Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Nettles"

The Wall Street Journal has a book club on Facebook. I signed on recently because the book of the month of August was Alice Munro's Love of a Good Woman. I thought it might be fun to join in a conversation about one of my favorite authors.

However, it surprised me that so many of the readers had no patience with Alice Munro's stories. Fairly typical was one who said that Munro would not be on her future reading list because she was too "depressing." Others said they just did not "get" her stories, or else they just did not like short stories. And even those who found the stories intriguing did not seem to know what to make of them. The writer Curtis Sittenfield, who is moderating this discussion of the Munro collection, is going to do a live video on Thursday, August 28 at 12 noon EST. You can tweet her with questions at hashtag #WSJbookclub or check her out on the Facebook WSJ Book Club.

The responses I read on the WSJ Book club reminded me of one of the problems of reading a short story that aims to be more than mere escapist entertainment. In order to appreciate a good short story, you just have to read it more than once. It usually does not exist as a simple temporal "one damn thing after another" plot line in which some interesting character gets involved in an entertaining dilemma and somehow manages to get out of it, or get something out of it, so that the reader gets something out of it. 

And let's, face it, not many folks want to read a story more than once, for they think of a short story as an account of a temporal action that, well, you know, tells a story--not a work of art that is always there for further observation or deliberation. We don't feel this way about a piece of music, which we might listen to over and over again, or a painting or sculpture that we might look at many times.. But for some reason, we do feel this way about a story. Novels usually provide a more immediate plot-based pleasure than short stories, which often leave us scratching our heads or shrugging our shoulders.

I suggest that novels are usually written with the understanding that they will be read one time and placed on the shelf or given to the used bookseller, never to be read again. And indeed, one reading may be all that is necessary to "get it"--that is, to understand it. But short stories, which are more like poems than novels, deserve to be read again and again, indeed, insist on being read again. For short stories are more dependent on artifice, pattern, structure, language, significance, etc.,. than novels, which are more dependent on "what happened"--just as paintings depend more on pattern, color, design, etc. rather than answering the question, "what the hell is that?"

 I know, I know, there are many exceptions to this. I have read Melville's Moby Dick at least a dozen times, and I have read Joyce's Ulysses at least half a dozen times. But by and large, the distinction holds true and goes a long way toward explaining why many people don't like short stories, even the short stories of a Nobel Prize winner, which they probably think they should like, that is, unless they can dismiss them as "pseudo intellectualism," which one reader on the WSJ Book club did with the stories of Alice Munro.

I doubt I will ever be able to nudge folks who read fiction for character and plot away from the novel to the short story.  At the Alice Munro Symposium in Ottawa last month, folks spent three days listening to the most avid Alice Munro critics praise her work with great enthusiasm.  And then, on the last day of the conference, one man raised his hand and said that for all that rhapsodic praise he still did not like short stories and had little or no desire to try to learn to  like them, even by the Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro. By God, he liked novels, something you could get your teeth into, something that had heft and bulk and therefore significance. There was just something a little too "artsy" about short stories. And he sure as hell had no intention of reading one of those puny little things twice.

So as my elderly Irish mother-in-law is wont to say, "there you are and where are you?" Well, where I have always been, I reckon--trying to get folks to love short stories as much as I do and be willing to read them two or three times.  In what follows, I offer the results of my usual fourth reading of Alice Munro's story "Nettles" from the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage—focusing on those passages I thought most important, trying to find the pattern of significance that Munro herself must have discovered as she wrote the story.

Curtis Sittenfeld, trying to get folks on the WSJ book club to engage seriously with the stories of Alice Munro in Love of a Good Woman, pointed out that a much-discussed aspect of Munro's work is her treatment of time, asking, "What do you think of Ms. Munro's treatment of time? Do you enjoy the jumps in narrative, or do you find them confusing?"

And indeed, on the first page of the story "Nettles," we are thrown into three different time periods: the summer of 1979, when the central character walks into the kitchen of her friend Sunny and sees a man standing at the counter making himself a ketchup sandwich; some time much later as she is driving northeast of Toronto with her second husband (not the one she had left that summer of 1979) idly looking for the house, but failing to find it; and then the past when the narrator was a child and she recalls drinking from their well and thinking of "black rocks where the water ran sparkling like diamonds." This image is more than just a description; it is a poetic image of a magical other world—a reference to the "in another country" theme common to the short story.

