about this story, however, is Munro's vivid description of the gory accident in the (piano and organ) factory. Blam! And what puzzles me in particular is the final section of the story, in which the librarian on a visit to Toronto imagines (I guess) seeing the beheaded man, Jack Agnew, come back to life and addressing her, as she waits for a bus. What's this about? Is she in dementia? Just dreaming? Or did I miss some vital clue - is there a way in which he did not die, or he has a son or relative bearing his name? I was puzzled by this "vision," also atypical of Munro, the staunch realist. But Munro is known, more than anything, for breaking rules, expectations, and conventions - even those of her own making.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Strengths and weaknesses of Someone

Book group was I thought pretty kind to Alice McDermott, this group that often eviscerates contemporary fiction - but there was universal concurrence that she creates a particular scene and milieu - Irish-Catholic immigrant family in working-class Brooklyn in early-to-mid 20th century - with a sense of detail, an ear for the turn of a phrase, and an evocative sensitivity that rivals at times Joyce (cf Dubliners). I was kind of the grump one, arguing that her novel Someone may indeed have many fine passages and promising characters but that it never coheres into a narrative; in fact, I surmised that McDermott probably wrote this novel in fits and starts over many years - and MR confirmed, from an interview she'd read or heard, that I was correct. Well, the novel suffers from that - it feels like fits and starts, both the random chronology and the odd sense of major characters and events introduced but left unresolved. The best example: Pegeen, the neighbor, who from the first pages we think the novel may be about the relationship between narrator, Marie, and Pegeen - but P. dies a few pages farther on. Some argued that these empty spaces in the novel are an effective technique, but I don't concur there. I also argued that a first-person narrator engages in a particular kind of pact with the reader - they have to be telling us their story for a reason, and the omissions have to be willful or telling (a classic case would be Remains of the Day when it comes to narrative omissions). Marie never actually reflects on her life or conveys exactly what she has learned over its course; LR brought up the genre of the bildungsroman, but those always I think involve "a novel of education" - and often are in 3rd person (Tom Jones, for ex.) or, if in first, are very complete and confessional (Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders). RR made a case for a difference between a male and female narration, but I never quite got his point - in what sense or why would omissions in the narration be female? 3rd-person narrative is different - I think of Elizabeth Strout's early fiction which involves many deliberate omissions and ellipses. But a first-person narrator should tell all, or the novelist should make it clear why he or she can't or won't.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Homer of Sorrows: McDermott

Book group tonight takes up The Other Alice (McDermott) and her latest novel, Someone, so to get in the mood I'll catalog of the catastrophes and sorrows the narrator experiences in this short novel: as 7-year-old child has very bad vision, parents clearly favor brilliant older brother (Gabe) and she's made to listen to his endless recitations of poetry from memory, woman in neighborhood marries and it lasts only a day because it's rumored groom turned out to be another woman (nasty trick), boys in neighborhood tease relentlessly, particularly cruel to a blind man telling him his mother died, father dies young after presumably bout with alcoholism, mother very strict no sign of loving or care, neighborhood guy with leg deformity comes on to her (she's late teens now) and basically attacks her on first date, leads her on to believe they will marry (she has almost no opinion on this point) and then with utmost cruelty dumps her for another woman, leading to years of self-doubt about her attractiveness and worthiness, narrator (Marie) does get a job she likes that builds her self-esteem, but it's in a funeral parlor so she is still surrounded by sorrow and loss, brother Gabe leaves the seminary abruptly without clear explanation, after Marie marries, Gabe has nervous breakdown, is hospitalized, comes to live with Marie and Tom, putting family on edge and dying young (though McDermott never explains or explores this), Marie's vision deteriorates has eye surgery but doctor operates on wrong eye, husband Tom dies, also young, also unexamined or explained, in old age, the time of the narration, Marie goes completely blind. Did I leave anything out? McDremott is the Homer of sadness, but the novel could be more effective if it were focused on an event, a relationship, or a single period of time.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The boundaries where fiction and memoir meet

I'll never quite remember the name of this Alice Munro story - something like Menenetaug? - the name of the small Ontario town where the story takes place - story and book title are her only flaw as a writer, unless I'm missing something - but title aside this story is one of her best and subject I think for lots of speculation: she describes this small town early in the 20th century, a woman in her 30s living a lone (father died young leaving her reasonably well off), begins a friendship with a widowed man living next door, they both live near the fringes of a pretty rough neighborhood, one night she hears drunken fighting outside, in the morning discovers a woman's body in her backyard, calls upon her male friend (it's quite early and no one's fully dressed), he realizes the woman is alive but in a stupor, he sort of chases the woman home, then at last realizes he has feelings for his neighbor and says he will walk her to church later in the morning, but she pulls back from him and the relationship dies - so sad and Chekhovian! At end of story - which includes various snippets of the woman's poetry (she was a minor, self-published local poet, not another Emily Dickinson but an aspirant) and of clips from the local newspaper, the narrator - again, someone very close in voice to Munro, visits the graveyard and uncovers the memorial stones of the two people. OK, so as with so many Munro stories this one plays with the boundaries between memoir or essay and fiction, or, put another way, between imagination and discovery. By creating a frame that makes the story seem to be an essay about the past, Munro makes us feel that the story is "real" - but it may not be, it may be that the entire construct, including the frame and narrator that seems to sound much like the author, is part of the illusion. So not only does she give us a very beautiful and poignant story about the past but she forces us to think about the nature of fiction itself, the various uses writers make of the very few but vast tools in hand: imagination, experience, learning, feelings.

