Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Reading Alice Munro's "Post and Beam"


In my never-ending effort to figure out why most people prefer novels to short stories, one of my suspicions is that what holds novels together is more familiar to readers than what unifies short stories. I think it is pretty obvious that in order to be a long narrative, there usually has to be enough stuff to make the narrative long—e.g. social context, physical setting, multiple characters, multiple events, ruminations, ideas, etc.—all  to keep the damn thing going, one thing after another usually in a long linear line in time.
In short narratives, the writerly compulsion is not to keep the damn thing going, but rather to make it mean something. In a novel, what happens on page six does not have to be closely related to what happens on page two hundred and thirty-five. However, in a short story, what happens in line six should have something to do with what happens in line two hundred and fifty-six.  A novel can unwind in an illusion of natural sequence, heading on into the future or recollecting the past, going on and on seemingly indefinitely—nothing to stop it but death or marriage, depending on whether it is tragic or comic.
However, a short story does not create an illusion of natural sequence, even if it does move onward in time or backward in recollection. It seems to be compelled by some inner necessity to "mean something." I am not saying that novels don't mean anything, but they don't seem to ned to have a unified thematic meaning. They can just be realistic reflectors of reality. Short stories, however, do seem thus compelled, or else they don't seem to be much of anything at all.
Part of this is due to the nature of small things, which seem to have an inner compulsion to cohere, but it is also due to the tradition of the short story. From the beginning, a story that is short was told by someone who often began with a variation of "a funny thing happened" or "once upon a time." In either case, the compulsion to tell the story derived from a sense of mystery that this thing that happened meant something and that by relating it the teller might somehow figure it out or urge someone else to figure it out. Moreover, short narratives, such as parables, fables and exempla often illustrated a moral or truth or concept.
Yeah, I know, this is all a bit obvious. But it might have some interesting implications about why people would rather read novels than read short stories. When reading a novel, one can simply get lost in the story, even relaxing while being pulled or pushed along. But when reading a short story, the cryptic sense of mystery that the story "means" something does not allow such relaxation. If the reader drifts away while reading a short story, he or she just gets lost. Instead of completing the work with a sense of satisfaction, the reader may feel, "what the hell was that all about?"
In the following account of my "reading" of Alice Munro's "Post and Beam" from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, I hope to illustrate this compulsion for the short story to "mean" something—to hold together by virtue of its "theme" rather than by virtue of its characters or plot. I hope to show that this theme, which is most often a universal aspect of human experience, is developed by an emerging pattern of repeated and related "motifs" that come together like a poem or a piece of music rather than like a mimetic mirror of so-called "real life," whatever that is.  Wasn't it Nabokov who said that whenever one used the world "reality," it should always be with quotation marks around it?
"Post and Beam" has an introit—a brief dialogue account of  about a dozen lines in which the character Lionel tells that just before his mother died, she asked for her makeup, saying "This will take about an hour." When she finishes and he says that it didn't take an hour, she says she hadn't meant that—that she had meant to die. When he asks her if she wants him to call her husband or the minister, she asks, "What for?" The introit suggests that neither the husband nor the minister can have any effect on the inevitability of death. With or without them, it will happen.  She missed her prediction by only about five minutes. We have no idea what the point of this introit is, what relevance to the story it has. The mother plays no major role in the events that follow; consequently, we suspect that it must be related to the meaning or theme of the story, not simply its plot.
We now get some background: The character Lionel had been Brendan's (the husband of the main character Lorna)  student, the brightest mathematical mind he had ever seen. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he dropped out of sight until recently when Brendan met him in a supermarket and invited him to come and meet his wife. Lionel is skeptical about marriage. He works in the Diocese of the Archbishop and says he feels sometimes that he is in a Dickens novel. He had spent some time in a hospital after his breakdown and had shock treatments, the result of which he is short of memories and details and wants Lorna to tell him her memories.
Lorna tells about her Aunt Beatrice and her older cousin Polly who lived next door to her when she was a child. She also tells him her only memory of her mother: They are downtown and saw on the Post Office clock that the time had come for the soap opera she and her mother listened to on the radio. "She felt a deep concern, not because of missing the story but because she wondered what would happen to the people in the story, with the radio not turned on, and her mother and herself not listening."(This is a variant of the old "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" concept. It has to do with the mystery of what people do when you are not there, and more broadly the mystery of what "reality" actually is. This is related to the idealism of the eighteenth century philosopher George Berkeley.
