Sunday, June 19, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 18th Review - The Moons of Jupiter

It's actually a bit shocking how long I have been sitting on this review (roughly 5 months).  It is unfortunate, as this is my overall favourite Munro collection to date, though I have to admit it gets off to a fairly slow start.  Overall, The Moons of Jupiter is a welcome return to form from Alice Munro.  I really wasn't all that crazy about Who Do You Think You Are?, particularly when Munro was clearly using these stories to work out issues with her own marriage and essentially attack her former husband.

There is one moment that was very uncomfortable in the first story (or rather a pair of stories -- "Chaddeleys and Flemings") where her husband criticizes one her relatives and she throws a plate at his head.  The plate misses him but he still ends up with pie on his face.  Munro has a short note about how what sort of seems funny on TV or in the movies can be shocking in real life (though of course this is still just mediated experience in a supposedly entertaining story).  The narrator of these stories doesn't really acknowledge that she was deeply in the wrong and that violence is never acceptable in a marriage.  So I was worried that this would be another collection where Munro was still going to be attacking her ex-husband in various ways.  Fortunately, this was the last story along those lines.

I found the next story "Dulce" to be kind of meandering and the next one was sort of a snapshot of a youngster learning about the adult world as she worked in a turkey processing plant over the summer.

"Accident" is the first story where Munro really throws the reader a curve ball.  The story starts off describing a somewhat desultory affair between two teachers in small town Ontario (still Hanratty).  Then there is a terrible automobile accident, which sends the main couple into a somewhat unexpected direction.  Perhaps one could call it the carpe diem effect, though of course not everyone agrees on what (or whom) must be seized (or life would be much easier).  This was the first story in the collection that really caught my attention.

I also appreciated "Labor Day Dinner" which featured a near-accident that got the main character thinking about the preciousness of life.  This story essentially showed the inner thoughts of two people in a second marriage and was a bit more rounded than some of Munro's earlier stories (particularly those in Who Do You Think You Are?).  It started out with getting into the head of Roberta, who was starting to feel dissatisfied with her marriage to Gary, primarily around how he subtly (or unsubtly) criticized the way she was raising her children.  She seemed to feel that they needed the summer off to deal with the new family dynamics, and Gary basically felt they should be doing "something" or working.  (This is what I remember, but it has been a long time since my first reading of the story.)  Where this is a bit different from earlier Munro stories is that Munro then shifts perspective to Gary and shows how some of his frustration stems from being the unappreciated bread-earner who is actually somewhat unsure of his status, particularly with the children, who seem to be comparing him to their father in a sort of competition (where he doesn't really know the rules).  This is somewhat akin to Eliot's Middlemarch, though Munro isn't quite so blunt about what her characters are thinking and the reader must infer quite a bit.  We even see a bit into the minds of the children, and one is more or less a peace-maker while the other one never wants to fall in love, since she doesn't like the changes that have come over her mother.  This sounds like it could be the set-up for some heavy play by Eugene O'Neil when in fact it is basically just a pretty typical day for a blended family, and Munro seems to hint that one shouldn't dwell too much on the negatives since family dynamics are changing all the time and in some cases getting better.  It is very possible that next summer, the children (particularly Eva, the younger) will be more accepting of Gary.  Roberta wants to get back to work (as a book illustrator) and Gary is supportive of this in a general way, so it might well happen.  Of course, it might not and they end up in a very crabbed marriage, but that wasn't the sense I got from the ending of the story.  Again, I may be over-interpreting what is going on, but I generally think that Munro is good at exploring these transitory states and how a person's life and even their feelings about their own life isn't stable.  (One very good exploration of this idea is Michel Tremblay's Albertine in 5 times where Albertine alternates between being deeply discouraged about her life and being more upbeat or at least more philosophical.)  I'll come back to this idea when I write about the title story.

Munro was basically in her late 40s during the writing of these stories, but she may well have started facing up to the ordeals of dealing with elderly parents (again a major theme of "The Moons of Jupiter").  "Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd" features two older women in a managed care facility of some type.  They look out for each other, and the story mostly appears to be about perseverance and finding ways to manage in a fairly impersonal institution.  Munro actually has written a fair bit about old women ending up along in these kinds of nursing homes (especially Flo in Who Do You Think You Are?), and it possibly was one of her biggest fears that it would happen to her.

