Thursday, January 19, 2012

Popular Plotted vs. Literary Thematic Stories: Margaret Atwood vs. Alice Munro—Part II

I appreciate the many kind comments I received on my post about Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress,” even those, of course, that did not agree with me. And I am pleased that they have been looking forward to this discussion of Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley.”

However, first I want to clarify my conviction that short stories often have to be read more than once. When I posted an essay on this issue on the very fine blog “Thresholds,” I received a mild roasting from Mike Smith, a regular to that blog. In my own post, I argued that short stories could not be skimmed, read quickly, or summarized. Mike begged to disagree, concluding, after a discussion of one of his own favorite writers, Stephen King, that if short stories were not immediately accessible at some level, they fail in their primary function, which is to “entertain” in what Poe described as one or two hours.

Although I do not think that the primary function of a short story is to “entertain,” that is, unless the word “entertain” is understood as something more complex than a Steven King shiver, but rather that the primary function of a short story is to provide a stimulating experience with what it mysteriously means to be a thinking, feeling human being in the world. However, the primary reason I think that short stories must be read more than once does not have to do with the opaqueness of their language, but rather with the way that many stories structure that stimulating human experience. I argued in the blog on “Stone Mattress” that Atwood’s story was a relatively simple plot-based surface level “entertainment” that revealed little about complex human reality.

Readersquest, one of my favorite readers of this blog because she likes playing the gadfly and because her own blog posts are interesting, earnest, and stimulating (but more about that a bit later) commented: “I guess at heart I'm still just a child who gets a huge dopamine rush, upon opening a book or a magazine, because I think the author is going to tell me a story. I may be a junkie for unliterary crack. I don't pretend to know what constitutes "social substance" or "artistic importance" in a short story--and I'm not sure that I'd want to read anything by a writer who was so self-important that they'd try to tell me something socially substantive or artistically important anyway!”

Although I have no patience with writers who try to pile “socially substantive” stuff on me, I have no objection to writers who dare to offer me something “artistically important,” that is, of course, unless their sense of “self-importance” is misplaced, like that of Julian Barnes, whose Man Booker prize-winner The Sense of an Ending is pretentious and light-weight (but more about that in a week or so). I don’t think Alice Munro presents herself as “self important,” the way Barnes did in his acceptance speech at the Man Booker Awards; however, I think she would be a lesser writer if she did not believe that what she writes is important. In my opinion, Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” has more “artistic importance” than Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” because it explores something complex about how human beings think and behave in the world and because it carefully structures that complexity in the only way stories can—with language. Readersquest says in her comment: “I look forward to reading Part II of this post, because I really don't enjoy the kind of stories that offer me only artifacts of "language-based thematic.” I hope she finds the following discussion an interesting description of the process by which I read “Leaving Maverley”:

As I began to read Alice Munro’s story “Leaving Maverley” for the fourth time, I was reminded how complex a process reading a story is when you have already read it once and know what “happens” in it as an account of events involving characters in the world.

If you already know what happens, why would you want to read it again? What do you “attend to” when you read it a second or third or fourth time? Well, for one thing, when you read a story the first time, you probably focus so much on “seeing” what happens that you might fail to focus on “hearing” the words of the story. In the opening paragraph of “Leaving Maverley,” you visualize the movie theatre and the owner Morgan Holly, but perhaps are not aware of the rhythm of the sentences. Take the opening sentence: “In the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town there was one in this town too, in Maverley, and it was called the Capital, as such theatres often were.” There are many ways this information could have been communicated, e.g. “Every town used to have a movie theatre; Maverley had one with the common name the Capital.” However, something is lost with this revision, even though it seems to follow Strunk and White’s famous advice in Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.”

Munro’s sentence has a “once upon a time” (which, as Bruno Bettelheim has suggested, might better be translated as “one there was; once there will be”) familiarity to it that alerts us to a story about something in the past that may indeed have timeless significance. The phrase “this town” suggests the teller has some first-hand knowledge and is perhaps telling of the events as an effort to understand and articulate their significance. The ending phrase, “as such theatres often were,” suggests some broader contextual historical knowledge also. This rhythm is continued in subsequent paragraphs with short storytelling sentences such as “So the girl came. Her name was Leah” and “There was one problem.”

