@Nobelprize_org: The Swedish Academy has not been able to get a hold of Alice Munro, left a phone message.
All joy to Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature today. I'm not sure where to begin with this. In trumpeting joy for short story writers everywhere? She is the first writer who persistently chose stories, not novels, to win the Nobel, and I'd always thought that would misguide the decisionmakers into thinking her life's work is therefore "not enough" for this sort of thing. (I can track that line of thought back to 2009 when I wrote "Is it finally Alice Munro's day?") Or maybe I might remark on her Canadianness? She is the first Canadian to win the literary Nobel, stretching back to 1903. (Oh yes, Saul Bellow was born in Canada, but that's nothing but a technicality). Munro is the thirteenth woman to win the prize, and she writes of poor people, of plain middle-classness, of people who are quiet and brimming with life. She didn't publish her first collection of stories until she was 37 years old. She once pulled her book out of consideration for a major literary competition because she wanted to make more space for newer writers. She is excellent reading for writers of narrative nonfiction, and her books are beloved in ten thousand homes.
I might write about any of those things, but the real thing, the important thing, is her fiction.
She's compared often to Chekhov, but that's a sloppy comparison, only suggesting that they both were astounding writers who wrote short stories; Munro stories and Chekhov stories are hugely different animals. Munro stories longer and more narrated -- less dialogue -- than Chekhov's. They tend to move more in time. The people who take up the space of her stories are typically modest country women from southwestern Ontario. Her stories are particular, with a genius for detail, while opening up into ambiguous, sweeping spaces. When I reviewed her book Too Much Happiness, I wrote this:
Brilliant, immersive, engaging, jeweled ... it's the usual mixture from Alice Munro in the ten stories that make up this collection. Munro reminds me why I love her every time I read her. Her distilled empathy makes it possible for me to inhabit the characters that live in here, and her stories hinge on having something worth telling. She is, simply, interesting. There is drama here -- adultery, romance, death, murder, childish self-mutilation, accidents, broken hearts, rejection, religion, and, oh yes, a wealthy man asking a college student he just met to read to him while she is naked -- but the stories unfold in a way that is weird in their planspokeness, bright in their subdued ardor.
The stories in the second half are not as impressive; they seem less cohesive and were simply less compelling than the stories in the first half. My avid reading slowed; I put down some short stories partway through and came back to them the next day, which is an unusual way for me to read short fiction. I did appreciate seeing Munro take a few risks with her form and vantage. And with content as well: such as in her title-tale rendering in of Sophia Kovalevsky, a 19th-century Russian mathematician and novelist. Munro risks strangeness in these stories. But it leaves a pattern of weak spots, like bruises in the flesh of an apple, along the way.
But then. Let me not generalize. Let's drill down into one of my all-time favorite Munro stories: "Carried Away," collected in my rain-sopped, pencil-covered copy of Selected Stories. A look at it reveals how Munro's placid world holds otherworldly realities; that is, magic.
“Carried Away,” is quartered into sections with titles that in themselves convey the wistful and sedate trajectory of the tale: ‘Letters,’ ‘Spanish Flu,’ ‘Accidents,’ ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs.’ The letters are those of a librarian and a World War I soldier; the soldier is a library patron whom she does not remember. After the war, despite the intimacy of their correspondence, the soldier never approaches her, and, in fact, marries a local woman he had been quietly engaged to before the war.
The major part of the story takes place before Louisa, the librarian, dreams her longed-for first meeting with her former correspondent, Jack Agnew. Jack has died decades earlier in a monstrous factory accident. In the fourth and final section, Louisa, now significantly older, is at the bus station after visiting her heart specialist in London, Ontario. In a local newspaper, she spies an article announcing a ceremony at which “the chief speakers were to be one of the local ministers, and Mr. John (Jack) Agnew, a union spokesman from Toronto." Louisa walks over to the ceremony, observes the flags, platforms, workers, an elegantly dressed woman, and she wonders where the speakers might be. The few paragraphs set at the ceremony emphasize what Louisa sees, but we do briefly hear her thoughts: “The coincidence of the name was hardly even interesting. Neither the first name nor the last was all that unusual.” She feels “a faintly sickening, familiar agitation” and turns back to the bus station. There, she purchases a Coke, and as she drinks, she closes her eyes. She opens them to see the long-dead object of her obsessions, Jack Agnew, sitting near her.
The dream happens naturally in the text, as if it were as regular a scene as any other. We tiptoe slowly out of the established everyday landscape along with our ever-sensible protagonist:
When she opened (her eyes), a man was sitting one chair away, and was speaking to her.