"Visitors" is a slightly different take on aging, about a couple that has retired (relatively recently?) -- Mildred and Wilfred -- and how Wilfred's brother has turned up on a visit with his wife and her sister (who is almost a twin).  Their house is quite small and they struggle to fit everyone in.  Fortunately, the 3 visitors are stick-thin, but the couple are overweight and can hardly seem to fit into their own bed now that they are obliged to sleep in one room, rather than wherever they choose in their home.  Wilfred has stayed relatively close to where they grew up, though he has never visited.  (He had a hard-luck story of their mother dying giving birth to him and then his aunt dying when he was roughly 12 and his uncle driving him out of the house to fend for himself.  His brother was somewhat older and somehow managed to get to business college but wasn't in a position to help Wilfred out.) Mildred convinces everyone to head out to see the old homestead about 45 miles away.  It turns out that the old farm has vanished, and they spend nearly as much time investigating and talking about a nearby swamp.  Mildred is astonished how the two sisters are like peas in a pod, while Wilfred and his brother Alfred don't seem to have anything at all in common, not even their general outlook on life, with Wilfred being the more easy-going and open of the two, despite having less education and certainly fewer opportunities.  After the visitors leave, Mildred is astonished to find Wilfred crying and saying that he will never see Alfred again.  Mildred says that it isn't that difficult for them to visit his brother in Saskatchewan, though she thinks it "she would be as likely to visit Siberia."  The story feels set in a time when physical distances across Canada were shrinking but the psychological feeling of separation still remained.  I can attest that long-distance phone call bills in the late 70s and early 80s were nothing to sneeze at, so people just didn't stay quite as connected.  In a sense, this story occurs at a midway point on the mobility/connectedness spectrum when compared to an episode from Gabrielle Roy's Street of Riches where the narrator and her mother go off on an extended trip back to Quebec to see relatives at a time when the general population just didn't make long-distance pleasure trips.

The collection ends with "The Moons of Jupiter," which is another story that hints at multiple viewpoints (in this case the narrator, Janet, and her father).  The father has suffered a medical episode with his heart and he is given only 3 or so months to live unless he has surgery.  After a night of reflection (and listening to an older, more cautious doctor), it appears that he has decided against the surgery, and Janet takes this in stride.  He never made a fuss, and this seems natural to her that he would take the path of least resistance, i.e. going home and trying to take it easy during his last days.  Then there is a bit of a discursion where Janet remembers how she was upset when her father confided that her formative years were just a blur to him (when they were so crystal clear in her memory) and then she finds the same thing has happened to her with her two children.  At any rate, she calls her father and finds out that he is about to drive back to Toronto for the surgery after all.  He says in an offhand way that he "might as well" have the surgery.  It turns out that he didn't want to go gently into the night after all.  (I suspect this is another area where Janet will come over to his point of view when she is his age.  There are very few people who are truly stoic when it comes to their own demise, or at least if they are not in a state of constant pain, which is another thing altogether.  There is no indication that her father is suffering in any meaningful way, other than having a somewhat wonky heart.)

The story wraps up with a bit of a discussion of Janet's visit to the ROM and the planetarium (where she sees a show about the planets and the moons of Jupiter) while she has some time to kill between tests that the hospital is doing to ensure that her father is stable enough for surgery.  She spends most of her time at the ROM in the Chinese temple that used to be on the Bloor side of the museum (where the gift shop inside the hideous Crystal is now).  Both the planetarium show and the sense of eternity one gets in a really old space (even a reconstructed one) calm her down and let her take the longer view.  While the surgery most likely will be successful, there is no question her father may not wake up and he will be snuffed out like a candle, i.e. all at once, and this actually seems to be what is bothering her.  It seems that she would have preferred the assurance of more time spent with him (even though it might only have been for a few more months) as opposed to this gambit, this gamble, for a longer time spent on the earth.  Still, she realizes it was his choice to make.  Again, I liked the way that multiple viewpoints come through in the story, and Janet recognizes that her decisions or preferences are not inherently better than her father's.  Also, I liked how this story memorialized the ROM in its glory days before the horrible desecration by Libeskind.

After a fairly thorough revisiting of this collection, it appears that my positive view of it stems primarily from "Labor Day Dinner" and "The Moons of Jupiter," though some of the other stories are interesting.  I found it impressive how a number of viewpoints could be represented in short form.  I do hope that this was not a fluke and this is the way Munro's writing was trending.  It might be a while (six months or so) before I get around to her next collection, The Progress of Love, though I have said I would make an attempt to read more Canadian fiction during the 10th Canadian Challenge, so perhaps I will end up picking up the pace a bit to ensure I get through that and Friend of My Youth before the next (but hopefully not last!) Challenge ends.

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