Although it could not have occurred to us on the first reading, a second reading may lead us to ask why Munro opens the story with the movie theater and its owner, since neither play a significant role in the remainder of the story. This seems to ignore Poe’s injunction: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” It also seems to ignore Chekhov’s advice: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”

However, neither Poe nor Chekhov meant to suggest that every detail in the story must contribute to the “plot” or events of the story, for neither believed that plot was the most important element in a story; both were more concerned with thematic “design” or pattern. If we assume that “Leaving Maverley” is built around a spatial thematic pattern rather than a temporal action plot, then we might suspect that the theatre and its owner are related to significance rather than to events. Furthermore, since we have read the story through once and know that it has something to do with the “secret lives” of its characters, with the mysterious way that unions are created and promises broken, we might suspect that the following introductory details of the story have thematic significance:

*The owner of the theatre, Morgan Holly, does not like dealing with the public;

*Holly prefers to manage the story on the screen.

*The ticket-taker who gets pregnant must quit because “in those days you were supposed to get out of the public eye before you began to show”;

*Morgan Holly “disliked change and the idea of people having private lives.”

*The new girl’s name is Leah; we know Munro’s choice of name is not incidental because Holly asks her about it, and she tells him it is out of the Bible, and because the story ends with a reference to the name. (In Genesis 29, Jacob works for seven years for his chosen Rachel; but Rachel’s father gives him her older sister Leah instead, and he must work another seven years for the woman he wants).

*Leah is forbidden by her father either to look at the movie screen or to listen to the dialogue. Holly agrees, but deceives the father by telling him the theatre is soundproof;

These themes about staying away from the public, dealing with depicted stories rather than “real” people, disliking private lives, being isolated from what is going on, etc. are echoed later when the night policeman Ray Elliot and his wife Isabel are introduced. They have been isolated from the town by the scandal of her leaving her husband for Ray; he brings her news from the town and she, a teacher of English Language and Literature, tells him what she is reading.

The theme of “story” or telling about events rather than experiencing them or being involved in them is related to the theme of “acting” or “fictional reality” brought up when on their walks home, having little to talk about, Leah asks Ray, who sits in on the movies, what the audience had been laughing about. He tells her that he does not get involved in the movies, seeing them only in bits and pieces, so he seldom follows the plots. When Leah asks him what he means by “plots,” he tells her the movies tell “stories.” He does not tell her any specific story, but generically generalizes what the stories are about: “crooks and innocent people and that the crooks generally managed well enough at first by committing their crimes and hoodwinking people singing in night clubs or sometimes, God knows why, singing on mountaintops or in some other unlikely outdoor scenery, holding up the action.” Ray tells Leah that in the movies there are dressed-up actors with glycerin tears, jungle animals brought in from zoos, “people getting up from being murdered in various way the moment the camera was off them”—in other words, that the movies do not deal with reality but rather a similitude of reality, with pretending.

The next section of the story focuses on an event in which Leah is actually involved—running away with the minister’s son--but the event seems distant and unreal to the reader, like the movies played out of sight, because it is known to us only through Ray, who did not even know Leah was working for the minister and his wife. He is surprised that Leah had not mentioned it—“Even though, compared with the theatre, it hardly seemed like much of a foray into the world.” This is ironic, since Leah’s work at the theatre is hardly an encounter with the world, but rather an encounter with a pretend world and even that at a distance. Later Ray’s wife Isabel teases him, “wondering if it was on account of his descriptions of the wide world via the movies that the girl had got the idea.” Thus, the theme of acting as if one were in a story, being motivated to do things because that is how people in movies might do them, is suggested.