Friday, November 22, 2013

An abrupt ending to a story in the New Yorker

Lionel Shriver is one of those writers I'd heard of, maybe read some reviews about or by, and whom a friend has strongly recommended that I read - but never did so until this week's New Yorker story, Kilifi Creek. Story shows her obvious talent - two of the scenes in particular are very powerfully written and so intense I just rushed through reading to see what would happen - talking about the swim in the creek and the rooftop party. She does a fine job sketching in the main character in the first page or so, an 20-something American woman on an adventure in Africa, palling about with other footloose travelers and ex-pats, sponging off some wealthy people to whom she had an entree - and Shriver also captures the essence of the wealthy older couple forced to play host to this traveler whom they don't know. In other words, the story is full of tensions and promises. Does it make good on all of them? Not quite - but enough that I would look forward to reading more of Shriver. The big scene - the swim in the creek - ends rather abruptly and suddenly, and Shriver hurtles us through the next 15 years of the woman's life, to a point where she is now living in Manhattan, with an executive job, but still unattached - and hanging on to her adventures as "stories," the narrative of her life. Then she meets a guy she seems to like. I will not give spoilers here - except to say that this story seems loosely based on an item in the news in the past year - and - though the story has a definite conclusions, there is a difference between the ending of a story and the resolution of  a story, and Shriver does not really resolve the issues raised, just ends them.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

One of Munro's best-known stories

Friend of My Youth, a title story to one of her collections and one of the best-known and one of the best, for that matter, of Alice Munro's many stories, is also another great illustration of her technique - complex narrative design that breaks rules and barriers, but material that is traditional, naturalistic, and accessible. In this story, Munro begins by reflecting on her mother and on her last memories of her mother's fatal illness - is this really Munro reflecting, as in a personal memoir, or is the narrator a character, a fiction? - it feels quite realistic and seems to jibe largely with what we know of Munro's early life, but that may be just an effect she's artfully created - but it encases the story in a jewel box of realism - and then she recollects learning about her mother's early adulthood when she was a teacher in a small town in Ontario and boarding with a family of a strict religious sect in a very rustic and isolated farm house. It sounds like the beginning of a nasty gothic tale of suffering, but the mom actually got to like this family, befriended the older sister - as the younger was quite unhealthy – and this embedded story becomes almost like a realistic fairy tale – a man moves in and is expected to marry the older sister, gets seduced by or seduces the younger, marries her, she dies after multiple failed pregnancies and still births, we expect now that he will marry his first intended, the older sister, but no he marries the his late wife’s nurse – older sister twice jilted – a story told in quite a straightforward manner. But wait! – we’re soon jolted far forward into the near present – as the narrator’s mother recounts her sending a letter of commiseration to older sister and being curtly put in her place: mind your own business. Many, many years later – older sister gets in touch w/ mother again – which brings us back to the opening of the story, with narrator trying to piece together info about her mother’s life. So this story contains memoir, country saga, naturalistic personal drama, some postmodern playfulness with levels of illusion and reality – and as with all of Munro’s fiction demands a great deal of attention in that we can never be sure where the narration will move on the board, yet is on a grander level very easy to follow as the scenes are so vivid, the details so telling, and the characters so rounded – and yet quirky, unpredictable, and unique.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Alice Munro's narrative technique

Reading the short story - always an intellectual challenge, more so than the seemingly more daunting novel - in that a story requires the writer, and the reader, to get it all on the table right away - we're immediately introduced to the cast of characters, and there's little time for back story, interior monologue, context - everything has to be in motion within a few pages, or in fact within a few paragraphs. And this difficulty is exacerbated for those of us brave or foolish enough to read right through an author's collection of stories - a new set of characters, a new adjustment of perspective and point of view, with every entry. And let's add a 3rd degree of difficulty - how about reading an Alice Munro collection (as I'm now doing, reading straight through her 1996 Selected Stories)? Because Munro willfully (and brilliantly) breaks the conventions of the short story. Because of the constriction of the form, it's usually important that the writer make clear very quickly who the main characters are, the setting, the time, the essential conflict of the plot. Munro blithely flouts this convention. The story White Dump in her collection is a great example: we struggle with the characters quickly introduced at the outset, trying to figure out who they are - there are several generations, and not clear who's married to whom or who's not married at all, but we do know that we're in a made over summer summer house on an Ontario lakeshore - and as is so typical of Munro at first we think we're following one character as the "main character" but that character may shift into the background and another character emerges from the background - like a figure coming to the surface on a developing print - and "takes over" the story. This shifting of perspective - as she herself described it like roaming around from room to room in a big house - earns our deep and focused attention, as we try to follow the plot - and it would never work if the plot were not compelling and intelligent and emotionally fraught, as her stories always are. An adjacent piece in this collection, Miles, Montana, is not nearly so challenging - the characters are more distinct in age and generation and easier to "track" - but it does exhibit some of Munro's sly technique: begins by describing a young girl's witnessing the recovery of drowned boy's body and then jumps forward to a time when the girl is a mom w/ two children, embarking on a x-country drive - it takes some time before we understand the significance of the first section of the story, the drowned boy, but she does pull the story together in a neat, maybe too neat, fashion - but  those who expect straightforward story line will be bewildered by her techniques - a conventional way to tell the story would be to make it all be about the x-country trip and to have the drowning incident appear as a memory or flashback. Her sequencing is bold and surprising and makes her stories far more vivid and impressive.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Go ask Alice - two atypical Munro stories

