Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book 26 – Lives of Girls and Women

Alice Munro

The past few years have seen the emergence of interesting contemporary Canadian fiction and I’ve definitely enjoyed the fruits of writers like Miriam Towes, Ian Hamilton, Alan Bradley and Gil Adamson. Though I’ve never liked Margaret Atwood much, the only CanLit icon I’ve ever bothered to explore was Timothy Findley. Alice Munro is a definite gap in my CanLit reading. When I found a cheap copy of Lives of Girls and Women at a used bookstore in Nova Scotia (dontcha just love the cheezy 70’s cover?), I admit I was kind of expecting a coming-of-age version of The Diviners, or maybe a CanLit version of Judy Blume, since this controversial coming-of-age classic was banned from a number of schools in the 1970s due to its frank portrayal of sexuality.

What I got was a slow-paced anecdotal novel in the form of a “short story cycle”, or a series of episodes, chronicling the life of a young girl growing up in Ontario. All the CanLit tropes are there: a coming-of-age story featuring the minutiae of daily life in a rural setting interspersed with thoughtful introspection… Unfortunately the sex stuff doesn’t occur until at least three-quarters into the book. The very 70’s paperback edition makes much of the sex as the blurb states this is an “intensely readable story of Del Jordan grappling with life’s problems as she moves from the carelessness of childhood through uneasy adolescence in search of love and sexual experience.”

So I waded through mucho exposition about Del and the Jordan family living in rural Ontario, like how Uncle Benny tells Del and her brother about his experience driving around Toronto looking for the young wife who ran away from him:

He remembered everything. A map of the journey was burnt into his mind. And as he talked a different landscape—cars, billboards, industrial buildings, roads and locked gates and high wire fences, railway tracks, steep cindery embankments, tin sheds, ditches with a little brown water in them, also tin cans, mashed cardboard cartons, all kinds of clogged or barely floating waste—all this seemed to grow up around us created by his monotonous, meticulously remembering voice, and we could see it, we could see how it was to be lost there, how it was just not possible to find anything, or go on looking.

To be perfectly honest, that “monotonous, meticulously remembering voice” also aptly describes Munro’s writing. There are certainly moments of brilliance--she is, after all, Alice Munro--but you also get lost in the landscape of that droning voice. It’s not unlike the experience of politely listening to your eloquent yet doddering aunt who goes on a little too long with her stories, occasionally dropping a juicy tidbit of family gossip.

Don’t get me wrong -- I'm didn't pick up LoGaW just for the sex stuff (mostly).   But I wasn’t expecting this book to be, so… well…. (Munro fans can take heart that I feel slightly like a Philistine when I say this)… but I found this book to be really rather boring!

Apparently I’m not the only literate person who feels this. But when you have the Quill and Quire pounce on a Calgary Herald reviewer who slammed Munro’s Selected Stories, you have to be a little careful in what you say.  Still, I can’t help but agree with the reviewer’s opinion:

It may be one of the seven deadly sins of CanLit to utter a critical word about Munro, but the sin of a scanty plot is an even bigger one. This collection can’t rightfully be called stories. They’re unsatisfying sketches of characters who wander through depressive environments, observing the idiosyncrasies of those around them. Yet, those idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements.

And just note how the Q&Q smugly puts down the reviewer as not being well-read!

Now, although we’re certainly Munro fans here at Quillblog, we’re also in favour of critical reviewing and disinclined to kneel before sacred cows… However, it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasn’t read much literary fiction before. Which is the real issue here: surely some sensitivity and expertise should be a prerequisite for a book reviewer?

How the hell do they know what or how much Lakritz has read?  The real question is if there are any literate, well-read people who actually (or even secretly) find Munro boring? A quick google search for “Is Alice Munro boring?” yielded some interesting results.

Take this earthgoat blog for example:

Why are her stories so much longer than most people's? Are her plots more involved, does she bite off larger chunks of time and jump around in them more, does she include more character details or scene description than most writers, are her stories really micronovels? Maybe. Certainly it's working for her. She must be one of the top five most respected living short story writers. I won't spend time here praising her style, use of language, etc. -- her mastery of the form is well known.

