Thursday, January 26, 2017
A story that illustrates Alice Munro's unique narrative style
In the early 1990s the world was just beginning to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of Alice (the Great) Munro in the short story; her story Friend of My Youth that ran in the NYer then and is collected in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is a great example of the layered narrative technique that Munro developed, her sharp and sensitive accounts of life in rural Ontario in the early 20th century, her weaving of personal narrative and narrative fiction. As best I can recollect and reconstruct, here are the layers of Munro's story: It begins w/ her statement that she has been having dreams about her mother, who died in her 50s and whom AM felt she rejected during her teenage years and never properly reconciled. Just as we're settling into that, Munro shifts the narrative into an account of her mother's youth: time in northern Ontario as a teacher, saving money and preparing for her marriage; the story now seems to be about the family w/ whom AM's mother was a boarder - two sisters and the husband of the younger. Then we shift again and learn the back story of the sisters, how the older was engaged to the man, who then got the younger sister pregnant and married her - though the 3 stayed under the same roof. Story shifts again when AM's mother leaves the town and learns through correspondence that the younger sister has died, and that the man marries the younger sister's nurse - a 2nd "jilting" of her friend, the older sister. She writes a letter of condolence, to which the older sister responds harshly - in effect, "mind your own business." Shift again: AM's mother tells AM that she could write a story or novel about this family, which would focus on her friend, the older sister, as a saintly sufferer. Of course we know that AM would treat the story differently - we're reading it! - and she says in fact that she would write about the brother - a dangerous and powerful man, the very type that interested her (of course this is not the story we're reading). Shift again, and older sister writes to AM's mother much later in life, saying she has moved out and lives in an apartment in the small town; this leads AM to speculate about the older sister's romantic life, and her sex life, if any. And w/ a final jump, AM tells us she has done research and learned more about the almost cultish religious sect the farm family was part of - ending this strange story with an anecdote about the founder of the sect and his intolerance and his suffering. What a long way from the beginning of this story - but it does all feel of a piece, illuminating the changes and transformations we all go through w/ friendships, love, and memories over the course of a life, examining what it is to be a friend, a friend from "youth," a casual acquaintance, a curious outsider.