Two more adjacent stories - each quite long - in Alice Munro's 1996 Selected Stories, each from the mid 1980s as she was just emerging as a New Yorker staple and by that means as a world-known author - The Progress of Love and Lichen - and in these you can see Munro, with the freedom the New Yorker apparently afforded her, pushing the limits (the publishing limits) of the story form, writing longer and more complex narratives that verge on the novella or even the novel (not in length but in incident and effect). Yet these two stories are in some ways atypical of Munro's work. For one thing, neither feels particularly "Canadian," or in fact tied to any one geographic place; almost all of Munro's best fiction does feel as if it has grown out of her postage stamp of native soil - these two stories could, with the necessary changes, take place anywhere. Progress is, for Munro, particularly melodramatic, centering on an incident in which a mother fakes a suicide almost, apparently, deliberately to shake up a wayward child; Lichen is the opposite, in a way - very nondramatic, at first, a dating couple go on a visit to the guy's ex, with surprisingly few of the expected tensions of jealousy or regret, and then the guy does something really odd - in a casual conversation with a neighbor he shows a pornographic snapshot of a young woman he's seeing on the side - someone much younger, in fact, and from a different world, a cocktail waitress I think he said - clearly a relationship bound for serious trouble, and a stark contrast to the genteel partnership he has with current lover and way different from his ex-wife, an earth mother, independent, almost willfully unattractive woman. Part of the story involves a visit to her now-blind father in a nursing home - just so hard to reconcile the man's conciliatory behavior toward his ex and her family with his bizarre obsession - the right word, much like the Blue Angel, say - with the woman whose picture he actually flaunts. Lichen is darker, sexier, and more uneven than most other Munro stories - it's not a path she pursued, but it's interesting to see her in these two pieces figuring out some possibilities.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A novel without relationships?

There's no doubt that there are many positive qualities in Alice McDermott's Someone - in particular her evocation of the dynamics of an Irish-Catholic family and of the gradual emigration from Brooklyn, as the neighborhood deteriorates, into the bland but safe and clean LI suburbs, and she can be very sharp at depicting character and emotion - the emotional highlight of the novel clearly being the episode in which the alcoholic and abusive Walter leads on and then cruelly dumps the overly trusting narrator, Marie - it is this experience of betrayal and humiliation that will shape much of her life, though she does overcome this trauma and raises a healthy and loving family - all that said, this is a novel that never really comes together - it's full of ingredients but they don't cohere, much like the Irish soda bread that Marie fails at baking. McDermott takes on a very broad swath of time for this relatively short narrative - the entire life of Marie, in fact - and it's not clear what she gains by jumping around in time rather than going w/ straight chronology. More important, the broad stretch of time distends the focus of the novel - odd, in that the motif of much of the story is Marie's troubled vision, from childhood near-sightedness to adult ocular disease - McDermott is great at depicting the world from the viewpoint of someone losing sight. Biggest problem, though, is that there are really no relationships in this novel - we see only a little of Marie's loving relationship with her father, we know very little about her married life or her relationship to her children - but the novel's not about these potential but undeveloped relationships - it's essentially, I think, meant to be about Marie and her brother, Gabe - the evolving relationship between them, as he's the brilliant older brother, enters the seminary, leaves for reasons never fully explained, consoles her beautifully after breakup with Walter, and then we learn of his troubled adult life and his own breakdown - but as w/ far too much in this novel these events are narrated by characters rather than depicted by McDermott (challenge of first-person narration, but there are potential solutions) - and finally we know nothing about how their relationship evolves after they take Gabe into their fam following his crack-up. So much left unsaid and unexamined in this novel - and it's not as if these are subtle brushstrokes - it's a novel that has many fully colored scenes, so it's puzzling how McDermott could leave so much out. It's also a novel of almost unrelenting sorrow and illness - so Marie's triumph over all of this, her successful family life, feels like a weird aberration - the one candle in a world of darkness.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Weddings and Funerals - Someone

Part 2 of Alice McDermott's novel Someone includes this: the first section leaps forward in time, not to the present but probably to about the 1960s (we don't know for precisely what vantage the narrator, Marie, is telling her story), when Marie is a mother of four happily married to a solid and devoted guy, and she wakes up one morning with serious eye problems - when we first meet her as a 7-year-old child she had eye problems as well, and husband takes her to doc and to hospital where she has eye surgery (retina detachment, it would seem) and is blind for two weeks - so much of this book is about darkness, literal and figurative. We can tell it's the 60s or so in part because of the time markers from Marie's childhood and also the idea that she'd be in the hospital for two weeks of recuperation - today? - two hours maybe? Still, the difficulty of figuring the precise time of the sections of this narrative, which freely jumps about in time for no particular reason, is puzzling - McDermott guides us primarily by historical details rather than descriptive details - the scenes of Marie's Brooklyn childhood could be almost any time within the pas 100 years, except that her father stops into a speakeasy for a drink - OK, that sets the time as Prohibition Era, but it's odd because all of McDermott's scenes, including the Long Island suburban scenes from most of her other fiction, feels quaint and old-fashioned and socially insular. The other part of section 2 of Someone shows us Marie's first job after high school, working in Fagin's funeral parlor - which actually brings her out of her shyness and her shell - as she begins dating a lot of guys (soldiers home on leave or about to go off to war - her brother, Gabe, soon to serve overseas as well) - and even to recover from her cruel mistreatment at the handds of Walter Hartnett - but still, this novel is so imbued with darkness and death that even the light and uplifting scenes take place at a funeral parlor. I am waiting for the plot to focus and cohere - and I think McDermott is best at depicting the scenes of her own childhood and adulthood - it's more of a stretch for her to go back to what may be her parents' childhood world (cf. Toiban's novel on similar grounds, Brooklyn)  but that said there are some fine scenes in this novel and it is holding my interest.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The darkest of all Irish writers?