The next section of “Leaving Maverley” takes place a few years later when, after Isabel’s illness has necessitated hiring a nurse, Ray runs into Leah on the street with a two-year-old baby boy and a little girl. Although their conversation seems inconsequential, “there was a feeling that she didn’t quite want to part with Ray yet, and Ray did not want it, either, but it was hard to think of anything else to say.” Indeed, there is some tacit or immanent connection between Ray and Leah, it is not something that can be articulated, for, as is often the case, one cannot be sure if it is “real” or not.

When Isabel gets worse, Ray takes her to a hospital in the city. When she fails to wake up one morning and must be transferred to a section of the hospital for people who have no chance of improving but refuse to die, Ray goes back to Maverley and sells his house and leaves: “All those years in the town, all he knew about it, seemed to just slip away from him.” Thus, the title of the story. Although Ray leaves Maverley because Isabel has already left it, one could hardly say that they have any real connection to the town.

There is yet one more “story” or scandal about Leah that leads to her “leaving” Maverley. The United Church Minister wants his wife to divorce him on the grounds of adultery with Leah. The Minister tells his congregation that he did not believe all his own mouthings of the Gospels, that all his preachings about love and sex had been timid and conventional—a sham—and that he was now, thanks to Leah, a free man. Once again, we have the theme of the relationship between pretend behavior and actual behavior. One might say, without cynicism, that the two primary places in a town like Maverley in which “fictions” are presented are movie theatres and churches, even if many believe that the fiction presented in churches is a “higher fiction.” My favorite passage from the Bible is from Hebrews: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.”

Ray gets work and an apartment in the city and for four years visits Isabel even though she has lapsed into a coma. One day Ray runs into Leah again—this time at the hospital where she does recreation for the cancer patients. Once again, there seems to be some tact connection between the two people; this time, Leah takes it a bit further by offering to come and cook for Ray once in a while. Although he demurs, saying his place is too small, Leah does not seem discouraged. It is at this point that Ray gets word his wife is “gone.” Ray thinks that they said “gone” as if she had got up and left.” Thus, the title theme of “leaving” is emphasized again. Ray feels, the “emptiness in place of her was astounding.” “She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever.” As he makes arrangements for what the hospital staff calls the “remains,” he thinks “what an excellent word—‘remains’. Like something left to dry out in sooty layers in a cupboard.” What Ray now feels is “a lack, something like a lack of air, or proper behavior in his lungs, a difficulty that he supposed would go on forever.”

The story ends with Ray thinking of the girl he had been talking to, about how she had to be used to the loss of her children after her divorce. “An expert at losing she might be called—himself an novice by comparison. And now he could not remember her name. Had lost her name, though he’d known it well. Losing, lost. A joke on him, if you wanted one.” Then as he goes up his steps, he remembers her name, Leah. “A relief out of all proportion, to remember her.”

Rather than ponder, “What does this story mean?” I would consider, “What does this story make me feel and think about the mystery of what it means to be human?”

Knowing that stories most often place the most weight on their conclusions, I put myself in Ray’s place at the end and feel the emptiness of something that “was” and now is no more. It does not seem to make any sense; it is why people often feel disbelief at the death of someone they know, thinking, “How can that be? I just saw her yesterday.” I remember a couple of years ago when my dog died, I had been sitting with her, my hand on her chest, and suddenly felt the absence of the heart beat, and instantly she was transformed into “remains.” It is what Hamlet felt when he lifts the skull of Yorick and marvels at the absence of one he once knew as a fellow of infinite jest. I felt my mother’s loss before she died, for she had been on “life support,” (helluva of phrase, no?”) for several days, and I had already begun to look at her as “remains,” going into her hospital room and looking at the numbers on the machines rather than at what was once her. The “loss” or “absence” of her was, as Munro says, “astonishing.”

Leah’s “loss” is more distant from me, for I have not accompanied her throughout the story as I have Ray. However, I do recall my own divorce and the terrifying fear I felt when my ex-wife made threatening suggestions that she was going to move far away from me and take my two children with her. It was unthinkable that what once was “there” might no longer be “there.” It made me engage in a bitter court battle to make sure that I could be part of my children’s’ lives.