‘I got here as soon as I could,’ he said. ‘Nancy said you were going to catch a bus. As soon as I finished with the speech, I took off. But the bus depot is all torn up.’
‘Temporarily,’ she said.
‘I knew you right away,’ he said. ‘In spite of—well, many years. When I saw you, I was talking to somebody. Then I looked again and you’d disappeared.’
‘I don’t recognize you,’ said Louisa.
‘Well, no,’ he said. ‘I guess not. Of course. You wouldn’t.’
We read it knowing it is not true, and also as if it were true. The fusion of those two experiences, the peculiar third reality they create, gives this story a point of grace.
After the break, I get into the nitty-gritty craft business for how Munro pulls this off...
Louisa plays into her dream in a particularly emphatic way. Like us, she dreams knowing Jack’s presence is not possible, and also as if it were. After Louisa inquires politely, or “ridiculously,” after Jack’s wife and daughter, Jack responds:
‘Grace is not so well. She had some arthritis. Her weight doesn’t help it. Lillian is all right. She’s married but she still teaches high school. Mathematics. Not to usual for a woman.’
How could Louisa begin to correct him? Could she say, No, your wife Grace got married again during the war, she married a farmer, a widower. Before that she used to come in and clean our house once a week … And Lillian never finished high school, how could she be a high-school teacher? She married young, she had some children, she works in the drugstore. She had your height and your hair, dyed blond. I often look at her and thought she must be like you. When she was growing up, I used to give her my stepdaughter’s outgrown clothes.
Instead of this, she said, ‘Then the woman in the green dress—that was not Lillian?
Louisa is dreaming, but she remains aware of the gap between her dream reality and her everyday reality. She does not attribute this gap to the inherent falseness or flimsiness of her dream reality; instead, she attributes it to Jack’s errors. That is, while she dismisses the reality Jack puts forth to her—Grace’s arthritis, Lillian’s teaching—she does not dismiss the reality of Jack himself. Jack is such a solid entity to her that even though Louisa wonders “how could (Lillian) be a high school teacher?” she does not wonder ‘how could I be having a conversation with Jack when Jack is dead?’ And so, it is a touching moment when Louisa—so practical that she does not ask much from her dreams, as she never asked much from her life—chooses not to correct Jack. She chooses instead to ask if the elegantly dressed woman at the ceremony wasn’t his daughter even though she knows full well what his answer will be. Louisa thus chooses to participate in the dream reality over the everyday reality. To put it another way, Louisa actively chooses the alternative reality where Jack lives to old age, and is speaking with her, over the reality where he never will.
It is not, however, a matter of a simple break between dream and everyday life. Rather, there is a third reality in which the dream and the everyday have merged. Louisa is talking to Jack, seeing and sensing him with such clearness that we, too, see Jack’s “cream-and-yellow ascot scarf,” his “slightly bloodshot” eyes, and hear his intonation that by turns seems “tactful” or “joking” or “resigned." And yet, at the same time, there is Louisa’s awareness of the in-fact fates of Grace and Lillian. Although Louisa chooses not to correct Jack of his errors, she nonetheless spends most of her time with him talking about the piano factory and Arthur Doud, whom she married, in a rambling passage that finishes with, “What a thing to talk to a dead man about." She realizes later that she has given Jack the body of Jim Frarery, her first lover. With the interplay of reality, memory, and fantasy, the boundaries between reality and irreality blur, and what results is a hybrid, a state of grace.
After the dream peters out, when Jack is not “anywhere in sight,” Louisa thinks of the experience as though she has gone under a wave unnoticed by all around her. Just as Louisa recognizes the ‘faintly sickening, familiar agitation’ that presaged her dream, she also centers on the sensory after-effects of it—a cold sheen, a beating in her ears, an upset stomach. As she accepts a piece of candy offered by a passing child, Louisa is surprised to see herself engaging in the physical world; her grasp of the candy and her own thank-you suddenly bear weight. Our last present-time view of her is when she asks a stranger what place they are in; she feels dislocated. Louisa’s dream carries into her everyday reality via her heightened physical sensations. We see that Louisa is fully located neither in everyday reality, nor in the dream world. For her, once she ‘awakens,’ reality has become a sort of dream as well. So, while Louisa’s dream borrows from the concrete experience of everyday reality (the ascot scarf, the bloodshot eyes), her post-dream experience of the perceptual world borrows from the realm of imagination and fantasy (her sense of being lost, the strung lights that “make her think of festivities. Carnivals. Boats of singers on the lake.”
