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).

Yours,

CF

Open Secrets

Dear CF,

Did you catch Michael Krasny’s interview of Lorrie Moore on NPR? He’s a fool, and she suffered him. Having seen Moore eviscerate fans, I was unprepared for this warmer, more pliant Moore whom Krasny repeatedly and unctuously described as having a gorgeous voice. When she said her latest novel was about how we got to where we are, he said “Women?” She said, “No. Iraq.”

As we gear up to read Munro and Moore’s latest, I thought I’d post some old observations on Open Secrets, Alice Munro’s 1994 collection of stories.  (Warning: unless you’ve read it recently, none of the following will make sense.)

Munro creates all these women whose angularity and silence never ceases to amaze, and yet they are never quite as ugly as they might be. Not as ugly as Lorrie Moore lets hers be.  And it’s not nostalgia that protects them—I almost used that word, and it’s quite, quite wrong. It’s about surface and depth. The woman often stays shiny and hard and impenetrable, and there are really very few bodies. And yet Munro’s rendering of the female experience of male sexuality might be the best I’ve seen.

So much of the collection is about the (semi-desperate and impossible) miracle of right timing and how, even in meal-making, it can only exist when there’s something unspoken about it. She gets, too, at the assumption of shared assumptions. In Munro married life is always and at best (or worst) that, and never a true sharing.

The obvious mysteries in Open Secrets: who actually killed George Herron’s brother and Annie’s husband? What exactly was the “reality” of the relationship between Liza and Ladner—did she inflate those moments of contact and shame, or were they real? And why is it that the most effective moment of transgression in that story is when Ladner jumps into the pool and mimics Bea? Incredible how, like lightning, that cruelty and all-or-nothing risk of discovery stands out. Did it all really happen to Charlotte? A bigger mystery, perhaps: why would she go see Charlotte in the hospital three days running? The closeness of the friendship is never explained.

What she says about girls wanting to carry the joke just a step further, disappearing for a little longer: so true. I’m puzzled and not quite satisfied with the character of Mary Johnstone, though. Or Maureen.

Dorrie is extraordinary. So is the other—not Millicent. The other M who dresses in blue. Dresses alone have so much power in Munro’s work.

The familiar characters that appear over and over:

  1. the near-paralytic old man whose condition encapsulates some secret sexual power that gets some of its force from the bodily fluids and smells of senility. Both the old man with the young man who is his lover in the Jacaranda hotel and the lawyer who’d had a stroke fit this.
  2. The adulterous couple whose erotic relationship develops around the young ambitious slightly silly man’s staging of a play. The presence of a Mediterranean type woman—sometimes the protagonist and sometimes her competition.
  3. The woman who has been left by her husband.
  4. The woman who left her husband.
  5. The abandoned wife who remains close friends with her mother-in-law.
  6. The girl who “parks” with one bright winsome boy who respects her and
  7. her attraction to his less reputable friend/brother.

Next I will read “Home.” Your thoughts?

Fondly,

M

Gold Saint: The Munro

Dearest Millicent,

As we have our odd saints, I offer a new category, a kind of hall of admiration and esteem, tentatively labeled Gold Saints.  The first great beacon? Alice Munro.  You know why.  Why even start the long list of sighs and pangs the great woman bestows in us? Well, today she delighted me in a whole other way.  She removed herself from competition for Canada’s Giller Prize in order that other new voices might have a chance.  From a lovely article on the announcement at the Globe and Mail:

“Her reason is that she has won twice and would like to leave the field to younger writers,” Munro’s publisher, Douglas Gibson, confirmed this week. “In my role as greedy publisher I pointed out that the Giller Prize produces so much publicity, that even to be nominated for it is tremendous publicity,” he said. “But her mind is made up on this. Alice preferred to withdraw from the competition.”

The gaga continues.

Yours,

CF

PS: Am also reading The View From Castle Rock, by chance, and she gets so much work done in the last part of her last lines.

Wedunlocking the Never-Ending Story

Dearest CF,

That’s an extraordinary passage. It hits home. I want to add, parenthetically, that I agree with your parallels to Alice Munro, and I’m surprised she hasn’t traversed that territory more than she has. She comes close, I think. But the type of wife that comes closest–dulled by habit and nearly (though not quite) unaware of her enclosures–comes across as almost animalistic. I’m thinking of scenes where sex is demanded by old husbands and granted as if it were pot roast.

As you know, I know what you mean. Lessing’s formulation of the phenomenon puzzles me a little. Is she calling it both naivete and sophistication?

Why is it so hard to summon up that surplus of vision when you’re with someone else?

My answer: I spent so much time trying to justify my vision of things, long after he’d lost interest in the conversation, that I came to internalize his viewpoint and find myself perversely arguing against him in my own head. Which was disastrous in its own right, since I never had real access to his thought process. So I ended up clawing at the world view of a ghost of my own making.

Now that he’s gone, I can encounter many of the things he loved without feeling crowded or derivative. It’s startling: I never expected that the relationship itself was making it impossible for me to have fresh encounters. I could never have belly-danced. Or shot a gun. It wouldn’t have been the same. It would have been filtered—coffee-dripped, in fact—through the inexorable french press that our marriage had become.

The worst thing about this in my case, like yours, is that it was my own fault.

Is it, I wonder, a little like collaborating on a story? Difficult, with lots of elbowing for the armrest because we’re used to narrating our lives alone? And yet ultimately redemptive and transcendent if only you can agree on the language and characters, never mind the plot?

I think the naive and lonely self permits alchemical bursts because it’s always “on.” Like you in the grocery store. It can’t relax into the comfort of a shared story. Or if it does, it’s only for short bursts. The thing about marriage is that it’s a never-ending story minus the flying dragon-dog. You’re always in it, even when you’re alone. It’s funny that way.

Is the trick method acting? Pretending to be alone, breaking through the story you have every so often in order to pick up the jagged angles and fragments? Choosing a part when you’re alone in the grocery store and acting it out? Woman who wants to make an Eggplant Casserole and Asks for Recipes. Woman Whose Dog Just Died. Woman In the Army Home on Leave. Goody Two-Shoes. Lesbian. Gourmand Obsessed with A Particular Cut of Meat, Evangelizing the Public.

For what it’s worth, I love the couple on the balcony. Of all the couples in that movie, that’s the one I’d choose. Or maybe the nurse, whose husband we never meet.

Fondly,
Millicent