Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alice Munro’s “To Reach Japan” and the Winter 2012 issue of Narrative

Alice Munro’s most recent story, “To Reach Japan,” has been published on the online journal Narrative. I have been receiving online stories from Narrative for a few years now. But I must confess that I do not always read the stories online. Although I have been using computers to research, organize, and write since the early days of CPM and Apple II (My first computer was a Kaypro a with a nine inch green screen and two floppy disc drives), I still cannot fully engage in reading stories on a computer screen or an Ipad/Kindle type tablet. Something about books, I reckon, that has been with me since I first picked up a copy of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I have had an e-reader for almost a year now, but have only read one book on it—a biography of J.D. Salinger.

I think e-readers are fine for “disposable books,” i.e. pop fictions, mainly novels, of course, that you read once for entertainment and then give away to a second-hand store; I also think they are great for textbooks and applaud Apple’s recent arrangement with text publishers to make inexpensive texts available for its Ipad;. The outrageous price publishers charge for texts and the absurd frequency with which they release “new editions” is scandalous; and forcing students to lug huge tomes around in backpacks because they have no lockers is unforgivable.

However, for my purposes--reading and studying short stories--I will cling to the solid feel of a book in my hand and carefully reading black ink on white paper. Thus, I was very happy recently to purchase and hold in my hand the handsome Winter 2012 issue of Narrative magazine—hefty but not overweight, with a slick firm cover and 360 pages filled with some twenty stories, a passel of poems, and a half dozen essays. I know the magazine is made up of PDF printouts of the stories, poems, and essays that have appeared on Narrative’s web site because I ordered a PDF version of Alice Munro’s story “To Reach Japan” ($4.00) when it first came out a few months ago; the pdf printout looks like a photocopy of the story as it appears in the magazine.

The very fact that the first thing I did when I downloaded the Alice Munro story was to make a hard copy, of course, says something about my addiction to pages and print. That I still went ahead and ordered the Winter issue of Narrative ($19.95) that contained the story, of course, testifies I am hopeless in my commitment to books.

I am not sure why Munro published “To Reach Japan” in the online magazine, Narrative. I know she has a first-refusal contract with The New Yorker, which means, I think, that she is required to send a story to them first and give them a chance to refuse it before she can send it to anyone else. Did The New Yorker (gasp!) turn down a story from Alice Munro? Or did they demur because they already had in hand another Munro story, “Leaving Maverley,” which appeared in the magazine at the end of November? Or was the story too long for them? I know that her quite long story “Too Much Happiness” appeared a few years ago in Harper’s. I also know that Narrative, like New Yorker and Harper’s (unlike most periodicals that publish short stories pay real money for stories they publish, and I certainly would not expect Alice Munro to give her stories away. After all, she is a professional writer, not an amateur. I thank my reader Jay for alerting me that another new Munro story is appearing in Granta in the issue that comes out next week. I have ordered the new issue and look forward to reading it. With the story that Bob Thacker has told me that Harpers has in hand, that makes a total of eight new stories for the new Munro book due out later this year.

. I have only a couple of complaints about the format of the new Narrative volume: Although it contains a story by a great short story writer, the cover of the issue is dominated by a huge close-up photo of Sherman Alexie in an open-mouthed laugh; his name and the title of his poem “In’din Curse” is in 48 point type. The picture of Alice Munro on the cover is about the size of a large postage stamp. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know; the picture of Alexie having a great laugh is more eye-catching than a picture of an octogenarian with white hair. But damn! Alexie’s little I-poem “In’din Curse” that hopes your bladder containing gallons will be crushed under the feet of a half-white dancer is just so trivial and juvenile! And another thing: Perhaps it is my age and eyesight, but the typeface of the stories in Narrative is pale and hard to read; moreover, the volume does not identify the title of each story on the page headings, something I also find annoying.

But never mind; it is the content of the “magazine” that counts most, of course. I didn’t like everything, but there was enough here to keep me engaged for several nights. I will make just a few brief comments about the pieces I liked best before talking in more detail about Alice Munro’s “To Read Japan.”

Amy Bloom’s “A Portion of Your Loveliness” is a clever, witty story by a writer who always makes me laugh and groan at the same time. This is a story about a woman whose young daughter’s favorite game is “Holocaust,” in which the little girl pretends she is an Anne Frank-like refugee hiding from, or captured by, the Nazis. It’s a humorous concept that Bloom takes very seriously; or else a serious concept that Bloom takes very humorously.

“Sitting In” by Will Boast, is an appealing story about a young boy who challenges an older man to play tuba in a small polka band. The older man is “possibly a Jew, exiled by the Holocaust,” and absolutely needs his role in the band to survive emotionally. It is an initiation for the boy into the adult world of loneliness and despair. I liked it.

Liz Moore’s “Our Neighbors the Bells” is told from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl who lives with her twenty-five-year-old mother and twin sister. The story is told in the present tense, but the narration is not that of an eight-year-old, although its short sentences and repetition might suggest a child’s voice. The son of the family across the street, Benny Bell, tells the mother he is in love with her, but her relationship with the family is an ambiguous one. An engaging story, it seems to me, about a child’s puzzled reaction to the mystery of adult reality.

I also like Mary Morris’s “Birds of Africa,” about a boy who breaks into homes of his neighbors to take a short nap on their beds and steal some inconsequential item. One of the items he takes is a book entitled Birds of Africa, with which he becomes fascinated.

Rick Bass’s essay about the trial and tribulations of taking out the carcass of an elk he has killed is typical Rick Bass, which, in my opinion, is always pretty damned good; and Jayne Anne Phillips’ review essay on E. L. Doctorow’s collection of new and selected stories, All the Time in the World is, as usual for Phillips (one of my favorite writers), smart and perceptive.