Finished part 1 of Alice McDermott's troubling novel Someone, troubling because she depicts such a world of suffering and sorrow - in this relatively short section (80 pages or so), the narrator Marie, who is now we see from several flash forwards a mother and perhaps a happy and successful person, reflecting back - for some reason - on her childhood and her youth - tells of nothing but mistery - and not the abject misery of poverty and deprivation and abuse that is the staple of so much fiction and, even more so memoir, but the sorrows of ordinary life; McDermott's territory is the Irish-Catholic (though changing) neighborhoods of Brooklyn in the early to mid 20th century. In the span of these pages tells of the death of her mother (and of the difficulties of caring for her aging mother in the small, run-down roach-infested apartment that her mother won't leave, even though the neighborhood is now dangerous and the house infested), the sudden death of her father that left the young Marie in misery (the death barely explained - seen only from the view of a very young child; we suspect that alcohol may have been a huge factor), two courtship marriages each horrible - one that the young girl and her friends see from their vantage, an unattractive young woman in the neighborhood marries and it lasts only a day - the rumor is that the groom was a woman in disguise playing a terrible, mean trick - that's probably not the case, but it gives us a sense of the darkness and suspicion, especially around sex, that infests this community. The most significant courtship is Marie's relationship with Walter, a neighborhood guy who is horribly cruel and abusive to her - almost beyond comprehension, really. The story of Walter was excerpted in the New Yorker, and was pretty powerful as a standalone - within this novel it still kicks you right to the solar plexus, but also makes you wonder - who really behaves like this (among other things, asking a girl out for dinner in order to tell her hes marrying someone else mainly because she's prettier and richer - and he's doing the right thing for his someday-to-be children - "don't you agree?"). McDermott has a dark view of the world - darker than Joyce or Beckett or Trevor or O'Brien or any of the great Irish storytellers of the past 100 years - although maybe there will be some uplift as we move toward the present; as Marie's brother - himself suffering as someone who left the seminary because it "wasn't for him" (why not? - another repressed sexual message here? - McDermott hints but doesn't say, yet) - says to her, "someone" will love her - giving the novel it's title. Who will that be? We, the readers? God?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Switching Alices

Switching Alices, and setting aside Alice Munro's Collected Stories to read Alice McDermott's novel Someone - this month's book-group selection. Just about 40 pages in but this is clearly the turf that McDermott has staked out as her own: Irish-Catholic families in the NYC boroughs, working-class, intelligent, often set - as this appears to be - in the 1930s (although her first great novel, That Night, set in an LI suburb - among the children of the characters in the novels she was yet to write, in a sense) - Someone centered on a woman seemingly looking back on her childhood - we're not sure yet from what vantage point - and recalling a few incidents or moments largely unremarkable in themselves - sitting on the front steps waiting for her father to come home from work (she's 7), another scene about 10 years later involving her brother showing off his knowledge at the dinner table - parents greatly encouraging him in his studies, mother extremely strict and rigid, father distant but beloved by daughter. Clearly, we're in an American version of Joyce, in fact a female-centered version of Joyce - the father taking the daughter out for "some air" and slipping off into a speakeasy for a quick drink; the daughter with weak eyes, in fact seeming to be near blindness at time; the son seemingly bound for the seminary or maybe an academic world - will these children feel from the orbit of the family and the neighborhood, as Stephen Dedalus does, or are the ties tighter for women, or for Americans? I hope that the novel as it move forward will develop these themes and will have more dramatic incidents rather than the somewhat flat depiction of daily life in this neighborhood; on the positive side, from first 40 pages, McDermott includes some terrific perceptual descriptions, in particular of how a young and nearly blind child perceives interior light.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Find Eugenides

I've been up and down on Jeffrey Eugenides, mostly up - really liked The Virgin Suicides when I read it many years ago and knew right away he was emerging as a major talent - and Middlesex more than made good on that promise, complex and funny and baffling – especially was moved by his account of living in the Detroit suburbs in the midst of the race riots of the ‘60s and also the account of his grandfather’s (?) escape from Greece during wartime. The two books were very different as well – one poetic and focused (used an unusual and successful 1st-person plural narration)  and the other epic and naturalistic. A long wait for his next novel, and I was very disappointed by the drab Marriage Plot, which seemed devoid of a sense of time and place – a particular loss as I was hoping to read about Providence in the 1980s but this could have taken place anywhere. Glad to see a story from Eugenides in the current New Yorker, and to see that he’s working on a story collection. Find the Bad Guy is a very good piece and again shows the range of Eugenides’ abilities – the opening, a guy on his lawn spying on his kids and wife – who seems a bit abnormal, and we soon learn he’s got a restraining order against him – and then he in bits and pieces tells about his marriage, his infidelities and stupidity, and about all he’s missed and all he’s lost – a lot of find material in a well-paced narration. This is a not a typical Eugenides intellectual narrator (and it’s set in Texas, a new locale for him, too) – this is one of those first-person loser narrators, and I almost felt at times I was reading a piece by Saunders or TC Boyle – he’s that kind of clueless, limited character. Will be interesting to see, in the eventual Eugenides story collection, whether he has the same range in short fiction that he’s shown in his novels.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two atypical Alice Munro stories

Two stories from The Moons of Jupiter collection are a bit atypical of Alice Munro - the title story does have a protagonist that's very familiar by now to all readers of her stories, an independent and artistic woman in a bad marriage or between bad relations, trying to find herself, oscillating between the Canadian poles of Toronto and Vancouver; in this story, the protagonist is moored temporarily in Toronto, in a friend's house, helping her father navigate through a serious heart condition that will lead to surgery - as an aside, it's interesting to see how entirely different hospital treatment was in about 1980 - as the father is in the hospital for many days or even weeks while they try to determine if he needs or should elect surgery - in any case, as the protag tends for her father she thinks about her daughters, each off toward a very independent life - one bound for Mexico with a boyfriend the mom is uncertain about, the other living on the artistic fringes of Toronto (I think) and rarely in touch - so the symbolism here, a bit off for Munro, is painfully obvious, these small planetary bodies circling but never touching, and the planet itself circling a life-giving sun, and so on - the universe moves along on its way and we are each isolate. The adjacent story in Munro's 1996 Selected Stories is Labor Day Dinner, and it involves a family of four visiting an old friend for a holiday weekend at her country farm - the relationships are many and complex, in fact almost impossible to follow at first, and that may be Munro's point - this story more than any other I've read by her seems to be her homage to Woolf (it recalls for me the complex relationships and the country weekend in To the Lighthouse) but given a very contemporary American personality - in fact, the characters seem like Ann Beattie characters transported north of the border - with their long, entwined history of failed relationships and abundant friendships.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Memoir and Munro

