Alice Munro’s Magic

As many of you know, Alice Munro has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In celebration I’ve written an analysis of two of my favourite Munro stories, “Vandals” and “Something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” 

I’ve been teaching a Munro course at Dawson College for 10 years. I’ve taught “Vandals” in my introductory course for over 15. It’s a story I never tire of teaching and that’s because its rendering of abuse and survival is both daring and hopeful. It never fails to awe my students, which is one reason I won’t stop teaching it, at least not for the foreseeable future.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading this text as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you’ve never read a Munro story, Open Culture has posted several onlineMany of the observations I’ve made here apply to her writing in general.

Spoiler Alert: if you want the pleasure of discovering “Vandals” for yourself, stop reading here. This article is roughly 1,900 words long.

munro-opensecretsAlice Munro’s “Vandals” appeared in her 1994 collection, Open Secrets. It’s a complex story of incipient alcoholism, pedophilia and survival. Despite its dark themes, the story isn’t entirely bleak and that’s because there’s an alluring character, Liza, at the centre of it. She’s a young woman, a survivor of sexual abuse, who turns to Christianity for succour. Her religion gives her a design for living, some structure in a life whose natural structure has been assailed by the narcissism of her de facto parents, a nascent alcoholic named Bea and a sexual predator named Ladner. In typical Munro style these characters aren’t revealed definitively until the end: Bea and Ladner’s relationship, with each other and with Liza, forms a savage subtext that only breaks the surface calm of the story in retrospect. It’s Liza’s childlike description of male orgasm, kaleidoscopically rendered in a coda, that points to unsettling undercurrents that have been there all along.

“Something I’ve been meaning to tell you” is another story about human instincts gone awry. Et, the plain younger sister of a local beauty, Char, is a small-town version of Arthurian sorceress Morgana Le Fay. She’s a scheming character whose urges are sublimated in good humour and familial concern. A dual story structure means we see the sisters both as teens and as seniors, with the intervening years left to our imagination.

The achievement of “Something” is what one of Munro’s characters would call a “marvel.” Senior citizens are put forth as doubles for those mainstays of Camelot: King Arthur and his wife Guinevere relive their struggles while Morgana and Lancelot take aim at the placidity of their lives. As card-playing 70-somethings, Arthur, Char, Et and Blaikie have surprising depths, with blackhearted Et’s being most fully realized. It’s through her that Munro launches one of her best literary surprises: despite being elderly, Et’s actions beg the question: who hasn’t ever felt like killing a loved one?

9780143054986_cover_coverbookpageLiza has murderous impulses too and her story is told in a postmodern jumble I tell my students is like a game of 52-pick up. Munro herself has said she structures her stories as a “tour through a house,” rather than as a linear progression. That’s apt since her postmodernism does not extend to the non-narrative form. Instead, we discern a beginning, a middle and an end, but only once the story is finished. We see Liza as a young, unself-conscious girl, swinging from trees, skipping on dirt paths and splashing playfully in a pond. There’s a buoyancy to her character, a buoyancy that will be struck down by a darkness only apparent in shadow form. That darkness finds its conduit via her willingness to please and her induction into a world of responsibility far beyond her years.

Et, by contrast, is not innocent. As a young woman she’s capable of her own rash stunts, cartwheels included. But the mental twist that decides the trajectory of her life is self-generated in a way Liza’s is not. She remembers when she first realized her older sister was beautiful:

All the same it would have suited her better to have found one of those ladies beautiful, not Char. It would have been more appropriate. More suitable than Char in her wet apron with her cross expression, bent over the starch basin. Et was a person who didn’t like contradictions, didn’t like things out of place, didn’t like mysteries or extremes.  

To compensate for being in Char’s shade, Et develops her own reputation. She becomes the town’s ribald comedienne with a caustic edge. As a seamstress (at a time when most women still had their dresses made), Et has other women at a disadvantage. She sees their ” bellies blown up and torn by children,” and yet cannot refrain from making amusing, but pointed, barbs. Seeing a customer wearing a competitor’s clothing, she tells her “You can’t see yourself from behind anyway.” Like Camelot’s sorceress, Et is known, albeit jokingly, as a “terror.” The comedy stops with her sister however. Suspecting Char of pining for her erstwhile lover, Blaikie, Et, like Morgana conjuring over Lancelot and Guinevere, schemes to keep them apart.

14283How do these stories end? Years later we see Liza as a young married woman. She’s been asked by Bea and Ladner to check on their house while they are in Toronto, waiting for Ladner to have heart surgery. In a spree of violence striking for its deliberation and calm, Liza, now a born-again Christian, trashes their house. She then phones Bea to tell her what she and her husband Warren have “found:”

Even maple syrup, you wouldn’t believe it…Oh, and the beautiful big front window, they threw something at that, and they got sticks out of the stove and the ashes and those birds that were sitting around and the big beaver. I can’t tell you what it looks like…Then she went on describing things, commiserating, making her voice quiver with misery and indignation. 