Lionel tells a story about his own mother when she had taken him to the museum and he was scared of the mummies, and she had told him they were not really dead, but could get out of their cases when everyone went home. (This is another reference to the mystery of what happens when you are not there or the unknown of what is meant by "really.")
There is a tacit tension between Lorna and Lionel, for Lorna is another Alice Munro woman who has longings for another man, but does nothing about it, because to do so would be to forfeit the ideality she wants. Lorna does not "really" want Lionel, but rather ideally.  In some sense, all great love stories in Western Literature are based on this ideality.  It is why Romeo cannot "really" have Juliet or Heathcliff cannot "really" have Cathy.
Lionel sends Lorna a poem once a week or so. She felt about the poems the way she does about the Buddhist religion: "that they were a resource she might be able to comprehend, to tap into, in the future, but that she couldn't do that just now." (This notion appears in "Nettles," for the main character shores up the fragments of her experience against her ruin, as does the woman in "What is Remembered.") Lionel does not send love poems; there's nothing personal about them; "They reminded her of those faint impressions you can sometimes make out on the sidewalks in spring—shadows, left by wet leaves plastered there the year before." (This evokes a common Munro motif of fossils, remnants, what is left, the marks of the past).  Many of her stories are about what marks the past.) More about that next week in the story "What is Remembered."
Polly, who is five years older than Lorna, is coming to visit, but Lorna cannot tell Brendan or Lionel. You cannot talk about such things to Lionel, she says: "You could not speak to him about anything seen seriously as a problem. To speak of problems meant to search for, to hope for, solutions. And that was not interesting; it did not indicate an interesting attitude towards life. Rather a shallow and tiresome hopefulness. Ordinary anxieties, uncomplicated emotions, were not what he enjoyed hearing about.  He preferred things to be utterly bewildering and past bearing, yet ironically, even merrily, borne." (This could be a description of what Alice Munro prefers in her short stories. It is a key concept in the\is story; indeed, it is a key concept in many of Alice Munro's stories, indicating one of the central characteristics of the short story as a form.)
Lionel thinks of himself as a character in a Dickens novel; Lorna pretends she is in a sentimental play. Often Alice Munro's characters think of themselves as characters in a fiction—which of course they are; it's just they are not supposed to know that.
The metaphor of the post and beam house, which gives the story its title, indicate a house left unpainted, made to fit in with the original forests. It is plain and functional from the outside and inside the beams are exposed. The architecture is always preeminent. (There may be a thematic significance to something that uses artifice to appear to be natural). This does not mean it is "phony," but that it is a transformation that tries to conceal the transforming process—artifice pretending to be natural.
One of the central images in the story to suggest Lorna's desire for, not the physicality but the ideality of Lionel occurs when she goes to his room "to be for a moment inside the space where he lived, breathe his air, look out his window." The image of freedom here is to sink into the room. "To stay in this room where there was nobody who knew her or wanted a thing from her.  To stay here for a long, long time, growing sharper and lighter, light as a needle" This notion of freedom from all actual connections is central to the story "Family Furnishings" in this collection. More about that later.
Lorna feels both fortunate and trapped in her marriage, she is "installed" as a wife. Polly is both envious and scornful of her marriage. There is some basic discontent in Polly. When Lorna comes into her room she sees her in bed with a sheet pulled up around her like a shroud. She is a "mound of misery, one solid accusation." Lorna feels Polly is leeching off her, "becoming part of Lorna's good fortune, Lorna's transformed world." Lorna asks what right she has to do this, and the answer is that "Family gives Polly the right."
Lorna is drawn to idea, not physicality: When she met Brendan, a math professor, she fell in love with what is inside his head, excited by a knowledge a man might have that was "utterly strange" to her. Auto mechanic would have done as well.
She worries what might happen to Polly while she is away from her, that she might commit suicide. Munro uses the verb tense of imaginary events to describe her fear: "they would find the door locked; they would unlock it; they would hurry around to the front door." Raymond Carver uses this very effectively in the story "Errand," as Chekhov's wife tells the young porter to go get the doctor, telling of the action she wants him to perform as if it were happening. Lorna imagines a story to happen—how Polly's body would look, what she would be wearing, "Her long pale legs dangling down, her head twisted fatally on its delicate neck. In front of her body would be the kitchen chair she had climbed onto, and then stepped from, or jumped from, to see how misery could finish itself."
