Friday, February 6, 2009

The Two Readers Project, IV

"Labor Day" by Alice Munro.


First off, I’m glad you chose Alice Munro; it’s given me a chance to reassess her work. As of course you know, Munro is a writer admired by all--or nearly all.  I’ve read most of the Selected Stories before, but for whatever reason they've never much excited me.  Maybe it’s the subject matter or maybe it’s the general emotional terroir from which they spring.  Maybe it’s a failure of imagination on my part.   

I won’t say rereading “Labor Day” has radically changed my view of Munro, but it has given me a new respect for her writing.  I admit it; she does a lot well.  Here are some passages or moments that I particularly admire....
  • The first sentence: “Just before six o’clock in the evening, George and Roberta and Angela and Eva get out of George’s pickup truck—he traded his car for a pickup when moved to the country—and walk across Valerie’s front yard, under the shade of two aloof and splendid elm trees that have been expensively preserved.”  I LOVE 'aloof.'  It's perfect.   It’s also an unusual word to use to describe a tree.  Its strangeness doesn’t manifest itself immediately because it’s buried so deep within the sentence. I think it ends up being a key word in the story—a thematizing word, as it were.
  • The present tense makes it seem like something reported, as opposed to told.  Probably the present tense always does something like this but it seemed especially noticeable here.  
  • “The four people are costumed in a way that would suggest they were going to different dinner parties.” Again: aloofness,  separation. “Costumed” is excellent; it gives the sense that while these people are taking part in something they haven’t completely surrendered to it. The whole dinner is a kind of performance. Roberta acts the part of a caring girlfriend, the daughters act the part of loving daughters, George acts the part of a dutiful husband. Underneath, they all fear; they all have reservations, doubts. But for tonight, the performances goes on.
  • More on costuming: Roberta…”herself has given up wearing long skirts and caftans because of what (George) has said about disliking the sight of women trailing around in such garments, which announce to him, he says, not only a woman’s intention of doing no serious work but her persistent wish to be admired and courted. This is a wish George has no patience with and has spent some energy, throughout his adult life, in thwarting.” I love the rhythm of that last sentence; the appositive “throughout his adult life” is masterful.
  • I was unpleasantly surprised by the transition, midway though, to George’s thoughts.  (“George is enjoying the scything.”) Munro has done so much to make us dislike him at that point, that going inside his mind felt like it be hugely unappealing.  But, of course, Munro is better than that.  Instead of giving us more cruelty and aloofness, she presents a view of the Roberta/George relationship.  Suddenly, he becomes sympathetic.  He feels underappreciated; she doesn’t help out around the house; she doesn’t work. She doesn’t seem happy and he takes her unhappiness personally. It’s a perfect interlude and it makes the story far more interesting.
  • George starts scything as soon as they reach the party. I wonder if this is intended to evoke Levin, from Anna K.  Munro wears a deep erudition very lightly; it’s not too big a stretch to imagine she did this deliberately.
  • Another intertextual clue: Roberta’s linked to The Tale of Genji. I wonder how much more I would understand about her character, if I’d read that book.
  • What do you make of the discussion between Valerie and Roberta that begins…”this is a bad time for you….”? (“I doubt if things happen so symmetrically."/“I don’t think so either, really. I don’t think you get your punishment in such a simple way. Isn’t it funny how you’re attracted—I am—to the idea of a pattern like that? I mean, the idea is attractive, of there being that balance. But not the experience. I’d like to avoid them. “you forget how happy you are when you’re happy.“And vice versa. It’s like childbirth.”   I don’t think I really understand it.   And yet I sense that it is somehow crucial.
And this takes me to my final question—a question with which I’m often visited, arriving at the end of a Munro story: What the hell just happened? I don’t mean that glibly (well, a little), but what was that story about? What does the final image portend? (“The shaggy branches of the pine trees are moving overhead, and under those branches the moonlight comes clear on the hesitant grass of their new lawn”)

Actually, transcribing that sentence about the moonlight (which reminds me, oddly, of Hemingway) has given me an idea. Consider the adjective Munro uses here to describe the grass—“hesitant.” What does that remind us of? I’ll tell you what it reminds me of; the trees, at the start. It must be deliberate. We’ve gone from trees which are “aloof” to grass which is “hesitant.” Is that the transformation that the story has described? Both are thematizing words, I think; both personalize the inanimate.

I know, reading Munro, that beneath the seemingly arbitrary happenings her stories describe exists a profound internal coherence. The coherence is never immediately apparent. (If it were, it wouldn’t be profound). But we intuit it, just as someone who has no experience with classical music can nevertheless intuit some abiding structure beneath the seemingly superficial melodic dalliances of a Mozart concerto. And that’s, I think, is the mark of a great craftsman—the ability to reconcile order and chaos. The first gives us hope. The second gives us truth.

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