Warren, as a witness to the destruction and the narrative voice of the scene, is shocked and disturbed, but finally ambivalent. He admits he always knew “that’s what she’s got in her,” but is still unaware of Liza’s motives. When he does ask, she says “I already told you what she did to me. She sent me to college!” It’s a non-sensical answer, but riding high on adrenaline, her pronouncement gets “them both laughing.” The scene seems lifted straight from Bonnie and Clyde, its mystery heightened by the incongruity of the perpetrators and the crime. Liza and Warren are both serious Christians after all, Christians who met and married at the Walley Bible Chapel.

“Something I’ve been meaning to tell you” ends with Char’s death. Acting on her suspicions that Char’s interest has been stirred by Blaikie, the lover who once jilted her, Et keeps a close eye on her sister. When she discovers rat poisoning in Arthur and Char’s kitchen and takes stock of Arthur’s recurring illnesses, Et’s concerns for her brother-in-law escalate. Admitting she may be acting on an “old maid’s” fears, Et tells Char that Blaikie, having been absent from their card games for several days, has repeated history and eloped with a wealthy widow from Toronto.

9780099459712Later Et tells herself that “she never knew where she got the inspiration to say what she said,” but that “somebody had to, before it was too late.” Believing she has saved Arthur from Char’s machinations, she has similar suspicions about Char after her death. Having died in her sleep, and ending up beautifully laid out, Char’s death is written off as a heart attack. However, when Et looks for the poison, the bottle is gone. Munro arranges events in ways that are intractably ambiguous, but the implication is clear: Char took her own life just as she tried to the first time Blaikie humiliated her. The title of the story references this: having pushed her sister to suicide, Et debates, daily, the prospect of revealing Char’s motives to Arthur. Her sister’s death, it appears, is not enough for her.

Death comes to Liza’s rescue as well. With breath-taking symmetry, Ladner dies the day Liza trashes his and Bea’s house and writes The Wages of Sin is Death on their kitchen wall. It seems her religion is not so incongruent with violence after all. Taking a page out of the old testament, Liza’s revenge is an affirmation of her strength as well as a statement about the redeeming power of the path she has chosen. While many survivors of abuse displace their anger in destructive ways, Liza hits her target. However, what is even more remarkable is this: Liza’s allure as a character is not based on sexuality but its polar opposite: it’s Liza’s morality — her willingness to fight sexual wrongdoing — that makes her an irresistible heroine. She may be born-again, but she’s also delectably subversive.

LivesOfGirlsAndWomenPart of Munro’s magic is this: actions are experienced or enacted by characters with highly filtered perceptions and these filters, or lack of them, are what cause them pleasure or pain. For example, Bea in “Vandals” does not see her common-law husband’s pedophilia. Her heavy drinking keeps her life out of focus in a way that is both hazy and comfortable. However, the money she gave Liza to go to college, we realize belatedly, is suspect. The question is, does Bea have the capacity to see it? Could she have been paying Liza off? Sending her away because she sensed Liza’s closeness to Ladner? The story does not answer these questions. It only tells us that Liza was hurt — over being abused by Ladner and not being rescued by Bea — and Bea’s failure has left its mark on her. However, Munro does tell us this while Liza is in the midst of her agonies: “What Bea has been sent to do she doesn’t see. Only Liza sees.”

Et’s perception of events is coloured by a life lived in the shadow of beauty. However, Et gives into her fate and grudgingly embraces her role as second-best. While she ends up with Arthur, the prize she wanted, it’s the decidedly ambiguous prize of a platonic relationship with a passive man. It’s certain that unlike Char, Et will never see the “look in a man’s eyes when he made love” and that’s because Et has made a bargain with herself. In exchange for intimacy and love, she has chosen control over those closest to her. As an evil sorceress, it’s a loss she deserves to bear.

Recently Christian Lorentzen, at the London Review of Books, admitted he had difficulty understanding Munro’s popularity. He wondered whether he was “some sort of big city chauvinist, or a misogynist, or autistic, or a decadent reader deaf to the charms of simple sentences.” Believe it or not, I empathized with him. As a graduate student reading The Lives of Girls and Women for the first time, I too failed to grasp its importance, failed to find the door at the back of the wardrobe. In hindsight, however, I know I read Munro’s stories hastily, distracted by the many demands being made on my time. I didn’t absorb the nuances of her prose because they slid right past me, disguised as ordinary sentences. Reading Lorentzen’s assessment of Munro’s oeuvre, an assessment based on a speed-read through all her work, it was clear he’d had the same experience.

As many critics have observed, however, the real delight of reading Munro — slowly and deliberately — is this: one awakens to the beautiful and perverse in the very ordinary people living among us.

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Read my review of Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial and of artist Nicke Gorney’s show at Galerie D in Montreal.

Rex Murphy interviewing Alice Munro in 1991. 
Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked in the airline industry, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Canada’s International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, led by Ed Broadbent.

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