Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity.  Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in.  He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist.  He was not alive when this century started.  I will be barely alive--old, old--when it ends.  I do not like to think of it.  I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.

Gosh.  If I could write like anyone in the world, I'd write like Alice Munro.  In so many ways her writing is so unextraordinary--there's nothing particularly strange, or experimental, about her--but it always seems to me the embodiment of the mot juste, the search for the perfect word.  Who else but Alice Munro can describe the "snowdrifts curled around our house like sleeping whales?"

Dance of the Happy Shades is especially affecting because it's Munro's first collection.  I don't want to know how old she was when she wrote these stories; I'm sure it would depress me.  The stories are incredibly self-assured, but do very similar things; they lack a kind of structural weirdness that characterizes some of the stories in Runaway or Dear LifeThey're very similar to Lives of Girls and Women, my favorite, and in fact at least two of the stories are narrated by Del Jordan, the narrator of all the stories in Girls and Women.  Kind of like a dry run, I guess.  Those stories are excellent: in one, Del accompanies her traveling salesman father to a house of a strange woman whom she discovers is her father's old flame.  In another, she and her father end up at the house of a strange, mentally challenged, possibly dangerous man who gives his cat whiskey.  They keep it a secret between them:

Like the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared ot live happily ever after--like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.

These "slice of life" stories epitomize the idea that domestic lives are "deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum," as she writes in Girls and Women.  They share something with the epiphanic moments of Joyce, in which ordinary life becomes elevated for a moment, but Munro always manages to suggest that all of life has the potential for that superadded meaning or elevation.

I particularly loved a story called "The Office," which might have been autobiographical.  The narrator, an amateur writer, wants an office to do her writing in.  It's impossible, she says, for a woman to write at home:

A house is all right for a man to work in.  He brings his work into the house, a place is cleared for it; the house rearranges itself as best it can around him  Everybody recognizes that his work exists.  He is not expected to answer the telephone, to find things that are lost, to see why the children are crying, or feed the cat.  He can shut his door.  Imagine (I said) a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it; why, the very thought of it is outrageous to them.  A woman who sits staring into space, into a country that is not her husband's or her children's is likewise known to be an offence against nature.  So a house is not the same for a woman.  She is not someone who walks into the house, to make use of it, and will walk out again.  She is the house; there is no separation possible.

She finds an office, but the male landlord keeps bugging her with a kind of aggressive friendliness, or friendly aggression.  He brings her plants to make the office more like home, not realizing that "home" is the last thing she wants; he bugs her with his own story, thinking that she, as a writer might like to use it.  When she rebuffs his presumptions, he begins to believe conspiratorial things about her, accusing her of using the office as a place for secret sex trysts.  Ultimately, she's forced to give up the office.  Virginia Woolf wrote about the necessity of women having "a room of one's own," and "The Office" is the story of just how difficult such a thing can be to come by for women.  It's simple and it wears Woolf's idea on its sleeve, but the story wrings a great deal of power out of this single idea.

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