Thursday, August 13, 2009

I’ll have a bit Munro of that, please

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 13.

My first brush with Alice Munro came in the way of a short story called “Meneseteung.” Aye, it’s also part of Contemporary Fiction. I had high expectations for it, and, as happened to me with other authors whose stories I greatly anticipated in that book, I wasn’t awestruck.

The story is good, no doubt about it. Its craft is exquisite, and the details well chosen. It didn’t make an overly eager reader out of me, though. “Meneseteung” starts off academically, picking up a volume of poetry written by one Almeda Joynt Roth, who lived in western Canada in the nineteenth century (she died in 1903). The narrator combines the book of poetry with snippets from a local newspaper (the Vidette), which uses a censorious and mocking language to discuss every little thing that happens in town. The town is a bustling economic outpost, crawling with young people and preyed upon by death. Almeda’s parents, brother, and sister all died. She was left with the house and some money. A neighbor, a widower and entrepreneur called Jarvis Poutler, is not really interested in Almeda, until a moment near the end in which she piques his interest. That moment is a crucial part of the story that transforms Almeda for life. What happens after that moment is smartly narrated, askance even.

One of the clever things about the story is how the aseptic academic language from the beginning becomes absorbed in the gossipy language of the newspaper, and then starts to probe into people’s psyches (we read about what both Almeda and Jarvis thought, for instance). That zooming in happens slowly and slyly, and next thing we know the narrator is reproducing the dictums of that time’s social mores and getting into impossibly personal detail. The differently layered story is handled well.

Today I went for another serving of Munro’s short stories. This particular story was called “Boys and Girls.” I couldn’t find it online. I read it in The Norton Introduction to Fiction (Ed. Jerome Beaty), an interesting book that has some good observations and critiques grafted on to a 54-story anthology.

With “Boys and Girls,” I was much more enthusiastic. The story not only dazzled me with its technique, but it also made me nod smugly with some descriptions. It flowed along very nicely, too. Here was a voice in possession of a great technique, and of a good, catchy narrative resolve.

The story is set in Canada, probably around the 1940s, in a farm where foxes are kept to run a “pelting operation.” The first-person narrator is a girl who helps her father with some of the farm chores, but the imminent growth of her younger brother threatens to displace her. There is much death (of foxes, of horses) hanging around them, but it is confronted matter-of-factly: the death of animals is their business.

The story unfolds slowly, as the narrative leaps from one point in time to another, sometimes driven by this or that detail (“I have forgotten to say what the foxes were fed. My father’s bloody apron reminded me”). The language is often succulent, with synesthetic and provocative descriptions (like this: “this was the time of year when snowdrifts curled around our house like sleeping whales and the wind harassed us all night, coming up from the buried fields, the frozen swamp, with its old bugbear chorus of threats and misery”). The story is packed with events that build identities: gendering, naming, specification. And no wonder: “Boys and Girls” is a powerful initiation story that describes how the young narrator is shaped into girlhood. The narrator’s key reflection on that process is this: “A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment.”

Munro is an unquestionably gifted narrator. “Boys and Girls” is a particularly rewarding story. As a casual aside, three things I noticed that these stories have in common: they’re set in Canada, they involve life-transforming events, and they describe the making of jelly. I’m not kidding about the jelly.

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