Lorna remembers a time when she had been alone with Polly for a day and Polly had left her to go to the store, taking her outside and telling her to stay there until she returned.  When she comes back she kisses Lorna all around her head, for the thought had occurred to her that she might have been spotted by kidnappers. "She had prayed all the way back for this not to have happened." (This is another example of imagining what might happen when one is not present—the central  recurring theme throughout the story.)
The most important example of the theme of things happening when one is not present is Lorna thinking of the years since she got married and Polly staying the same while Lorna passed her by; she now thinks it is unseemly that Polly has shown up to come "clawing for her share."
Lorna feels is afraid Polly will commit suicide, even as she calls it stupid melodrama and even though she, an unbeliever, feels the need to pray, "Let it not have happened."  She thinks that there is one thing left to do—make a bargain. She rejects the idea of bargaining the children and thinks she did not love Brendan enough to bargain him, "there is a little hum of hate running along beside her love, nearly all the time." She thinks she must make the bargain without knowing the terms, promising to honor the bargain even though she does not know what it is.
When Lorna returns home, Lionel is there; he looks straight into her face with a smile "from which all subtlety, secrecy, ironic complicity, and mysterious devotion had been removed.  All complications, all private messages had been removed."
Lorna thinks Lionel must be punishing her for going to his room, and she thinks of what she might say to him.  She thinks there must be a bond between them, "not to be made explicit, but to be relied on."  But she knows she had been wrong, that she had presumed too much.  She thinks that because of her offense Lionel had taken up with Polly, or "perhaps not."   (This is typical Alice Munro—the mystery of motivation—the not knowing why people do what they do.  It is not just that one does not know what happens when one is absent, but that one is always absent, one never can be there where the other is. This continues when Lorna thinks maybe it is because Polly is Lionel's choice or maybe it is simply that he is happier.  When she sees them together, it is "A scene so ordinary and amazing, come about as if by magic. Everybody happy." (This theme of things happening mysterious as if by magic is a common one for Munro—and for the short story in general.)
Lionel watches Polly blow up the child's  pool, thinking, at least in Lorna's mind, that he wants a woman competent and sensible, pliant but solid. "Someone not vain or dreamy or dissatisfied." (as she obviously is) (This is, of course, the ironic happy ending of the title story "Hateship") Lorna thinks Lionel might marry such a woman, and then change and maybe fall in love with some other woman.  "That might happen…Or it might not." The mystery of what might happen is a persistent theme in this story.
Lorna recalls her vision of Polly's suicide and is surprised by, as you are long after waking by the recollection of a dream. "It had the a dream's potency and shamefulness.  A dream's uselessness, as well." To think back on a dream as if it were a past event is another challenge to the notion of what "really" happened vs. what one has "imagined" has happened or might happen.
Lorna thinks of the bargain she had made and realizes it is not a bargain at all, for it has no specificity; it is a promise that has no meaning. "But as she tried out various possibilities, almost as if she were "shaping this story to be told to someone… as an entertainment," she thinks, "give up reading books." This story emphasizes one of Alice Munro's central themes—the relationship between fiction and reality, or how fiction influences reality.  Lorna sits on the bed tired by all this "sport, this irrelevance," all these possibilities of a story. "What made more sense was that the bargain she was bound to was to go on living as she had been doing.  The bargain was already in force. To accept what had happened and be clear about what would happen."
Lorna understands she was counting on something happening to change her life. "So nothing now but what she or anybody could sensibly foresee. That was to be her happiness, that was what she had bargained for. Nothing secret or strange."  "Pay attention to this, she thought." She has a dramatic notion of getting on her knees. "This is serious."  Just then, she hears her daughter calling "Mommy, Mommy. Come here" With the interruption of this present immediacy, the story ends with the storytelling lines: "It was a long time ago that this happened. In North Vancouver, when they lived in the Post and Beam house.  When she was twenty-four years old, and new to bargaining."
If one focuses only on plot and character in this story, it doesn't seem to be about much of anything, except Polly's unhappiness at not having what Lorna does, and Lorna's schoolgirl crush on Lionel—the stuff of popular fiction.  But Alice Munro is interested in something more profound that this.  She explores the complex human problem of not knowing what motivates the other and not being sure of what is happening when one is not present.  Only by reading the story more than once, identifying the persistent theme that keeps repeating throughout, and then reorganizing the themes in a meaningful pattern, does one begin to understand and thus appreciate the subtlety and complexity of Munro's exploration of the universal human situation of not knowing what the other is thinking, not knowing how to make the right decisions about our behavior with the other, not knowing what is happening when we are not present, and feeling helpless in face of this lack of knowledge. Not many people care to spend this much time with a piece of fiction this demanding, especially a short piece of fiction.  Too much work for too little payoff.