Of course, at the end of the story, it only “makes sense” that Ray and Leah will “get together.” And indeed, the fact that Ray suddenly, after a momentary loss of her name, recalls “Leah” and feels a “sense of relief out of all proportion, to remember her” suggests that these two people may now after their sense of “loss” may “find” each other.

But what does this conclusion have to do with all that has gone before? What basic mysteries about the human condition has Munro developed throughout the story to prepare for this crushing sense of loss that does not involve just one man and woman in the story, but possibly all readers of the story?

I see the opening description of the theatre and its owner Morgan Holly as a kind of “introit” to a story about the mystery of our relationship to the world around us--how we adopt or “try out” the roles that define our place in the world. Ray returns from the war with a vague idea that he had to do something “meaningful with the life that had so inexplicably been left to him.” But how do we know what is “meaningful”? How many of us live lives that we think have meaning? Ray falls in love with his literature teacher. Why? What makes one “fall in love?” It is important that Isabel is a literature teacher, for the story has something to do with people making decisions based on their experience with depictions or impressions of life. (How else do we make decisions?) And does one’s decisions have implications or consequences? If so, what in the larger “story’ of the world would necessitate such consequences? When Isabel becomes ill, she jokes that God is punishing her for her affair with Ray, saying God was wasting his time when she didn’t even believe in him. She later teases Ray that his descriptions of the world in the movies gave Leah the idea of running away with the preacher’s son.

What kind of “fictions” lead us to behave in the way that we do--the fictions of literature, movies, religion, the stories we make up about those who live secret lives around us? And how do we know that what we do is “right” or “wrong”—the “best” thing for us or the “worst”? Who is the hell is writing the script that governs our lives?

One of the curious things about short story writers is that those who write short stories think like writers of fiction. And writers of fiction do not think like people who do not write fiction, especially short fiction. Short story writers think about reality in terms of language. Short story writers explore the possibility that human experiences are mysteriously meaningful. Does this mean that short story writers inevitably give us a view of reality that is more governed by “fictions” than the kind of reality that nonwriters (or nonreaders) understand or experience?

Alice Munro is, in my opinion, a great short-story writer, and thus a quintessential writer of fiction. In “Leaving Maverley,” she does not just have an “entertaining” story to tell, like Margaret Atwood does in “Stone Mattress,” but rather has some deeply human mystery to explore about what makes humans act and think as they do.

After I finished writing the above comments, I followed up on readersquest comment that she has just posted an essay on her own blog about “Leaving Maverley.” She says that although she likes the Atwood story, ” I have yet to read a short story by Alice Munro that I’ve found enjoyable. My irritation with her stories seems all out of proportion. And I’ve never been able to put my finger on the precise reason for that irritation. It’s very frustrating to read worshipful paeans to Alice Munro’s stories with the feeling that I just can’t participate in the adulation – that maybe I’m just not quite smart enough to “get” what Munro is up to.”

Well if readersquest has never found a Munro story enjoyable, it is certainly not because she is “not smart enough.” I have enjoyed her own exploration of “Leaving Maverley” and recommend it to you heartedly. Although she and I agree on many aspects of the story, we do not come to the same conclusions. I wish I had had more students like readersquest when I was teaching. Click on readersquest in her comment on Part I of this posting and read what she has to say; perhaps we can revisit the different ways she and I read the story in a subsequent blog. In spite of her concluding remark in her comment, I make no claim that what I have said above is the “real” answer to “Leaving Maverley.” There is no “real” answer--just caring, committed readers trying their best to appreciate and understand what caring, committed writers create.

I intended to talk about Munro’s new story “To Reach Japan,” which appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Narrative, but have decided to hold that over until next week when I will discuss the story, as well as the issue of Narrative in which it appears.


CB said...