Another way to sort Alice Munro's stories is by narrative point of view, that is, third-person v firstperson. Though her stories all seem somewhat personal, or close to the arc of her life - rarely moving off the template of contemporary stories set in either rural Ontario, Toronto, or Vancouver, often about women struggling through a bad marriage and seeking independence and artistic recognition (I know there are plenty of counter-examples, but this is the large frame that holds most of her stories), there's a real difference in mood between the two narrative styles. It's obvious when we're reading the third-person stories that these are "created," stories, obviously built on Munro's experiences, knowledge, and imagination, but not recounted real events; her first-person stories come about as close as possible, in mood, to memoir - without quite crossing the line. She plays with this distinction in the first few stories in The Moons of Jupiter (I'm reading them in her 1996 Selected Stories) - the two linked pieces about her groups of aunts, a recollection of working in a turkey-gutting business - these feel very much like personal experiences recounted in prose, even if she does change the names of some characters. The story that appears between them in this collection, Dulse, describes a Munro-like woman, a poet who breaks away from a bad relationship and thinks about finding a little privacy and independence in the Maritimes. But she's not Munro - she's a "character." At the end of the paired stories - at the end of the one seemingly about her eccentric aunts on her father's side - Munro recollects visiting the aunts' farm many years later, now the fields are overgrown and  the house remodeled, to search for the grave of a hermit who'd died on the property. She doesn't find it - but does something sharp and surprising and yet so typical of her - ends the story by saying in another time she would have invented a life for the hermit, imagined him in some frustrated relations w/ one of the aunts, etc. - but she's not doing that. This ending about the fiction that could have been but wasn't, oddly makes us think of this story as more true - but in a sly way - maybe Munro is just playing with us and includes this coda to make us more readily believe this story's veracity? This is all now seen in a different light, in the Munro concluded her most recent and perhaps final collection Dear Life with a group of memoir-like stories that she says are the closest thing to memoir she will ever write. So does that change how we think of these earlier first-person seemingly memoir-like stories? It has to.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Childhood and literary fiction - Munro's stories

Reade the first section of Alice Munro's story Chaddeleys and Finleys (??), each section apparently about a group of her relatives, the first section, on the Ch's (her mother and her four aunts/mother's sisters) called Connection - I think this is the first story in The Moons of Jupiter, and I read it in the 1996 Selected Stories, which is giving me a great retrospective view of Munro's career. This story is essentially in two parts - the first involving the visit of the four sister's to the narrator's (obviously, Munro's) western Ontario home during the summer - the young narrator fascinated by the flamboyant and enthusiastic sisterly affection among the five, recollecting in great detail the dinners, conversations, and rural entertainments (a berry-picking excursion, e.g.) - then a brief retrospective on the four sisters and why this was the only extended group visit - one died shortly afterwards - and then the story moves into its second phase, the narrator now a grown woman married to a wealthy attorney and living on a mountainside in Vancouver, the marriage strained to near the breaking point - and one of the aunts stops by for a visit as part of a trip to Alaska with other widows and never-weds, mostly women. The dinner visit is awkward in the extreme, and the husband makes no attempt to be genial, generous (won't even give the aunt a ride back to her hotel), or gracious, and follows the dinner with nasty critique of the aunt's accent, ignorance, boorishness and so forth - until narrator throws a dish or glass at him, barely missing - and this explosive action, a defense of her family and in a sense herself, not wanting to feel shame about her family origin, not participating in her husband's pile-on of insults, is obviously a pivotal moment in the marriage. It strikes me in reading this story how incredibly important childhood memories are to our greatest writers - the exquisite details with which Munro, Updike, Roth, as three examples of literary fiction in the naturalistic mode, recall and depict their childhood, including family dynamics, social strata, and sense of place, is no doubt the hallmark of each of the three and many others - which shows of course that childhood is always with us, the child is father to the man (or mother to the woman, so to speak), and our great writers help us understand, comprehend that, each in his or her own way and style.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Current New Yorker story - remind you of a story by Alice Munro?

Story in this week's New Yorker by Ch Okparanta, apparently a young writer making her first NYer appearance with her Nigeria-set story, Benji - and it's a pretty good story, has a lot of the qualities I look for and appreciate in short fiction - an actual plot centering on a single event, a small set of sharply delineated characters, a vivid sense of scene and location, and news from another consciousness or culture. This story set in Lagos, focuses on a wealthy 42-year-old man who's unmarried, to the worry of his mother; a church friend visits the mother, and over time begins a long a complicated relation with the young man, the eponymous Benji - and Benji, with a weak self-image because of his almost dwarf-like physique and his pale skin and because of his guilt about his own (inherited) wealth, begins helping the woman w/ medical expenses for her husband - and pays her a lot of $ over a long period of time - and with results that honestly any reader of this story will see far, far before Benji does - a kind of novice's mistake here, in that Okparanta seems to think she can pull the end off as a surprise, in other words, that her readers are no smarter than her characters. The Nigerian setting certainly helps keep us interested in the story - without the setting, had this taken place in the U.S. with a guy named Ben or Dave, would the story be possible? successful? published? in the New Yorker? No, probably not - it would see all too famliar - because - alas! - didn't Alice Munro publish a very similar story in the New Yorker less than 10 years ago - albeit w/ a gender shift, in which a woman is duped into paying money to her lover in order to fend off a blackmail attempt, or so it at first seems. Anyway, there is certainly promise in this story, and I would guess we will see more from Okparanta in the NYer and elsewhere.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The 4th Rose story is not one of Munro's best

