Open Secrets, Indeed

Dear M.,

I haven’t read Open Secrets, but am puttering through The Lives of Girls and Women.  I picked it up specifically because it is The Munro’s only novel, and I want to see why she never returned to the form.

The NPR interview with Lorrie Moore sounds horrid, but worth the quote about Iraq.  That moment captures a great misunderstanding about feminism for me, and is delightfully helpful as a snapshot.

I very much agree with your observations about Munro’s use of angularity, silence, surface and depth.  I always come away from her work thinking that she has written about women in a way that is uncomfortable, and right.  Sometimes,  I feel like she is giving away my secrets.  There are stories of hers that I have recommended that Mr. Carla Fran read because of their very good fiction, but hesitantly because I felt exposed in doing so.  And then, the stranger disorientation that he noticed no flash of hard truth; to expand the exposed metaphor, to stand naked in the living room, and get compliments on the design of the coffee table instead.

What are the great secrets, exposures? That we don’t give all ourselves, that there is little romance and abandon even in moments where we act as though there is.  That we calculate, and are usually calculating choice, leverage and present circumstances in an underlying hum of fright or flight. That the pleasure in our lives is neither as grand or as simple as the majority of storytelling assumes.  That we often choose ungenerous action.

Which brings me to Moore.  The Munro and The Moore both paint women in three dimensions and allow them to be ugly and cruel.  Moore’s are ugly almost as quirk; their actions are supreme faux paus and consequential misconceptions.  Munro (whose women are usually handsome, or they live far out in the country and are lumpy and unkempt), illustrates the selfishness and the closings off–again, the ungenerousity.

Often the body does not appear in Munro, unless as a teenager finding her sexual power (there is a story about a girl untying her bathing suit and swimming, marveling at her breasts), or adult women dealing with gynecological issues (an unexpected period, cramps).  There are often older women, seen from a girl’s perspective, who have some kind of female trouble that becomes their idea of what sex and a woman’s future may be. Sexual histories matter, and most characters have had their life changed by some encounter, either violent or passionate.  I immediately thought of Munro when in The Golden Notebook a character gets her period and looks for a tampon in a rush as she is already late to work.  It seems so obvious that women in fiction would menstruate as part of their daily life, but it is a shock, and a claim of their physicality, to see it on the page.

Perhaps these women are writing full, unattractive tellings that ultimately give women the same space as male characters.   Perhaps Mr. CF reads them not as revelations, but as part of the spectrum of the human condition.  Maybe it’s male privilege, or a ready acceptance of rotten and sweet, but Mr. Carla Fran isn’t looking at the women when he reads Munro– — like Moore assumes of her readers (and interviewers), the larger context.

Which may be why Mr. Carla Fran does not shudder when he reads my highlighted Munro and ask me questions about our  mutual happiness.  Open secrets indeed.  In his reaction, or the male reaction to women’s announcements of self, great truths are either accepted as instantly as biological facts (of course you sweat, we all sweat), left unseen (I’m sorry, did you say something?), or one part of a larger thing (the big idea, the human condition, the breathtaking story, the living).




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