Saturday, March 7, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 14th Review - Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You

So as I move into "overtime," I thought I should review a book by another Can lit. icon -- Alice Munro.  I've now reached the point where I am reading collections of her short stories that are completely new to me.  I've been reading quite a few collections of short stories (by other authors) lately and I do read them a bit differently.  I am more likely to read one or one and a half stories on the way to work and the same home, but then I might only read another story in the evening.  It's sort of nice to space them out with other things and not try to force my way through a lot of short stories in one go, or at least by the same author.  There can be exceptions to this approach, of course.  After I finish the short story collections I am currently reading (Chabon's A Model World and Somerville's The Universe in Miniature in Miniature), I should probably wrap up the collection of Kafka stories (in a new translation).  I think relatively soon I will start working my way through Isak Dinesen (starting with Winter Tales, assuming it is still chilly outside), and then very late in the year or next year I will alternate through the collected stories of Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor.

But back to the collection at hand.  Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You is Munro's third collection.  I won't go too deeply into any particular story, but I warn sensitive readers that there may be SPOILERS in my discussion.  However, the collection came out in 1974, so they've been out for a while.  (You snooze, you lose, as they say.)  I suspect more than a few of these stories were written in the late 1960s as they often feature a middle aged or elderly character dealing with some aspect of the counterculture of the 60s (perhaps it got started a bit later and ended later in Canada).  Somewhat curiously, Munro would have been in her late 30s or early 40s when she wrote them, but in several of these stories, she writes from the perspective of a retiree who has seen it all.  It will be interesting to see if she keeps that up in later collections or perhaps now that she has reached retirement age she primarily writes about younger characters.  I suspect more than a few stories she will be reaching back into her past, just as in several of these stories she imagines life down the road as a senior.

Of the 13 stories, overall I'd say I liked 3 a fair bit and really disliked one.  The others sort of floated by in a neutral way.  I could see why Munro had written them, but they didn't do very much for me one way or the other.  A large number of them feature broken marriages and marital betrayals of one sort or another.  I don't know exactly what happened in her first marriage, but she was divorced from her first husband in 1972, so the feelings were particularly raw around the time these stories were written.  As most people know, Munro's Books in Victoria remained with her ex-husband (only very recently was it sold off to the employees and became a collective enterprise of sorts).  Alice Munro returned to Ontario, remarrying in 1976 (apparently quite happily, though by this point she had an entirely different life -- going off on book tours and teaching creative writing at various universities).

As I said some SPOILERS are pretty much inevitable.  The title story is about two sisters who live in a small town presumably on the outskirts of Toronto, as the most notable local mansion was built by a Toronto distiller (and perhaps bootlegger?).  One of the sisters is considerably prettier than the other, which means that she gets the most interesting boys.  But she is also less emotionally stable than her sister.  The pretty sister tries to commit suicide when she is left by the most dashing beau, who moves off to California with his family.  The other sister helps her through this crisis.  The pretty sister marries a young high school teacher (only shortly after she is out of high school herself).  I don't believe the other sister ever does marry.  Certainly neither of them leaves town, though the former flame returns, somewhat worse for wear.  This sets off a chain of events that, while somewhat restrained, have a tragic element.  The other sister is left to decide if she should tell the husband (her brother-in-law) about his wife's past, but basically never gets around to it.

So the story is full of thwarted but genteel passions, as are many of these other stories, though given that infidelity is a recurring theme, passions are less tamped down than in many other Munro stories.  Certainly quite a few of these stories feature women in restrained conflict with each other or at least at odds with each other.  In "Memorial," it is again two sisters, though it is "the other woman" and the wife in "Tell Me Yes Or No," which I didn't find particularly successful.

More frequently it is conflict between generations, in part due to different expectations and simple failure to communicate.  I don't think Munro means to blow this up into a general statement about women at war with each other, but just to point out how relationships between women can be just as fraught as those between men and women, which is a more typical topic of literature.  Anyway, while "The Ottawa Valley" has a mother-daughter-aunt triad of mini-conflicts, two of the stories feature grandmothers and granddaughters, as Munro seems (even at this point in her life) to be looking to represent senior citizens in her fiction.  These stories are "Winter Wind" and "Marrakesh."  There is actually very little conflict in "Marrakesh," though at the end, the grandmother does seem to be both puzzled and somewhat refreshed by her granddaughter's liberation.  This was one of the more successful stories.