Next time, I will "read" Munro's story "What is Remembered" and talk a bit about the relationship of the past to the present in short stories.

3 comments:

Margaret said...

Charles, once again, thank you for your blog. I always look forward to reading your posts, and your entries have deepened my understanding of the short story. I have reread “Post and Beam” a few times because of your recommendation to do so, and I agree with you: Munro’s stories are pieces of art that one can (must) study again and again to derive more meaning.

I much agree with the idea that Munro explores thematically the helplessness of “not knowing what motivates the other and not being sure of what is happening when one is not present.” Mystery and miscommunication—even the utter inability to communicate—are rendered in this story on almost every page. I also think, though, that this is another of Munro’s stories about women’s lives and the way they are circumscribed by duty or “bound” in a way that men’s lives are not. One of the first inklings of this is when Lionel recounts confusing the words “mommy” and “mummy” as a child. Only Brendan thinks this is amusing; Lorna and Brendan, as we come to find out, might not take the confusion so lightly.

Lorna is doubly bound in this story, to her family of origin and to her husband and two young children. The first mention of the strength of these ties comes when she describes how she cried all through her wedding because “everything at home suddenly seemed so precious to her.” In the story’s current action she is obligated to accept her cousin Polly into their home for an extended visit. And in a scene with Polly: “…she could not help feeling that Polly was hammering at her, trying to bring her to some capitulation, wrap her up in some intimate misery. And she was bound that she would not give in.” Later, at a friend’s wedding, Lorna gets drunk, “amazed at how easy it was, with alcohol, to get loose from the bondage of her spirits.”

Lionel, who’s unmarried, isn’t keen on wives as he mentions early in the story, or “ordinary anxieties,” with which domestic life is replete. He is bound-less; he seems preternaturally unattached, and his attractions are only to women who cannot make demands on him. Lorna is married and Polly will never leave her family. Polly isn’t enthusiastic about husbands either; we learn that she might have a marriage proposal back home that she’ll likely refuse. But Polly is bound another way, to her mother, grandmother and uncle. “I’d feel too guilty leaving them,” she says. In one scene, Lorna sees Polly in bed, “with the sheet pulled up around her like a shroud.” While she may feel harshly the limits of her life, whatever eventually breaks Polly’s heart would have nothing to do with men, Lorna thinks. Even the title words, post and beam, are things to hang from, or tie to. In fact, when Lorna imagines Polly’s suicide, it’s death by hanging.

Margaret said...

When Lorna visits Lionel’s room, we discover what she really wants: to stay in the room “where there was nobody who knew her or wanted a thing from her.” Lionel’s room is a shell, a container, holding nothing—just as he can hardly hold any memories. Out of the “extraordinary bareness of his room… might come such altered versions of himself, created with no effort in the blink of an eye.” He is free in a way that Lorna isn’t, and Lorna knows that whether he takes up with Polly doesn’t matter; he will keep changing, maybe even love another woman. In Munro’s world, that is the nature of men.

Both women dream of this change, the kind Lionel can effect. Polly had “no hope of the change she must have dreamed was coming in her life.” And Lorna, in the end, now sees clearly that “she was counting on something happening, something that would change her life. She had accepted her marriage as one big change, but not as the last one.” The story ends on what must sound like to Lorna as an almost chilling echo and demand: “Mommy. Mommy. Come here.”


I agree with you that there is much about what is unknowable in others, unlike the post and beam architecture where the inner workings are obvious without. I also think there’s an interesting thematic tension between the church—an institution that tries to reckon with the ultimate unknowability of our lives—and those affiliated with it in this story. Lionel’s father is a minister who emotionally abandons his family. (On that first page he’s referred to as, “His father, her husband, her minister.” A few pages later, Lionel suggests he knows his living father as well as well as Lorna knew her now-deceased mother: by the “swish of a surplice.”) Lionel abandons mathematics, a study of reason and logic, and eventually works for an even higher father, the archbishop. Brendan “turns his back on the whole Irish package,” leaving the church, but idolizes his gifted students. And Lorna turns to prayer at the end, albeit feeling hypocritical. On almost every page, I marked the word “secret” or “mystery”—one of the largest, for instance, is the identity of Polly’s father. Given certain of her mother’s characteristics, it seems plausible that Polly was immaculately conceived. Brendan’s poems are mysteries too, not to be solved, or decoded, but appreciated as “offerings,” as if to a goddess.

What a wonderfully layered story! For me, the payoff of such careful reading is incredibly rich. Again, thank you for the conversation. Please keep writing!

Charles E. May said...

Thank you, Margaret. If there were more readers like you, the short story would be much more respected than it is. I agree with you, of course, that Munro has always been much focused on how women are hedged in by expectations, especially by fathers and husbands, and friends. What Munro's women seem to want, more than anything else, is freedom from these "connections," but they also know that such freedom brings inevitable aloneness (not necessarily loneliness). That is perhaps why so many of her women prefer living in the process of their storymaking than in the social product that the world imposes upon them. Thank you so much for you most engaging response to "Post and Beam." I will keep writing if you will keep reading. My highest regards to you, my dear.