Unfortunately Alice Munro's story Simon's Luck is the weakest of the series of "Rose" stories in her 1996 Selected Stories - of course the bar is extremely high for Alice the Great, and this story has some excellent moments, but a few things for me separate it from the preceding 4 in the series: somehow, the Rose character as we see her now, a theater professor in a university town in Ontario, something of a national celebrity because of an interview show she used to run but never recovered from her divorce and not as well off as others suspect, still very acerbic about the academic life and surprisingly insecure - does not seem an inevitable or even a likely "next stage" from the Rose as we've seen her grow and change. Second, although Munro is famous for the shifting perspectives of her stories and for the great material she leaves to the side as a mere hint or dash of color, this story does seem particularly out of focus: Rose meets a fellow prof (Simon) at a faculty party, they have a romantic-sexual weekend, and then he disappears from her life - and she heads off west leaving past and obligations behind. To me, this does not seem realistic or likely or even in character - and if it is to be so, how do we explain Simon's shifting affections? He's a user? He's just not that into her? Or the pancreatic cancer that will take his life has affected his behavior? No, he would have spoken to her about this. The long car ride west away from the sunset is nicely drawn, but a kind of typical grad-student story trope, when you get right down to it. In fact, strongest element of the story is the grad student who lashes out at Rose in a tirade during the party, and then gets hustled off-stage. Too bad - it would be good to know more about him and what sparked his fury. (And maybe in another story we will?) Munro's changing the title of the story in its various publications (from Emily, a character either dropped or stripped of her name, to the present title - titles have never been Munro's forte) seems to indicate her own uncertainty about focus - a fine story, but not one of her very best.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Another great Munro story - The Beggar Maid

Posted yesterday on Alice Munro's story Royal Beatings and as I read further in her 1996 Selected Stories I see that Royal Beatings was the first (I guess) in a series of stories about Rose - in R B she is growing up in a small town, Hanratty, Ontario, very much abused by her stepmother and her feckless father, intelligent and somewhat ashamed of the crudity of her family and her town. The next two stories int he collection follow Rose along in stages of her life, though the stories are very different - one, White Swans, is pretty short, for Munro, and concerns only one day, one incident - Rose, a high-school student it seems, has won an academic prize that involves a train trip to Toronto - story begins with dire warnings about the white slavers and others she might meet - general fear of the city and of crowds - we learn that in Ontario she wants to buy various beauty enhancements that she's ashamed to buy in Hanratty because her stepmother would learn of it from the store clerk - so there's a lot of sexual tension at the outset - on the train an older man fondles her, and most of story is about her fear - of him, and of the sexual feelings he is arousing in her - and then as is so typical of Munro the story leaps forward in time as she always remembers this awful man but never saw him again. The next story, much longer, The Beggar Maid, is one of Munro's great early stories (1978 - I think it may have been the first Munro story I read, maybe true for other US readers, too): this one follows Rose over the long arc of her life, beginning as she enters college and a grad student falls in love with her and pursues her avidly - she goes along with the courtship, but it's clear that the ardor is all his. He is very wealthy, so everyone thinks she's made a good catch - though she is seemingly indifferent to his wealth. His family, we learn, is loathsome - but when they marry they are pulled deeper into the orbit of his family, which of course blows apart the marriage. Again, the ending flashes far forward in life and involves a chilling scene of a silent encounter in a public space - a trope Munro returns to in some of her most recent stories as well. This great story is also imbued with sexuality, with social class, with coming of age, with marriage and death - so much here, again, one of those stories that could have been a novel, Munro's throwaways are more significant than the chapters of so many other writers, but it's most impressive and near-perfect in its current form as short fiction.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The two pillars of Munro's work - represented in 2 stories

Two side by side stories in Alice Munro's 1996 Selected Stories can serve as the twin pillars of Munro's work, or actually of her lifelong subject matter. The first (both are from the mid 1970s), Material, is about a woman in her somewhat bland but content 2nd marriage to an engineer, v. devoted to her, who reflects back on her first marriage - her first husband was an irresponsible artist/poet, they were poor grad students of the like, living in a rented flat somewhere in Vancouver, and they got much pleasure from speculating on the life of the woman in the basement apartment who appears to have been a prostitute - this "material" later becomes the subject matter of her ex's most recent fiction - he's now gone on to be a well-known writer, who chooses, as she so acidly notes, to romanticize his past, as judging by the lies and exaggerations on his author's blurb. This story very typical of a certain kind of Munro work: the highly intelligent but overshadowed wife, submitting herself to the whims and power of her husband - either an artist or a dull plain vanilla type - and knowing or at least believing that she is a creative soul and that she needs to break free - these stories often set in the literary or academic circles of Vancouver or, more rarely, Toronto. Munro's skewering of literary-academic pretensions in this story - the old, egotistical writers with the cloud of admiring women surrounding them - is particularly delicious. The other story shows the other side of Munro's life, and of Munro's material: Royal Beatings is about a young girl growing up in poverty in a remote Ontario town, in this case sometime in the 1930s it seems - this story involves some severe abuse (alluded to in the title) by the stepmother and the feckless father - more painful and declasse that most Munro stories, but it does - like so many - capture the sadness and the intimacy and the narrow horizons of Canadian rural life - and like so many Munro stories this one is told mostly from a long vantage by a mature narrator and ends with a quick flash forward to the present - characters crossing paths strangely and unexpectedly, often in a city (usually, as in this case, in Toronto).