In this period of childhood, we meet the narrator at age 8 and her friend Mike McCallum at age 9. He is the well digger's son (also named Mike McCallum, suggesting  a doubling typical of folk tale.)

We have an image of the two children washing Ranger the dog in tomato soup because of being sprayed by a skunk; it suggests to her the rather ominous notion of washing him in blood, and she wonders how many people or horses or elephants would it take to supply that much blood. She is familiar with animal killing, for her father shot and butchered horses to feed the foxes  and mink on his farm. She recalls the wire shed with "the long, pale horses' carcasses hung from brutal hooks" and the "trodden blood-soaked ground where they had changed from live horses into those supplies of meat." The notion that the horses are transformed from one thing to another suggests a magical metamorphosis--the brutal change from life to death.

She describes the way she sees things, like the trees which had an attitude and presence—the elms serene, the oat threatening, the maples friendly and workaday, the hawthorn old and crabby. This is all romantic animism, in which sacred reality possesses things. She says her friend Mike saw them differently than she did: "My way was by its very nature incommunicable, so that it had to stay secret. His had to do with immediate advantage." This is a reference to the archetypal dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, the practical and the poetic. Hers is the world of the writer, a magic world of spirit and transformations and the ideal. His is the profane, secular world of everyday reality.

The childhood memory focuses on both the idyllic sense that life is an adventure that will never change and the anxiety that the future threatens unknown dangers. She and Mike wade in the river and walk to the bridge that separates the country from the town, which threatens with town boys who were loudmouthed and hostile, tramps who sleep under the bridge, a fisherman who swears at them for making noise. The bridge is, like the bridge in "Floating Bridge," a demarcation line, and when she goes into the shadow of the bridge where she has never been in her life, she is frightened of this movement into a strange other country.  They join the boys and girls in the town playing a game of war, using balls of clay as weapons. When a boy was hit, one of the girls had to attend to him. When Mike is injured, she presses leaves to his forehead and to his "pale, tender stomach, with its sweet and vulnerable belly button." (This is flesh, but idealized flesh).

 When the hired man sees them and says they look like they have been rolling in the mud, adding "First thing you know you gonna have to get married," her mother reproves him, saying they are more like brothers and sisters. However, this rolling around and coming away marked occurs again in the climactic scene when the doctor says they look like they have been rolling in nettles.

But the narrator says her mother is wrong and that the hired man was closer to the truth, adding they were more like "sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression."  She says she knows the hired man was talking about sex, and she hated him for it, for she knows he is wrong. "We did not go in for any showings and rubbings and guilty intimacies—there was none of that bothered search for hiding places, none of the twiddling pleasure and frustration and immediate, raw shame."

She makes a distinction between her feelings for Mike and those specific sexual "escapades," which she would only consider with those who disgusted her, "as those randy abhorrent itches disgusted me with myself."  With Mike she worships the "back of his neck and the shape of his head…his smell." With him the "localized demon was transformed into a diffuse excitement and tenderness spread everywhere under the skin."

Weeks after Mike moves away, she hears a woman call "Mike" and runs after the woman, but it is only a boy of five. "I stopped and stared at this child in disbelief, as if an outrageous, an unfair enchantment  had taken place before my eyes." She says her heart is beating in big thumps in her chest, "like howls happening in my chest." (This theme of enchantment will be taken up later in the central climactic scene in the nettles).  Much of this story is about the nature of enchantment, as in fairy tales.

The story now shifts to the time of the central event when she goes to visit her friend Sunny, a friend when she lived in Vancouver. She summarizes her marriage and children and divorce. When she takes her daughters to the airport to go to her husband, they play a game in which you pick out a number and then you count the men you saw out the window of the car; when the number came up, he would be the man you were to marry. (More childhood games predicting or setting up the future as in the title story.)

The early poetic images now are justified when we learn that after her divorce she lives alone, hoping to make her living as a writer: "The idea of being so far freed from domesticity enchanted me."  (And there's that word again)

She recalls the man for whom she left her husband. "all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex, fused people's best selves.  I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman  of my age." (It is not clear why she thinks sex fuses people's "best selves," but this issue of sex as being physical, but also idealized is an important theme in the story.)

