Thursday, October 31, 2013

7th Challenge - 5th review - Dance of the Happy Shades

As discussed in the Munro post, I decided to slowly work my way through her short story collections, beginning from the beginning as it were.  I have just wrapped up reading her first collection Dance of the Happy Shades, and my current plan is to read Proust's Within a Budding Grove before starting in on Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women.  This is the one collection that it is probably better to read straight through in a short period of time, whereas the others might actually be more effective if you only read one or two stories a day and not gorge oneself.

It is true that many of these stories are pretty downbeat, so reading too many at once can be overwhelming.  They generally are about children on the cusp of young adulthood (about to lose what innocence they still had) or young women that find themselves very constrained in their life choices.  While it may not be an exact parallel, I was actually struck thinking of a few of the women in Faulkner, particularly Light in August (admittedly the most recent Faulkner I haved read).  First, there is the nurse (in the orphanage where Joe Christmas grew up) who was carrying on a desultory affair with someone (a travelling salesman?) and who ended up being a complete "B" when Christmas caught her at it (really going above and beyond the pale in trying to have him expelled and thus setting him along a bad path), but there is also the waitress that Christmas takes up with right before he leaves the home of his adoptive parents.  She would fit into a Munro story, though a bit more worldly than many of her characters, except perhaps the girls from "Thanks for the Ride."

A few people have criticised Munro for holding fast to the "epiphany" short story approach, but that seems to be the nature of short stories.  You get an idea across, and usually it does involve the main character either revealing something hidden about themselves (to the reader) or realizing profound something about themselves.  So that doesn't bother me that much.  Actually, there is a bit of variety in Dance of the Happy Shades, including one story written from the perspective of a young wife who is trying to stick up for an elderly neighbour (in the face of suburban conformity and the idea of "progress") in "The Shining Houses" and a young man sowing his oats in "Thanks for the Ride."  That last story is by far the most different from all the others in the book.

Much more often you have a youngish girl trying to rebel against authority (her mother, grandmother or to a lesser extent her employer (in "Sunday Afternoon") but not making much headway.  Life is fairly tough, and illness or other disaster can strike out of the blue ("Day of the Butterfly").   "The Peace of Utrecht" is interesting in that, even after their mother's death, the sister who was left behind to care for their mother doesn't seem to be able to escape from her cage, i.e. small town life.  Like a bound foot freed from years inside its binding and tiny shoes, she has grown cramped.  I could write at some length on how small town life is particularly ill-suited for people who are a little bit different or a bit rebellious and those that can get away (to the big city) probably should, but this has been expanded on at length elsewhere, and I am a bit short on time today.  Atwood's novels also frequently feature fraught relations between mothers and daughters, particularly in Lady Oracle, but it doesn't necessarily dominate the narrative as in Munro, though of course that is at least partly the consequence of working in a shorter form.  (While I haven't read them yet, many of Munro's later stories do reach novella length.)

Men cannot be relied upon -- not fathers ("Walker Brothers Cowboy" sort of suggests the father had an affair), brothers (the snitching brother in "Boys and Girls") and particularly not suitors ("An Ounce of Cure," "Postcard" and even "Sunday Afternoon," where we can sense things will end poorly beyond the end of the story proper).  Male strangers can be quite scary ("Images") or just creepy ("The Office") and accidentally bring break things without meaning to ("A Trip to the Coast").

I really hadn't recognized the first few stories, and I truly don't recall ever reading "The Office," where the first-person narrator is a housewife who rents an office to write in during the evenings, then finds herself blocked by the obtrusive landlord.  (I love how Munro inserts the word "slatternly," which has really fallen out of circulation.)  But I vaguely recall reading "An Ounce of Cure" and "A Trip to the Country," and I definitely read "Boys and Girls," so I presume that I did read this before for a Canadian lit. class.  Still, it was pretty much like reading the stories again for the first time.

"Postcard" and "Day of the Butterfly" are probably the most purely depressing of all the stories.  "Boys and Girls" is interesting in how you see a young girl kind of fall into the trap of gender role conformity and that is a bit depressing, though it is definitely a well-written story.  "Dance of the Happy Shades" has a mixed resolution.  It is quite clear that the mothers will drop the music teacher after a disastrous recital/party, but the teacher has somehow managed to find a student who actually has talent and can play the music of the spheres or some such thing.  That actually makes it worse for the mothers, since the teacher never could make their children play that well...

Of all the stories, the one that I really liked the most was "Red Dress--1946."  First, it has an absolutely killer line: "I lay on the couch in the kitchen, reading The Last Days of Pompeii, and wishing I was there."  (I may have to figure out how to incorporate that into a poem.)  Truly, Munro has a streak of sly humour that isn't always noticed (the same with Carol Shields).

Okay, some spoilers follow...

Anyway, the teenaged daughter has just the right mix of self-loathing and outward embarrassment she feels about her mother (and the often out-of-fashion clothes that the mother sews and makes the daughter wear).  The daughter's friend, Lonnie, is at an advantage because her mother is dead and her father more or less leaves her to her own devices.  Anyway, the story builds to a school dance that the daughter is dreading attending.  The red dress her mother is sewing is for this dance, and she is sure it makes her terminally uncool.  While she and Lonnie talk endlessly about boys, once she gets to the dance, she is so determined to avoid rejection by the boys, that she retreats first to "the wall" and then to the girls' bathroom.  She encounters an older girl there, Mary Fortune, who seems to care nothing about boys at all (I'm not sure if Munro is actually hinting that Mary is a proto-lesbian, but it is possible.)  Mary invites the daughter to leave the dance and go to a soda shop.  The daughter is somewhat flattered and sees a different path open up before her (where she is a bit of an outcast along with Mary -- and Lonnie is not quite as close a friend, since she is still boy-crazy).  She seems to be even a bit exhilarated about this, but then as she is getting her coat to leave, a boy comes up and asks her to dance.  She snaps back into a "normal" life and even gets a first kiss on the way home.  She thinks: the boy "had been my rescuer, that he had brought me from Mary Fortune's territory into the ordinary world."  The story closes with a vision of her mother hoping for the best for her daughter, and the daughter not quite knowing how to close the gap between them.  I just think this story works on so many levels and is so incisive.

While I am not going to try to figure out the order in which these stories were written or published, it wouldn't surprise me too much if "Red Dress--1946" was one of the later ones written, since it is so deep in so many ways.  I'm fairly sure that Munro's work continues in this general direction, getting more at the subtle differences between people, particularly mothers and daughters, and why they end up disappointing or even hurting each other even when they don't mean to.  This can be kind of difficult territory, but Munro mines it quite well on balance.

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