This is a handsome collection, well worth the $19.95 price tag.

I have written so often about Alice Munro on this blog that I don’t want to spend a great deal of time here on her story “To Reach Japan.” This story seems more like one of Munro’s earlier stories, not only because it focuses on a young woman (for Munro has of late been writing about women near her own age), but also because it follows a relatively linear plot line and does not seem to have the complex thematic structure that Munro’s later stories do.

The story focuses on a woman named Greta who is taking the train to Toronto with her young daughter Katy to housesit for a friend while her husband Peter works on a job in northern Canada. Peter and Greta differ in significant ways: He studied business while she was learning Paradise Lost. She avoids anything useful, while he does the opposite. While she has strong opinions about things, his opinions are even tempered. When he sees a movie or reads a book, for example, he never wants to talk about it and does not judge, saying that the people who put them together were probably doing as well as they could. Greta is more analytical and critical; she is a poet, who has had a few poems published.

In a bit of social background commentary, the omniscient narrator states that it is hard to explain the life of woman at the time the story takes place—a time when feminism did not exist. Any serious idea or ambition by a woman was seen “as some sort of crime against nature. Even reading a real book was behavior that was suspect, leading possibly to a child’s pneumonia, and making a political remark at a party might be said to be the cause of your husband’s failure to get a promotion.”

The background incident of the story occurs when Greta is invited to a party by the editor of the magazine where her poems were published. When she arrives, she knows no one there, is generally ignored, and becomes slightly drunk. She is rescued by a journalist named Harris Bennett, the son-in-law of the people who have given the part; he offers to take her home. He has adolescent children; his wife is in a hospital for “emotional problems.” On the way home, he says he was thinking of whether or not he would kiss Greta and decided he would not—which mortifies her at the time.

Greta cannot get Bennett out of her mind, thinks about him every day, nearly weeps with a “dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness,” although she chastises herself as an idiot for her romanticism. The offer to housesit in Toronto, where Harris lives, provides an opportunity to see him; so she finds his work address and writes the following note: “Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle—and hoping it will reach Japan.”

On the train trip to Toronto, Greta meets a couple of young actors named Greg and Laurie, who work with preschoolers. They are both beautiful and charming, playing with Katy and other children on the train. It is at this point that we get another personal insight into Greta and some more social background commentary about the time of the story. When Greta says that Greg is “remarkable,” Laurie says,”He doesn’t save himself up. You know? A lot of actors do. Actors in particular. Dead offstage.” Greta thinks that this is what she does--save herself up. “Careful with Katy, careful with Peter.” The narrator says that in the decade they had now entered—which seems probably to be the sixties—“Being there was to mean something it didn’t used to mean. Going with the flow. Give. People were giving, other people were not very giving. Barriers between the inside and outside of yourself were to be trampled down. Authenticity required it.”

When Laurie gets off the train (She had Greg have decided to separate), Greta and Greg have a drink together and end up having sex in his berth. When Greta returns to her own cabin, her daughter is not there; and she “went stupid” with the shock of it. However, after some panic, she pushes the door between the cars open and finds Katy sitting there. She tries to justify all this by saying that surely someone would have found Katy, but she is obviously shaken and feeling terribly guilty about the whole thing. After Greg leaves the train at the next stop, she scolds herself for allowing other things to crowd Katy out—the “idiotic preoccupation” with the man in Toronto, her fantasies of writing poetry—all this now seemed “traitorous” to Katy and her husband—“A sin. The inattention. Coldhearted foraging attention to something else than the child. A sin.”

However, when they get off the train at the Toronto station, a man walks up and takes hold of Greta and kisses her “in a determined and celebratory way.” It is, of course, Harris Bennett.

The story ends this way:

“First a shock, then a tumbling in Greta’s insides, an immense settling.

She was trying to hang on to Katy but at that moment the child pulled away, she got her hand free.

She didn’t try to escape, she just stood. Downcast, waiting for whatever had to come next.”

I wonder if this is a story Munro wrote several years ago and never got published—either because The New Yorker turned it down or because she was not satisfied with it. It has several familiar Munro features in it: a woman who wants to be a writer married to a man who is practical and business minded; a woman who has mixed feelings about the counterculture of the sixties—averse to it by her culture, but drawn to it by romantic notions stimulated by literature; a woman who often neglects her domestic and motherly duties with her romantic fantasies, but then feels guilty about this. A woman who commits the “sin” of inattention to her child while indulging in her own romantic fantasies. Munro has written about these things before, and anyone who has read Robert Thacker’s biography of Munro will surely recognize some of these characteristics of Munro herself when she was a young wife and experienced conflicts between her domestic duties and her ambition to write.

Engaging in romantic impulsive behavior perhaps because of the influence of literature is a common Munro theme, as is the influence of actors or acting on one’s view of the world. The cultural/social background of the emerging of the sexually permissive sixties is also a common Munro theme, especially in her early stores, as is the influence of emerging feminism on female behavior.

However, this story does not seem to me to be as complex either thematically or structurally as Munro’s later stories, which also makes me suspect that it is an early story that she has perhaps “rescued” to fill out her new book. I will check with Bob Thacker, who is the expert on all things relative to Munro’s


Babette Fraser Hale said...

I commented about this on the previous blog entry. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Re: Textbooks. I taught Intro to Movies at the Milwaukee Center of Upper Iowa University for years and must have gone through four editions. Nothing changed but the pictures--updated with current movies. Dex