She thinks of the lies or half lies she would have told Sunny: "I am learning to leave a man free and to be free myself.  I am learning to take sex lightly, which is hard for me because that's not the way I started out and I'm not young but I am learning." (How to take sex, what sex means, the uses of sex—all are part of this story.)

And this is when she walks into Sunny's kitchen and sees Mike McCallum spreading ketchup on a piece of bread.

The feelings she has in the presence of Mike are idealizations, not physical encounters.  This are not about what actually happens, but what might happen. This is the nature of fictional reality. She wants to brush against him, to lay a finger against his bare neck. When she sleeps in the same sheets he has slept in, she says she does not have a peaceful night. (This is like sleeping with a phantom, a trace of the past).  "In my dreams, though not in reality, they smelled of water-weeds, river-mud, and reeds in the hot sun." (This is the central statement of the idealization from the past). "My sleep was shallow, my dreams monotonously lustful, with irritating and unpleasant subplots."  The subplots she dreams have to do with obstacles in the way of their physically getting together. She says she sometimes awakes "stranded on a dry patch. Unwelcome lucidity." For she knows nothing about this man.

When they go to play golf, she idealizes them as a couple, with her in the wife's seat, feeling a kind of adolescent girl's pleasure. The notion (not the actuality) of being a wife beguiles her. "Could I really have settle in, with a true love, and somehow just got rid of the parts of me that did not fit, and been happy?" (This is typical of idealization, getting rid of the parts that do not fit. It is the nature of narrative reality, storytelling, fiction.)

On the golf course, she feels all she has to do is just follow him around, give him an "amplified, an extended notion of himself. A more comfortable notion, you  might say, a reassuring sense of human padding around his solitude."  She says a pleasure comes over her on the links. "Lust that had given me shooting pains in the night was all chastened and trimmed back now into a tidy pilot flame, attentively, wifely." (But this is still idealization, not actuality). It has all the pleasures of life together, but none of the reality, all the pleasures of imagining physicality, but not the physical itself.

When the rain begins they go into the tall weeds that grew between the course and the river, as in a childhood retreat. The weeds include nettles. "It was almost as if we were looking through a window, and not quite believing that the window would shatter, until it did, and rain and wind hit us, all together, and my hair was lifted and fanned out above my head.  I felt as if my skin might do that next." (This creates the magical enchanted enclosure surrounded by the storm. She is transformed into an otherworldly creature in another country of  enchantment. He covers her with his body. "Then we kissed and pressed together briefly. This was more of a ritual, a recognition of survival rather than of our bodies' inclinations." It is as close to sex as they get, like the kiss on the bridge in "Floating Bridge."

After the rain when they walk in the open, he tells her about his three-year-old son who was killed last summer when he accidently ran over him backing out of the driveway. Although he does not say it was his fault and that he would never forgive himself, she knows this, knows that he was a person "who had hit rock bottom, a person who knew—as I did not know, did not come near knowing—exactly what rock bottom was like." When she says it is not fair, meaning both the "dealing out of idle punishments" and "what has this got to do with us?" he says "Fairness being neither here nor there."

When they get back to the car, he wonders what happened to the guy who was parked here before. "Mystery," he said and then "Well." This is a word she heard as a child. "A bridge between one thing and another, or a conclusion, or a way of saying something that couldn't be any more fully said, or thought."  And the joking answer was always "A well is a hole in the ground." This seems like a minor detail.  But it emphasizes mystery, the enchanted nature of their seclusion in the nettles, in which time ceases to exist and the stuff of the real world mysteriously vanishes. The reference to the word "well" as a bridge between one thing and another recalls the bridge in "Floating Bridge"—a well being like a gravel pit, a hole into which one can fall, a "deep subject" that poses a mystery.

They are covered with welts and blotches from the nettles. The doctor says they must have been rolling in them. "The fact that we had chosen to go off together and that we had this adventure—an adventure that left its evidence on our bodies—seemed to rouse in Sunny and Johnston a teasing excitement. Droll looks from him, a bright solicitousness from her. If we had brought back evidence of real misdoing—welts on the buttocks, red splashes on the thighs and belly—they would not of course have been so charmed and forgiving." (It is important that it is playful, not actual.)