Or cracking spines, who provides a fitting analogy:

I imagine that if Alice Munro were a painter, she would paint landscapes. Her finished canvases would look clear and precise as photographs - that is, they would look real... Like her stories, her paintings would be perfect in terms of craft, and as truthful as possible, and probably just a little boring… Still, I can never seem to pull myself away from a Munro story once I’ve started…

My minutes of research resulted in the fact that there does exist intelligent, well-read people who readily admit that Munro can indeed be boring, but nevertheless still enjoy her writing. So where does that leave me? I appreciate that Munro is a gifted writer, and amidst some of the dreary and/or droning descriptive passages, there are as many brilliantly written ones that really hit the nail on the head, like this passage that says so much about female self-esteem and a friendship grown apart:

Well-groomed girls frightened me to death. I didn’t like to even go near them, for fear I would be smelly. I felt there was a radical difference, between them and me, as if we were made of different substances. Their cool hands did not mottle or sweat, their hair kept its calculated shape, their underarms were never wet—they did not know what it was to have to keep their elbows pinned to their sides to hide the dark, disgraceful half-moon stains on their dresses—and never, never would they feel that little extra gush of blood, little bonus that no Kotex is going to hold, that will trickle horrifyingly down the inside of the thighs...  But what about Naomi? She had been like me; once she had an epidemic of warts on her fingers; she had suffered from athlete’s foot; we had hidden in the girls’ toilet together when we had the curse at the same time and were afraid to do tumbling… What was this masquerade she was going in for now, with her nail polish, her pastel sweater?

And some of the sex stuff is brilliantly written too, such as Del’s horrifying yet fascinating encounter with Mr Chamberlain in the woods. 

His breathing became loud and shaky, now he worked furiously with his hand, moaned, almost doubled over in spasmodic agony. The face he thrust out at me, from his crouch, was blind and wobbling like a mask on a stick, and those sounds coming out of his mouth, involuntary, last-ditch human noises, were at the same time theatrical, unlikely. In fact the whole performance, surrounded by calm flowering branches, seemed imposed, fantastically and predictably exaggerated, like an Indian dance. I had read about the body being in extremities of pleasure, possessed, but these expressions did not seem equal to the terrible benighted effort, deliberate frenzy, of what was going on here. If he did not soon get to where he wanted to be, I thought he would die.

I don't think I have ever read such vivid words about the simple act of jacking off in my life!

But then there are also moments that come across as ploddingly somber, like the time Del’s mother tells her daughter: “There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connections with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals.

I also like to read people's opinions on Goodreads and one reviewer notes:

A lot of people find Alice Munro boring, even dated, but I like the fact that her stories are real - about real people and places, and never over the top.

And here is an interesting blog post that looks at why Munro is revered in Canada, but not as well-known outside:

None of that is earth-shaking stuff — Munro does not do earth-shaking. Everything in it, however, is something that every one of us experiences as we go through life. And great writer that she is, Munro has a way of exploring that in such meticulous detail that a reader — even an aging male like myself — can’t help but be touched.

Perhaps literate Canadian readers prefer their fiction to have a realness and seriousness to it.  But they should also respect the fact that there may be other well-read people who may prefer to have their fiction with a little more punch or action.  Why anyway is "serious literary fiction" considered so much more "worthy" than any other fiction?  It's the same mindset where readers found The Outlander too unbelievable for it be "real".  Much as Munro is respected and/or revered, it really boils down to a matter of taste, does it not?  If you’re a literary snob who’s afraid to admit that Munro is boring, then you might as well stick to your RealLit then.  You're probably the type of reader who now and then deigns to read speculative fiction (by Margaret Atwood), but never sci-fi.  But as someone who enjoys brilliant writing with equally brilliant pacing and structure (occasionally punctuated by the odd earth-shattering moment), Alice Munro is probably not for me.  And I'm not afraid to say that I find her a little too boring ;-)


OlmanFeelyus said...

I don't think I've ever read any of her books, but I did listen to a books on tape during a road trip and quite liked it. I think I may have read one of her stories in the New Yorker and quite liked it. But yeah, anything that takes place in Ontario is kind of boring by definition. I was under the impression that she was a Maritimer.

Still, I'm not sure you can generalize about her entire oeuvre after having only read one short-story collection. Maybe there is a classic that some expert could recommend?

meezly said...

that's the thing, Olman.... that book is actually considered a classic.

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