Brent, where was it we read some internet commenter using Alice Munro as a stand-in for a kind of fiction they could not stand, the kind of blanched realism you might see in The New Yorker? It was a comment from someone who didn't understand, perhaps even had never read, Munro. Surely it was a man. If such things are worth responding to, one might steer him toward this collection, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, which opened my eyes to just how modernist and metafictional Munro can be. These stories are all about the way that we tell stories, and how we do so even in moments where we're not sure we're telling stories at all. The elderly man who is the protagonist of "Walking on Water" considers his dreams about his mother and siblings, all dead:
This dream always left some weight on his mind. He supposed it was because he was still carrying around, for part of the day, the presences of dead people, father and mother, brother and sister, whose faces he could not clearly remember when he was awake. How to convey the solidity, the complexity, reality, of those presences--even if he had anybody to convey them to? It almost seemed to him there must be a place where they moved with independence, undiminished authority, outside his own mind: it was hard to believe he had authored them himself.
And the word "author" is no coincidence. Dreaming is not a conscious or deliberate act, but sometimes neither is writing a story, and both are a process of describing the world using the unreliable tools we are given, up to and including those who have been most real to us. You can tell a story about your dead mother, or you can dream about her, but is the story you are really telling, and every story, about yourself? In "Tell Me Yes or No," a woman imagines a really complicated chain of events in which she travels to a faraway city where a man lived, and recently died, whom she had pursued a brief flirtation. She hangs around his widow's bookstore, she gets spotted, and given a sheaf of letters, which she takes, but--here's the twist--the letters are not hers, they are from some other woman. But what do we make of the way Munro has framed the story, gently remind us in the end that none of this "really" happened?:
Never mind. I invented her. I invented you, as far as my purposes go. I invented loving you and I invented your death. I have my tricks and my trap doors, too. I don't understand their workings at the present moment, but I have to be careful, I won't speak against them.
The story of the flirtation and the letters would be good, would be Munrovian, enough. The pretense of imagination actually throws the story off kilter somehow, and makes it deeply, perhaps intentionally, unsatisfying. Munro, one of the least stylistically artificial writers I know, feels compelled to remind is that all of it is a fiction. Like the protagonist of "Walking on Water," and the storyteller in "Yes or No," Munro seems to believe that the engines that drive storytelling are inscrutable, they happen at the level of instinct. In "The Ottawa Valley," a woman telling a story about her mother (it's always mothers) tells us, "Yet I have not invented it, I really believe it. Without any proof I believe it, and so I must believe that we get messages another way, that we have connections that cannot be investigated, but have to be relied on." You have to trust the thing that tells stories in you, Munro says, even as you know the stories are not the same as the real.
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You is also obsessed with hippies. That makes sense: as a collection it was released in 1974. The elderly man of "Walking on Water" befriends a young hippie man who tries, and fails, to walk on water like Jesus, but the practical failure of his attempt only emphasizes the gulf between their understandings of the world. In "Marrakesh," an old woman watches her daughter grow up into hippiedom, and thinks of how different women are these days, who move "as smoothly as eels among their varied and innocent and transitory loves." The forgiveness in "Forgiveness in Families" is granted toward the sibling who has taken up with a bunch of Hare Krishna-types. It seems a bit quaint, this use of hippie culture to mark the alienating effects of time, but it works because Munro is too wise to think of such change as anything but cyclical. And she fascinates, too, because so often she writes from the perspective of the conventional, understanding its appeal far better than most:
You know, everybody knows, the catalogue of delusions we described to in the fifties; it is too easy to mock them, to announce that maturity was indicated by possession of automatic washers and a muting of political discontent, by addiction to childbearing and station wagons. Too easy and not the whole truth, because it leaves out something that was appealing, I think, in our heaviness and docility, our love of limits.
What a finely tuned thing to write, I think, and not detract from the fierce undercurrent of feminism that runs through almost all of Munro's stories. My favorite here is the black-hearted "Material," about a woman who thinks with regret on her first marriage, to a self-absorbed writer who hadn't yet made it big. She writes about how once he turned off a noisy pump, knowing it might flood the apartment of the eccentric woman downstairs, so he could sleep better, and thus write better. What a terrific expression of the cruelty of self-professed male genius, which victimizes real women under the pretense of art. (Lord knows we've seen examples enough of that in the past year.) But years later, Hugo writes a story about her, the neighbor, and the narrator must admit that it's very good:
How honest this is and how lovely, I had to say as I read. I had to admit. I was moved by Hugo's story; I was, I am, glad of it, and I am not moved by tricks. Or if I am, they have to be good tricks. Lovely tricks, honest tricks. There is Dotty lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of special, unsparing, unsentimental love. A fine and lucky benevolence. Dotty was a lucky person, people who understand and value this act might say (not everybody, of course, does understand and value this act); she was lucky to live in that basement for a few months and eventually to have this done to her, though she doesn't know what has been done and wouldn't care for it, probably, if she did know. She has passed into Art. It doesn't happen to everyone.
This incredible passage returns us to the metafictional stuff I mentioned, the obsession with how the fact of a life is transmuted into narrative in its many forms. Hugo does it, but so does the narrator in her own account of Dotty, and so does Munro, who should not be pardoned because Dotty wasn't real; she's real enough. The contradictory nature of the act is captured in the oxymoron "honest tricks," and that's what a good story is: a trick you let someone play on you, which somehow reflects the truth of the world. This act she calls an "act of love," the gift of noticing Dotty--if you want to write about life, the narrator told Hugo once upon a time, you ought to write about Dotty--and putting her on the page. Nor is the love lessened by the presumption that Dotty would reject it.
But how does that act of love balance against the cruelty of the pump? The question goes to the very heart of the discussion we cannot stop ourselves from having, about the moral value of art, and how it can or cannot be extricated from malice. Can we read a kind of self-incrimination, a confession that writing about a person can be both love and erasure? Or does the accusation extend only to men and their suffering muses? Just when you think Munro, a master of the unresolved, is going to leave us with only questions to ponder, the narrator scribbles out this letter to her ex-husband:
This is not enough, Hugo. You think it is, but it isn't. You are mistaken.
There you go. It's not enough.