Louisa is not the only character who dreams; in fact, the protagonist’s dreams harmonize with those of the secondary characters. When Jack is a soldier in Europe, he writes to Louisa of his memory of her shaking out her wet hair over a radiator. Louisa, for her part, cannot remember it, and she considers the possibility that Jack “might as well have dreamed all that, and perhaps he had." Later, Jack writes, “I do not think you and I will ever meet again. I do not say that because I’ve had a dream about what will happen…”
Even the physical landscape of Carstairs, Ontario, is more or less complicit in the dreaming experience; natural processes seem surreal when “sheets of floodwater shrank magically back into bogs." And as we too dream as we read, in a trance that is crafted to parallel the dreaming experiences of Munro’s characters, there is a sense of unification. We exist together with the characters in the same imaginary realm, in a third reality, in a state of grace. And the thin boundaries between the perceptual world and the dream world vanish.
But for all that Munro is setting the stage for the hallucinatory experience at the heart of the story, the visionary elements in "Carried Away" are packaged as eminently normal. Louisa’s down-to-earth sensibility does not prevent her from keeping an anxious lookout for Jack in the library after he has returned to Carstairs:
Sometimes she felt (the expectation of him) so strongly she saw a shadow that she mistook for a man. She understood now how people believed they had seen ghosts.
On a hot afternoon she was arranging fresh newspapers on the racks and his name jumped out at her like something in her feverish dreams.
Here, although Louisa admits to ‘her feverish dreams,’ she identifies herself as someone who does not believe in ghosts by using ‘they’ as the referent in the first quote above (although it could be argued that Louisa is approaching that state). And after Louisa loses her virginity with Jim Frarey,
…without him pinning her down and steadying her, she felt herself whirling around in an irresistible way, as if the mattress had turned into a child’s top and was carrying her off. She tried to explain that the traces of blood on the sheets could be credited to her period, but her words came out with a luxurious nonchalance and could not be fitted together.
Munro’s imagistic language relates dream experiences that appear reasonable and within the realm of common experience—something that any small-town librarian might experience. We feel we understand perfectly well what Louisa means; we have felt it ourselves perhaps, and we certainly do not pinpoint her as an oddity prone to dramatic hallucinations
But later, as Munro’s story develops into Louisa’s extended dream in which Jack’s ghost appears, we may read back into these earlier experiences, with their dreamlike imagery, and see them as no less dreams than Louisa’s chat with Jack. These real-life experiences, when played out against the later dream, seem to carry a new sense of the supernatural while not losing their ‘real-lifeness.’ The small dreams in Louisa’s life seem to be leading us towards the more substantial dream of Jack Agnew.
"Carried Away" is an omniscient story, giving its telling a dark dream-like inevitability. With Munro’s Louisa, the prim distance between her and us never fully melts, though it moves. Our distance from Louisa is at its greatest when she feels her greatest distance from Jack—for instance, after he is killed, when Jack’s father passes ‘a woman’ on his walk in the country. Conversely, we are closest to Louisa when she feels closest to Jack. It is only in the midst of her dream conversation with him that we finally access her thoughts, complete with several uses of the word ‘I’—an important shift in the otherwise omniscient narration. We have been prepared for this new, intimate access to Louisa because it had been foreshadowed earlier, when she warmly engaged with other characters at the height of her correspondence with Jack.
She had begun to follow the war in a more detailed way than she had done previously. She did not try to ignore it anymore. She went along the street with a sense that her head was filled with the same exciting and troubling information as everybody else’s … Now she felt what everybody else did—a constant fear and misgiving and at the same time this addictive excitement. You could look up from your life of the moment and feel the world crackling beyond the walls.
The dreams of Louisa, as well as the secondary dreams that appear in both stories, expand and deepen the story; they raise the stakes and peculiarly alter the reader’s experience. Munro's poetic technique and narrative voice lulls us—or, more precisely, entrances us—into dreams that mimic those of the protagonist.
When we read good stories, we exist in a third reality, a point of grace. We are neither fully existing in the world of our perceptions, nor the imaginary world under authorial instruction. And so it is no great leap to understand that my desire to experience everything, to know this world and that world, my life and yours, is no doubt the center of my great pull towards writing. Alice Munro embodies one potent way for how it might be done. As writers, we are permitted to ask, imagine, fantasize, and not only live all these lives in our dreams, but to share those dreams with others—and to create a third reality—not fully mine, not fully yours, not of this everyday reality but not detached from it either, but a third reality in which we dream together. I’ve thought of my writing, both fiction and nonfiction, as love letters to this universe, to all the life in it. I write about it because I care about it so much.