Discovered this blog recently and have been consuming the posts feverishly. A wonderful resource Mr May, and its great to see the very special form of the short story treated with such acuity and respect. Thank you -CB

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, CB. I appreciate your kind words.

elliot said...

Excellent, thoughtful essay, as usual, on Alice the Great. You and I continue to have very similar takes on recent stories, Charles! If you're curious, I have also posted on Leaving M. and on Atwood's recent story in The New Yorker, and inevitably compared the two. - I'm going to think about a possible book title for you, too. - elliot

Jay said...

This is a wonderful piece on Alice Munro's "Leaving Maverley". It's a story that I found a bit lacking when I first read it. For once, I thought Munro's handling of time was a little abrupt; not seamless the way she usually does it. But I completely agree that short stories (good ones, at least) deserve to be read more than once, and Munro's especially. I appreciate it more now after reading these remarks.

I'm looking forward to reading the Narrative story. Munro also has a new story in the latest issue of Granta, called "In Sight of the Lake", which I have read and found fascinating. I think Munro attempts things in that story she never has before, and I'd be interested to hear what others thought of it.

Sandra said...

Your recent topic of popular plotted vs literary thematic has prompted me to think again about why I like short stories. Alice Munro and William Trevor are the touchtones for me where I can go and re-read and still find new experiences with each reading. In that way they are magical. For me, the good short story delivers a sense of shifting nuances that one experiences (or could) in life but we often overlook. It's like having a view from your window where the winter landscape, bared of summer growth, reveals what was always there but now differently. Not only the external changes are seen but the changes within us that color our view of how we see at a particular time. This is as close to a general explanation of what I like about short stories and what for the most part is not achieved (in my opinion) in novel. Of course, there are many novels that I love but the feeling I'm left with is very different. Thanks so much for this blog and all the wonderful discussions you prompt.

Charles E. May said...

My thanks to Eliott, Jay, and Sandra for their responses to my post on "Leaving Maverley." I am always happy to hear from them.

And,yes, Eliott, I have read your posts on the two stories and, as always, appreciate your perceptive remarks.

Jay, your comment that you like the Munro story better after reading my post makes me very happy,of course. I also appreciate your telling me about the new sory in Granta; I have ordered a copy, which should be available in the U.S. next week.

Sandra, your description of the subtle nature of the short story and why you love the form is wonderfully apt. Thank you for that and thank you continuing to read my modest offerings.

Babette Fraser Hale said...

I discovered your blog only a few weeks ago and find your analyses interesting and helpful. I agree with you about the Japan story in Narrative. I can't make up my mind about Narrative, really. But Maverly stirred me deeply. It is most helpful to hear articulations of the stories, because I still find the writing of them a mysterious process.--BFH

Nancy Beecher Whitehead said...

I finally found a copy of the New Yorker with this story - I hadn't wanted to read your analysis before I read the story. (I live in a very rural spot - this makes getting magazines tricky - and your blogs about literature very very welcome!) I love Alice Munro, and was amazed to find no one else in my book club appreciated her stories. Too depressing, they said. I think perhaps too open-ended: no wrapping up in the last paragraphs of the problems in the story (tho in Leaving Maverley Alice Munro does more of this than she usually does?), no clever twist at the end, not enough . . . plot!

Charles E. May said...

My thanks to Nancy for her remarks. You know, during my forty years of teaching I often had students say they did not like a story because it was to depressing--as if the purpose of literature was to allow them to while away the time in between more meaningful activities. I usually discovered that students who said certain stories were too depressing just were not reading them carefully and completely.

BichonPop said...

Sometimes the internet is a plus, and stumbling across this site was a good example of that. Your reading of LEAVING MAVERLEY is intuitive, poetic, even inspired. Munro is great and elusive (although not always; cf. BEAR CAME OVER THE MOUNTAIN and many others). But after reading your thoughts on this particular story, which seemed like a wisp when I first read it, I will never read her in the same way again.

Charles E. May said...

My grateful thanks to BichonPop for this comment. I only hope that my reading of Alice Munro does her genius justice.