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Munro's surprising ending in The Ottowa Valley

Alice Munro's story The Ottawa Valley in Selected Stories and published in the mid 1970s I think is another early look at the style that Munro would further develop and perfect over the next 40 years or so - on the surface it's another one of her stories written from a mature perspective looking back on the childhood of a young (10 years old?) girl who's perceptive and mildly rebellious (this is rural Canada, after all) - in this particular story it's about the narrator's memory of a childhood visit with mother and younger sister to cousins and family in remote Ontario (it's not a valley, there are no mountains, the perceptive narrator notes - what's the meaning of that? why do they call it a valley - it is a valley in some symbolic sense, whatever that might be). The story seems to be about meeting the various eccentric relatives - but that's just the surface. What it's really about are tensions beneath the surface, and Munro's way of gradually elucidating these tensions, slowly bringing them to the fore. The story is a series of scenes - nothing unusual there - but in Munro's fashion each scene changes the balance of the story - not just a steady accrual but a shifting and developing of point of view. For ex., the first pages describe the young girl's memory of the Toronto train station - they've evidently come into the city from a remote suburb, although this is never stated directly - and they were supposed to meet an aunt who works at "the best law firm in the city" - but the aunt never shows. The absence of the aunt becomes a trope in the story; when they get to the cousins near Ottawa there are some snide remarks about why the aunt didn't turn up - and the young narrator receives them, processes, recalls, but cannot exactly make sense of these remarks. And that's the nature of the whole story - there are social tensions glancingly revealed but just beyond the reach of comprehension of the child. Of course, the narrator, looking back, does understand - but she, the mature narrator, is trying to get at some aspect of the girl's relation with the distant, judgmental, misanthropic mother. Munro does something very daring and surprising at the end: she has a final short section in which she notes something like: I probably should have ended the story at the point where the mother was walking away from "me" (yes, we think - she could have - that would have been a very traditional, epiphonic ending) but she says she wanted to take the story one step farther - very unusual, an author stepping off from the story and commenting on her craft and her writerly decisions - but this is not just a post-modern trope - it's an author struggling with material, and also embellishing the character of the narrator by showing her still smoldering doubts and uncertainties. So typical of Munro - the everyday become strange and infused with meaning and potential.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Alice Munro's first knockout story

The first knockout story in Alice Munro's Selected Stories (1996), and therefore most likely the first knockout story she wrote, is Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You - if you read that story from the mid-70s and you'd know that suddenly we're dealing with a major talent. 10 stories like that would make anyone's career for sure - and Munro of course went on to write several dozen  more, but this was the first: moving and shifting about through the course of the narration, she tells of the lives of two sisters, Et and Char, Char the beautiful one and Et more of a plodder and an outsider. The story, unlike many of Munro's, is essentially about 4 characters (the two sisters plus Char's husband, a school teacher much older than she, and her high-school crush, also older, scion of the hotel-owning family in the - can you guess it? - small Canadian town), but like other Munro stories it jumps around quite a bit in time so that we don't see the whole picture until the end - like pieces in a jigsaw, or like a photo gradually coming into focus. What's truly great about this story is that Munro conveys the contours of an entire life in really just 15 pages or so - you might look at this, or at many of her subsequent great stories, and think: this could be a novel. Yes, maybe it could - but it shouldn't - as she has contained a novel's worth of materials in the span of a story - greatly enhancing the capacity of this often-neglected genre. She expanded our comprehension of what the story can do - very much in contrast to the style of the time, the minimalism of Carver et al on the one hand and the postmodernism of Barthelme at all on the other - she was much more old-fashioned, but in a way more daring. To write this, and other stories, that spans an entire lifetime - and the great success can be measured by the number of astonishing details that she includes but just leaves on the margin, for mood and effect: for ex., in this story, the death of their brother by drowning, when they were about 10 years old - she does not dwell on this, but we know it has an effect on their lives, esp the elder and the responsible sister (Char), and the mother whom we see as just a dark and mournful character - she never recovered - and the way one character casually mentions that a boy once drowned her  and Char retorts: that boy was my brother - or the very brief description of him with some green grass or weeds by his mouth. Other writers would have taken pages, chapters, to convey all this - but Munro does so with just a few brushstrokes - to try again to convey her style: perhaps like a Cezanne sketch of the Provencal mountains, just a few brushstrokes to create an entire, complex landscape -for which others would have used thousands of dabs of oils.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A story that captures Munro's early (and late) style

Read the first three stories in Alice Munro's Selected Stories from circa 1996, so not really covering some of the greatest of her collections - but still - I was interested to see some of her first stories that she considered worth collecting in an anthology - like so many others in the U.S. I really didn't start reading her stories until the 1980s when they began appearing in the New Yorker and when I, as a books ed at the time, began being aware of some of the great short fiction (though at the time did not group her among Carver and the other highest luminaries). Anyway, first story in the collection, Walker Brothers Cowboy, is a great intro to her early work, or actually to any of her work, as in a very short space it touches on all of the or most of the Munro themes and techniques (not brought yet to full maturity and subtlety, however): the roaming structure or architecture of the story, first of all, in that it seems at first to be a story about a young girl walking through town with her father, then the focus shifts and it seems to be more about the relationship with the mother, then, when the father takes the two kids on one day of his rounds as a traveling salesman for Walker Brothers potions, the story seems to be about the dad as perceived by the 10-year-old daughter - and we have the feeling as in so many Munro stories of an ever-shifting perspective, the narrator like a flashlight beam in a darkened house illuminating things one at a time - or perhaps it's somewhat dreamlike, but much sharper and more insightful than a dream - will post more on this as I try to figure it out. Also, the Munro themes: family in remote Ontario down on luck after failed enterprise scheme (a fox farm - she has written much about this), the mother straining for a higher social status, the father having a better relation with the children, to the mother's jealous chagrin, the perceptive and mildly rebellious older daughter, the capturing of the small Canadian town life - a beautiful description here of the industrial shipping coast of Lake Huron, the move from country to town (interesting, it just occurs to me how similar that part of her life is to Updike's). The next two stories in collection are somewhat less typical: Dance in the Garden of Shades (?) pretty straight-ahead narrative for Munro but the story touches the notes she often plays of forced politeness to an elderly person who's a bit of an outsider - while the mother yearns for freedom or greater social status or both. Postcard is a good story of a woman betrayed by a flirtatious but insincere guy - but seems to be Murno's channeling of Welty or possibly O'Connor, capturing the wise guy voice of a put-upon, working-class woman, not typical of Munro in tone but well crafted.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Doll's House demolished - and a totally unlikable narrator in The Woman Upstairs

