Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Memoir vs. Fiction

The special winter fiction issue of The New Yorker includes a new story by Alice Munro. That is always cause for gladness. The Contributors section informs us that she has a new collection, Too Much Happiness, coming out in late 2009. That is cause for even more celebration.

It is not just my opinion, but the opinion of practically every reviewer and critic I have read, that Alice Munro is our greatest living short-story writer--the Chekhov of the twentieth and twentieth-first century. Some might vote for William Trevor, but these two greats seem to have no rival.

It seems to me that if one could get at what makes these two writers such masters of the short story, one could formulate some tentative understanding of just what unique characteristics the short story as a genre has.

Perhaps not. Maybe if one could formulate the basic characteristics of Joyce Carol Oates' stories (And Lord knows she has written a lot of them), one could formulate such an understanding of the genre.

However, one basic difference between the stories of Oates and the stories of Munro, it seems to me, is that whereas one could learn how to write stories like Oates, one could not learn how to write stories like Alice Munro. Why is that?

Perhaps more on this at another time. What I want to discuss vis a vis the new Munro story in The New Yorker, entitled "Some Women," is the relationship between memoir and fiction, particularly a memoir anecdote and a short story.

Although the Munro piece is labeled "fiction," it begins like a memoir: "I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am. I can remember when the streets of the town I lived in were sprinkled with water to lay the dust in summer...."

The narrator is an old woman (we don't know how old) who recalls a summer when she was thirteen and got her first job. We don't see her, so we do not know what she looks like; we only hear a voice and imagine a thirteen-year-old girl having the experience of assisting an old woman care for her stepson, who has come back from the war, gone to college, studied history, got married, and then got leukemia. He and his wife, Sylvia, who teaches summer school at a nearby college, now live with the stepmother, "Old Mrs. Crozier." He is referred to as "Young Mr. Crozier." He is in an upstairs bedroom. The girl has few responsibilities--bringing him water, pulling the shades up and down, adjusting the position of the fan.

Into the household comes a young masseuse named Roxanne, who gives Old Mrs. Crozier massages. She is loud and boisterous and not a little vulgar--telling dirty jokes, spending more and more time with Mr. Crozier, teasing, and flirting.

On the narrator's last day of work, Mr. Crozier asks her to lock him in his room and give the key to his wife when she comes home. Roxanne tries to get in the room, but cannot. She wants to call the police, fearing he may try to kill himself. Old Mrs. Crozier tells her to mind her own business. Roxanne leaves; Sylvia comes home and goes into the room and talks to her husband, although this happens offstage, so we do not know what they say. She then takes the narrator home, and the story ends. The brief postlude informs us that Sylvia takes her husband to a rented cottage on the lake and that he dies before winter. Roxanne and her husband and children move away. The narrator's mother contracts a crippling disease. Old Mrs. Crozier has a stroke, recovers, and buys Halloween candy for children whose older brothers and sisters she had ordered from her door. The last line of the story is: "I grew up and old."

Those are the characters and the events of the story. So what makes it a short story rather than a memoir? Is it merely the question: Did it really happen or did Alice Munro make it up? Or is there something else about a short story that sets it apart from a recollection?

I have some suggestions about this, but would prefer to hear from some of my readers before I contaminate the discussion with my ideas. I hope you read the story. But even if you do not, perhaps you would venture some notions about the general issue of memoir vs. fiction. I will wait a week and then rejoin the discussion of this issue.


Charlene said...

Hi Charles,

Here are a few of my thoughts on the memoir vs. short story issue after reading “Some Women.”

In the short story, there’s an author, a narrator, and characters. The author is not the narrator. In a memoir, the author and narrator are the same.

Although the story’s details and experience read authentic, this is what a reader usually expects. I have not read enough about Alice Munro to know if she was ever a nurse. The last story of hers I read was “The Love of a Good Woman, where a young woman cares for the needs of a dying woman. I might suspect Munro had cared for someone who was sick and knew intimately of that experience, but as a reader/writer, not an academic, it’s irrelevant to my read.

What I found interesting about “Some Women” was that there was an author, an implied author (the narrator now old), the narrator at 13, and the collective women characters. The intangible qualities of this story—the dust, the stillness, the placing of the fan, the untouched books, the separateness of rooms in an old house—is what settles over me as I read, a damping down of life. For a summer, the narrator as a young girl becomes one of the women in this house, doing not a whole lot but moving a fan in and out of a room and eventually locking it off. She is an observer, not really changed at that point in time beyond a bit of wisdom she wanted to “shake off back then.”