She knows it would be the same old thing if they ever met again or didn't. "Love that was not usable, that knew its place. (Some would say not real, because it would never risk getting its neck wrung, or turning into a bad joke, or sadly wearing out.) Not risking a thing yet staying alive as in a sweet trickle, an  underground resource. With the weight of this new stillness on it, this seal." (This is the key passage about love that is "not real," but it suggests the only way that love is real—an idealization.  The underground resource recalls that deep well mentioned at the beginning which she images are diamonds.

A final paragraph about the nettles, which it turns out were not nettles, but joe-pye weed. What they got into are more insignificant than nettles, with fine, skin-piercing and inflaming spines. "Those would be present too, unnoticed, in all the flourishing of the waste meadow." This final paragraph is a sort of coda that suggests the significant that is insignificant, the imagined that is real, the real that is imagined.

Next: Reading Alice Munro's story: "Post and Beam"


Dorothy Johnston said...

Good morning, Charles.

The comments that you cite on the Facebook book club don't surprise me, but, in the sense that they are typical of a great swathe of online commentary - on book blogs and indie author sites - I find them depressing.

That's one reason why I always read your posts - though I often don't feel I have the knowledge to comment on particular stories. I come away from your posts feeling that you've said something worth thinking about, and my spirits have been lifted.

I am an advocate for digital publishing, and digital reviewing. These developments have given me a way to think about the future, and a hope that I might participate in it.

But - I recently submitted a short story for an ebook anthology. The story was rejected because it was 'about more than one thing'. I was invited to re-write it, buy I declined the invitation, making the point that, according to this criterion, many of the world's best short stories and short story writers would be disqualified. (I quoted Alice Munro among others.)

The rejection got to me more than it should have, firstly because of its stupidity, and secondly because I'd been hoping to find a place for myself in the digital writing world.

Sorry for going on about this, but reading those comments at the start of this post made me see red all over again!

Ann Graham said...

You said, "We don't feel this way about a piece of music, which we might listen to over and over again, or a painting or sculpture that we might look at many times."

I agree. I own hundreds of short story collections, anthologies and literary journals organized for easy retrieval. For me, my shelves are lined with works of art like an art museum. I always read stories many times.

Something I keep in mind is a quote from Umberto Eco. "I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed." I believe that statement is true for good short stories.

Charles E. May said...

My grateful thanks to Dorothy Johnston and Ann Graham for continuing to read my blog posts and to challenge me with their thoughtful comments. They keep me going.

Good on you, Dorothy, for refusing to give in to those who would have you compromise your work to suit their narrow notions.

And bravo to you, Ann, for being the kind of reader that good short story writers like Alice Munro deserve. Thanks for the Eco quote; I agree it is most appropriate for good short stories.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Thank you, Charles, for those re-assuring words.

You are better placed than most to answer questions that begin with why, (even though you might groan when you're asked them).

Why do so many of the comments on sites like the one you describe come across as arrogant and dismissive? Why do so many people expect instant gratification from their reading?

Charles E. May said...

Dorothy, check out this piece by American writer Steve Almond in the current issue of Poets and Writers:

Dorothy Johnston said...

Thanks for that link. I've read the article twice now and I found it both interesting and re-assuring. I had to make adjustments. though, being neither a university teacher, nor American. I suspect the assumptions of 'entitlement' aren't so marked here, but I don't really know. I found Steve Almond's comments about the internet particularly relevant to my situation.

Anonymous said...

I have little patience for the whole "I don't like short stories" discussion. It's right up there with "I don't get poetry."

Whatever. Please sit somewhere else while those of us who do chat amongst ourselves.

When were done, we can all get together and talk about novels.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

I am also reading Alice Munro's Nettles. But I have some difficulty in understanding the sentence of "Some would say not real, because it would never risk getting its neck wrung, or turning into a bad joke, or sadly wearing out." How would you interpret it?

A confused reader

Charles E. May said...

Dear "Confused Reader," Since the statement is made by the female protagonist at the end of the story, when she knows that the sexual encounter with the man was only a single encounter with no future of love or marriage, some might consider that such a "love" was not real because it would never risk being hurt or killed (getting its neck wrung like that of a chicken), or turning into a bad joke (as love affairs and marriages sometimes do), or sadly wearing out (as many marriages do). She sees it remaining as a "sweet trickle, an underground resource" (like a hidden spring of water that provides a resource for the memory. Thanks for writing.