I wasn't entirely sure what to make of "Executioners," where Munro is writing about a particularly rural town, full of ne'er-do-wells, that are almost out of Faulkner.  (Actually Faulkner was much on my mind as I had just wrapped up As I Lay Dying, and this story has more than a little Southern Gothic flavour to it.  But if I recall, there was actually a whole section of Lives and Girls and Women that feature a countrified boyfriend and his rambunctious family.  At any rate, for the moment I much prefer keeping my daily dosage of rednecks down to a minimum, so "Executioners" was a lot more palatable than As I Lay Dying.)  One thing that was curious was a callback (or really a call-forward) to the idea laid out in Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead where at some point there won't be any people left to remember anything about this town and its scandals.  I guess that can be comforting or disturbing, according to one's views.

The only story I strongly disliked was "Forgiveness in Families," where there is a small family -- a mother, her sensible daughter and a spoiled son, who is always having to be bailed out of trouble and can't or won't hold a steady job.  As one might imagine, the daughter deeply resents her brother, since she must be the ant to his grasshopper.  What I disliked about the story is that it implies that her brother managed to pull his mother back from the brink of death with his ridiculous chanting and incense, and that the daughter decides she really ought to be nicer and more understanding of her brother in the future.  I didn't care for any aspect of this story.

While I didn't really care either way about "Material," where in this case the somewhat selfish ex- was only an ex-boyfriend and not an ex-husband (so the stakes are somewhat lower and the former lovers can at least communicate more-or-less civilly), there is a strong paragraph at the start.  While it offers an extremely unflattering portrayal of academics/intellectuals, I think I'll repeat it anyway:
The wives of the men on the platform are not in that audience.  They are buying groceries or cleaning up messes or having a drink.  Their lives are concerned with food and mess and houses and cars and money.  They have to remember to get the snow tires on and go to the bank and take back the beer bottles, because their husbands are such brilliant, such talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come from them.

The narrator has broken away from one such man, Hugo, and married a more understanding and reasonable man, Gabe.  She has a career of her own, as a part-time teacher at a girls' school.  As the story ends, she sits at a table, trying to shake off the influence of just having seen Hugo (and read a story he wrote based on their former life) and grading papers.  I have to say, it reminded me a fair bit of Patricia Arquette, trying to keep it together on numerous occasions in Boyhood.

I can't cover all the stories, so I will wrap up with a short discussion of my favourite story in the collection: "How I Met My Husband."  I should say that, just as in the TV show How I Met Your Mother, there is just a bit of bait-and-switch going on, but that's ok.  What is interesting is that the young girl who narrates the story did so poorly at school that they practically had to come up with a longer list to put her at the bottom (37, presumably out of 100).  Curiously, I was just reading Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek and the female lead was a terrible student as well.  It was just more expected back then (pre-1960s) that most girls would not succeed and that they would either marry or find some other low-paying job.  The main issue would be whether they fell into the domestic servant category.  It was obviously a bigger blow if the family started out middle class; then one definitely would not want one's daughters going into service.  It isn't nearly as much of an issue here where the girl's parents are basically farmers.  She goes to work in the house of a doctor and his wife, who are relatively new to the area.  There are some very amusing scenes in the story, and it turns out that the girl, while not book-smart at all, does have some common sense and is even a bit sly.  (Whereas the female lead in A Game of Hide and Seek makes some very foolish mistakes, getting emotionally tangled in a completely undeserving and frankly boring/boorish Heathcliff type.)  There is a scene of considerable power where a woman betrayed turns on this young girl that manages to be kind of horrible, yet just a bit funny at the same time.  I think I will skip the details to leave it as a surprise if you haven't read the story before.

On the whole this is a reasonably good collection, though I think Lives of Girls and Women was more focused and a bit stronger.  I do think Munro's rawness over the break-up of her own marriage does get in the way a bit, as I wasn't as moved by nearly every story having marital problems at their root.  But I am supposing or at least hoping that she got this break-up collection out, and that the ones that followed are more varied.

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