OK so I was wrong about the ending of Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs and ought to stop trying to write other people's novels but I still think my anticipated ending might have been better than the sad and venomous ending that Messud actually wrote. so instead of learning, as I'd suspected that the narrator - Nora (and not till last night did I make a connection with A Doll's House) - is has fantasized her entire relationship with the exotic threesome family - we realize that, yes, the relationship is real, but means something very different to Nora than it does to Sirena and her husband whose name I don't even remember. We learn that they have essentially been using Nora the whole time - the husband flirting and flattering and eventually having some kind of sex with her (she stresses for some reason that that did not "go to bed" with each other); Sirena praising her artwork and seeking her advice, when it's obvious that Nora is an amateur artist and Sirena is courting greatness (though Messud's description of her installations make her sound absurd, at least to me - but the art world often is absurd and driven by personality and connections) - all to get Nora as a cheap babysitter for Reza, their kid and her student (a real boundary violation that she hardly recognizes). After the threesome left Cambridge they make only the most cursory efforts to stay in touch, and we learn at the very end why: S., without permission, uses a surreptitious video of Nora masturbating as part of her famous installation art; Nora discovers this by chance and is furious, obviously, and vows revenge - the revenge, we understand, is this novel we are reading - though who comes off worst in the novel? I would say Nora herself - completely self-deluded, completely narcissistic and bitter and unpleasant, seemingly uninterested in her work or in any family or friendship, other than latching on to this somewhat glamorous family because they flatter her all the time - and bitter than she is not, like S., a famous artist - when she no doubt does not and never did have the drive or talent. So what? Continue with your f-ing art and get some joy out of that - the world doesn't owe you a living, or recognition. There will be much to talk about when book group takes this one one - though I in no way think this novel is a portrait of an artist. I also think Messud did not rise up to the level of her previous work here - I know this is a narrator-driven novel, but that's pretty tough with such an unlikable and circumscribed narrator. Novelists have to show, not tell - and she misses numerous opportunities for significant scenes and actions: most of all, wouldn't we want to see Nora come back to Sirena and tell her to go to hell? Shouldn't something more significant and dramatic have happened when the schoolchildren visit the installation in the studio - with all the possibilities for injury, for moral outrage (the pornographic photos of an 11-year-old are just lying around here - waiting for a parent to see them! the hanging shards of glass! - and you're bringing in 8-year-old kids to play??), and so forth. As noted - I've got to stop writing the novels of others.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The unreliable narrator in The Woman Upstairs?

Just read a a bit further in Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs and now, let's see, narrator, Nora, goes to the Somerville studio she (supposedly) shares with Sharina (?), a concept artist, to find a party/photo shoot in full swing as S. prepares for a big exhibition in Paris - S. seemingly manic herself consults with Nora about various aspects of her installation project - an interactive "wonderland" based on the novel - eventually Nora goes to sleep wakes up and the entire mess has been cleaned up. Hm - would one maybe think that there was never a party at all, just a long fantasy in which a world-famous artist flatters this would-be artist and ambitious amateur by seeking her advice and help and praising her pedestrian if skillful work to the skies? I hold to my theory - this is a classic "unreliable narrator" and she will end up narrating this story from a hospital ward or at advice of therapist (a la Portnoy, Zeno, et al.)

Friday, November 1, 2013

New Westerners - McGuane's short story

Most of Tom McGuane's recent New Yorker stories have focused on the Montana newly prosperous (if not quite rich) - people like the realtors in and around Missoula (I assume that's the small city he's writing about) who are making some money thanks to the influx of Hollywood and other California millions. It's an aspiring professional class, still a bit rough around the edges, that, until McGuane (and maybe his friend Richard Ford) most readers did not associate w/ Montana - in other words, he's breaking from the Western cowboy ranch-hand miner stereotype, much more than, say Annie Proulx ever did or cared to (she took the stereotype and pushed it in new and surprising directions - and then moved on). Story in current New Yorker, Weight Watchers, is a bit different, as the narrator is a bit of a throwback, a well-educated guy who came to Montana in search of the frontier life and open space  (or so it seems) and has settled in and now does pretty well as a contractor with a small crew, mostly putting up new houses for wealthy Montanans (e.g., the local plastic surgeon), that is, the ones who serve the influx but not the influx themselves; in other words, he's sort of downward aspiring, in contrast to his father who came from poverty and built up a successful business, but never matured as a father or husband. Story begins with the father exiled to Montana by the wife who's had enough of him; father cats around, checking out strip clubs and in his jovial businessman way befriending neighbors. The son loves the dad, but is exasperated by him. In the end, the dad goes back home to his wife (in Chicago?), son goes on with his diminished life: on the one hand he's a good guy well respected in the community, helping a poor couple that can barely afford the construction costs; on the other, he notes that he cannot abide a relationship of more than one night, that he will never marry - so who is he and why is he so lonely and isolate? We know he had a difficult childhood - though not an abused one - so it's not clear exactly why he is the way he is - he's a laconic narrator and not too revealing. It's also a rare story in which the protagonist does not change at all (though maybe his father does, at least for the moment) - more of a sketch, a portrait, and a very good one, but not a story with a crisis, an arc, or a single dominant image or mood.