On the girl's last day, Sylvia/the wife remarks that the air is finally moving, but the narrator feels only what she feels at the time, that it is just the car moving with open windows. It is the older narrator, grown up and quite old, who can look back and recognize the ramifications of that one act of locking the dying man’s door. Although she doesn’t tell us this outright, it is implied by the moments she chooses to narrate to us, which is so precise because of the author's skill.

Thanks for starting the blog. I come to it via Rolf.


Rolf said...

Great having Charlene join us...a splendid author.

Alice Munro frequently turns me out of her stories in a strange state of satisfaction, yet left with open questions, an unease. I’m never sure if this is because I’m incapable of grasping the truth in her work or if it is ineffable. This is true of "Some Women" for me.

Because Charles brings it up, I’ll put my sense of--- mystery --- in the context of the memoir. I’m using the word “mystery” because I never quite get to the word I want to use about these stories of hers I find so compelling. There are a few writers who affect me this way. Not Trevor, for example. But Antonya Nelson does this sometimes. Some of Faulkner. Sometimes a guy almost forgotten, Conrad Aiken. But I find all of them still more accessible than Munro.

I think 1st person tends to get into the clothes of memoir, or at least its underwear. But the fiction writer is declaring the story to be something beyond memoir by calling it a story. By departing from memoir, or declaring it to be so, the writer is taking events into her own hands. The story, then, reaches some greater truth or illumination out of design, rather than happenstance. In other words, in a memoir a lousy, unfulfilling outcome might be just fate. In a story, it’s all the writer’s fault. (Or intention.)

I’m just into the early reading of Some Women, and to be frank, I don’t trust myself completely with any reading of any Alice Munro story. But at this point, I think the most interesting choice made is her last line. It serves the very odd final moment of pulling me completely out of the story’s time, taking me to the mind of this adult character who observed the events. This reminds me that the key to a 1st person story is the almost always truthful statement, "An I story is about I.”

(I have a years long argument about that regarding Moby Dick, however. Is it really about Ishmael?)

In doing that, the author reminds me that everything in this story is a choice. There is no element of if that exists outside the context of the work. For example, the oddly skewed sense of eroticism in this story, the naked old woman, the coy moments in the sick room, the checkers game, the strange banishment of the step-mother and Mrs. Hoy, this is all intentional, part of the story teller’s shell game. It is not the unintentional revelation of memoir… even if it pretends to be so.

So what I’m saying, there is a rigor to short fiction one does not expect or demand in memoir. And the short story, if compelling enough, will require a reader to return to it, as I will to this very demanding and seductive story by Alice Munro.

Frankly, I never quite feel I am wise enough to get everything Munro is putting in front of me. But I suspect she may find her own best work to be a bit mysterious to herself, as mine is to me.

Nice choice Charles! And I finally realized the fiction issue was under the Mondrian cover.

Becky said...

I think that a lot of readers just don't see how "wired" some stories are (like Oates's, or A.M Homes's). They have a visceral reaction to them, just as you have to a Munro story. I've noticed that the older I get, I need stories that, as you say, don't "show their hand." I don't want to see the rigging. And so explains my greater appreciation for Munro. So, is it just an experience thing?
T.C. Boyle and Oates are read a lot in academia partly because, I think, they are so themey (like many novels?). And it's much easier to point to the fairly obvious thematic markers in their stories, and then you can feel that satisfaction of having taught your students something. And, yeah, I often sense that they started with an idea and positioned characters and plot in such a way to convey that idea. Not to say that's the wrong way to write, only that it feels to me at times, well, shrewd, rather than imaginative. I don't want to dis Oates, because I do enjoy reading her. But I don't mind taking Boyle down a few notches.
And certainly Munro does some monoeuvering of her own. She must know at some point what her story is "about" and shapes it in light of her own understanding. One point in "Some Women" the narrator tells us that she found Roxanne's flirtations "Insulting." For some reason, that stuck out to me as Munro very subtly positioning her readers. It has the effect of opening the story up wider. Exactly why, I can't say. And there are, the many repeated elements that your other commenters pointed out. It's just that she does it in such a way that we feel the story wash over us, rather than moving our way through it intellectually. Or something like that.

I'm so glad you've started a blog.


Anonymous said...

It's about time someone said what many feel about Alice Munro. Her stories are terribly boring and her world is ugly. We are cheesed off with her fastidious analysis of the trivial mentalities of the petit middle class. She hasn't got Flaubert's class. She's not a patch on Doris lessing and Nadine Gordimer. It was very shocking she got the Booker before Naipaul, a genius. Her influence on the market is deadly, elbowing out authors whose style is esthetic or baroque or experimental.