Monday, March 09, 2009

The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro

There is a widespread consensus in North America that Alice Munro is among the best living writers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s impassioned and silly defense of her work came after Munro's last collection had already been on the bestseller list, and long after most readers I know had felt compelled to read at least some of her work.

I have read maybe twenty of her stories – most from the big Selected volume and the Hateship collection – and have consistently felt something strange. It is not dissatisfaction, exactly. I have always been very impressed and then, with one exception, have never felt the need to read any of the stories again. "That was good," I would think, and know that I was done with it. It’s been years since I cracked open the Selected Stories. There must be more good things in there, but I’m never in the mood.

The exception I mentioned is a story called The Beggar Maid. As soon as I finished it, I knew that one of these days I would need to read it again. I found out it was part of a collection of linked stories and decided to make an effort to read Munro seriously through an entire collection.

The collection is called The Beggar Maid in America, with the subtitle Stories of Flo and Rose; the Canadian edition, which appeared first, has a better and less misleading title, Who Do You Think You Are? I say misleading because the whole book is really about Rose. Her step-mother, Flo, is a minor character who disappears for most of the middle of the book, and none of the stories, in any case, really focus on her.

The plot is an old one, and its broad outlines are revealed early, since Munro loves skipping ahead. Rose is an imaginative and intelligent child growing up in a poor town with her father and step-mother, Flo. She manages to go to high school and then college on a scholarship. In the process, she rids herself of all the things that might mark her as a bumpkin – her accent, her habits of dress. She learns how to tell the ugly stories of growing up poor in a way that will amuse her middle-class friends.

In college she marries unwisely with the son of a rich family. After a number of rocky years, marked by infidelity and depression and fights, they divorce. The woman slowly finds her way and achieves a measure of fame as an actress. Her step-mother, old and alone now, eventually has to be put in an old age home. The Beggar Maid, which disturbed and impressed me so much, is the story of Rose and her husband’s courtship, and an encounter they have many years after they divorce.

In some ways, I wish I had just re-read that story. Its blank spots and mysteries were more interesting when left unfilled. The rest of this book only gave me the same feeling I’ve had with so much of Munro's other work – how intelligent, how perceptive – and then, again, the sensation that these stories had nothing left to tell me.

Reading this collection helped me locate what I think is unsatisfying about Munro's work. Her writing feels almost entirely like a product of her conscious knowledge. It is too figured out, too completely fathomed – the writer spells out every implication and leaves nothing for the reader’s imagination. I am sure Munro follows random paths and has bursts of inspiration while writing, but before she is done she mercilessly tracks down every plot development, every stray bit of emotion, and pins it wriggling to the page with a fine phrase. And when I finish the stories most of them feel so dead.

Here is a representative quote. This is after Rose has already become famous:
It was part of her job to go on local television chatting about these productions, trying to drum up interest, telling amusing stories about things that had happened during the tour. There was nothing shameful about any of this, but sometimes Rose was deeply, unaccountably ashamed. She did not let her confusion show. When she was talking in public she was frank and charming; she had a puzzled, diffident way of leading into her anecdotes, as if she were just now remembering, had not told them a hundred times already.
This is good writing. Munro has noticed something and gotten it just right. And in passage after passage she gets such things right. But I realized something after admiring so many bits of observation: I was never surprised by them. I never had to struggle to figure out what she was getting at. I immediately knew what she meant, because these are things that everyone has felt and noticed, although few of us can express them quite so well. Who hasn't told the same story a few too many times and felt a little fake? It is near universal; and Munro consistently expends her powers on capturing such universal experiences and emotions. Her main characters rarely feel like individuals living independent existences; they are vessels for identification, and gain their aliveness from the extent to which they are like us.

So you think yes, that’s just what it’s like to be spanked by your parents, or to wait for a lover’s phone call – or “Ah, well put!” – but this sense of recognition is, for me, one of the secondary pleasures of literature. What I look for - vaguely, because it is a large and nebulous thing - is the sense of a writer struggling to get at something that's just beyond the capacity of words, trying to dramatize some internal conflict that won't quite be soothed into manageable shape. With Munro everything feels shaped and managed; I have little freedom to look at the story in a way other than the one she has laid out for me. There are plenty of unresolved spots, but even these seem determined.

For example, there is a carefully placed ambiguity at the end of Simon’s Luck, where Rose finds out, years later, that a lover she had thought abandoned her had been sick and died of pancreatic cancer. Had Simon meant to see her again? Was he already dying when he knew her? Here is how Munro handles the moment. Rose is acting in a soap opera, and compares the moment she learned about Simon's death to what the viewers of the soap expect in a plotline:
People watching trusted that they would be protected from predictable disasters, also from those shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to question, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions, and throw the windows open on inappropriate unforgettable scenery.

Simon’s dying struck Rose as that kind of disarrangement. It was preposterous, it was unfair, that such a chunk of information should have been left out, and that Rose even at this late date could have thought herself the only person who could seriously lack power.
This is a skillful ending and it unites a lot of the story’s concerns (the last phrase echoes an earlier line). But notice how Munro is not willing to simply leave the mystery in the air; she needs to sum it up, to point out that life is often like this. And yes, it is. We find out things later that seem to throw whole periods of our life out of focus. Again, I know just what I'm supposed to think about what has happened.

To clarify, I am not looking for pointless mystification. This story would not be better if Munro left out the concluding passage. It wouldn't make sense without it; what she has already written demands such a passage, and the story wouldn’t generate implications simply because its obvious and quite satisfying conclusion has been left out. In her later stories, in fact, such passages are often omitted, but the stories never open out because of it, because Munro is fundamentally a clinical writer. She uses scenes to diagnose people, and her characters rarely have much life outside of the implied diagnosis. There is no tale to trust outside of the teller.

One of the marks of this style of writing is that the big scenes in a story rarely happen between people. They happen when the main character is isolated in some way, realizing things. The confrontations, the unpredictable conversations, the general messiness of interaction between fully engaged people - these are consistently skipped over or quickly summarized. So there is never enough reality pushing up against the explanations. In this book, for example, we miss the details of Rose's divorce, her rise to fame, and most other things that might set her apart as an individual; what is left is the beautifully realized passages of common experience.

There is a passage from Milosz's The Captive Mind that I remembered while I was reading this book: "It is sometimes better to stammer from an excess of emotion than to speak in well-turned phrases. The inner voice that stops us when we might say too much is wise." This stammer is missing from Munro. She knows a great deal, and she knows it too well to be a really interesting writer for me, although she is certainly a good one.

The only place where I have heard this stammer from her – this reaching after some complicated and unmanageable truth – is in the title story from this collection. It is still the closest thing to a great story that I have read by her, and it contains all the hard scenes that I feel like she tends to skip. You can find it in her Selected Stories too, and I think everyone should read it. Her prose is much less smooth in The Beggar Maid; the narrative voice seems to keep correcting itself, wiping out its own assertions. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel and I don’t think the writer does either. It has the undertow of confusion that is one of the things that keeps a story alive. I wish Munro would allow herself to feel it a little more often.