The Reading Life: Her Dark Materials


Over dinner after drinks, my friend and I eavesdrop and happen to hear two women talking about books. One of them summarizes The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. as “all set in Brooklyn.” My friend and I make faces at each other and keep listening. Other books are brought up, but none of their selling points seem to us as crushing as the first. “All set in Brooklyn.” “I have to read that” was the response, in case you didn’t guess.

Oh, whatever. I read it. I’m not above yearning to see my ordinary life in the extraordinary light of television or drama. My father used to bemoan the lawyer shows I would watch as a little kid, calling them silly rubbish, because no one would actually say that to a judge, and no one would wear skirts that short in a court of law, and everyone was just too incredibly good-looking all the time. But I’m certain he wasn’t actually holding these shows to a standard of realism. I’m sure he understood that lots of life is too boring for most artists, so boring that sometimes you need dance sequences to get through the entertainment. He taught me how good West Side Story is. You need something like real life, but better.

Since the news of her Nobel, I have been reading Alice Munro stories off and on. Wanting to write something about her, I remembered—not that it was easy to forget—that Christian Lorentzen had scrutinized her entire body of work for the London Review of Books. So I pulled up the piece and read it, nodding at a few of the sentences. Upon reviewing all ten of Munro’s collections, he “grew attuned to the ways life is shabby or grubby, words that come up all the time in her stories, as well as to people’s residential and familial histories, details she never leaves out. How many rooms are in the house, and what sort of furniture and who used to own it and what is everybody wearing? To ask these questions is to live your life like a work of realism.”

I don’t have any interest in agreeing or disagreeing with Christian Lorentzen’s approach to Alice Munro. His personal preference is not mine. And anyway, whether I like her or not isn’t really what I’ve been thinking about, when it comes to her work. I have been thinking about this business of asking “these questions.”

What interests me here is the devaluing of a certain kind of realism—the “slice of sad life in the sticks” lived by white, Christian Canadians (you know, that overexposed demographic)—and the expectation that one should feel a certain way after reading a story that feels like a “trudge” through the snow in cumbersome boots. Again, I disagree, but it’s the devaluing itself that I find interesting, because I see the use in such an undressing. The questions we ask ourselves about the images and stories of our lives should be more substantial than “how many rooms were in the house” and “what were they wearing.” There is such a thing as bad realism, just as there is bad verse in poetry, where rules are obeyed for no reason and faithfulness to detail is prized over knowing which details are more interesting. Art should not have to be as dull as life often is.

That all said, I think it’s fun, in a rhetorical sort of way, that there is a story that addresses realism in fiction rather well, and that this story happens to be an Alice Munro story called “Material,” which I read for the first time this week. I think “Material” really “snaps,” like Christian Lorentzen thinks Mary McCarthy “snaps.” But I get that “snaps” is a subjective judgment, and Lorentzen probably hates “Material” as much as I love it, in all its epiphany-mongering, Christian, Canadian glory. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, even the Nobel committee.

“Material” is mostly about a woman recounting her marriage to a famous writer. I say “mostly” because, as in all Munro, there’s something else being said, and this “something else” is what Lorentzen groans about. (Don’t let Lorentzen teach a class on Dubliners.) Something else, in this case, is the truism that our opinions of one another chafe when forced to change, but how something once felt doesn’t wear away so easily. Anger resurfaces, like a whale’s back emerging from jetsam, and doesn’t leave. The couple’s fights, as retold by the narrator, seem enervating still. They fight over what happened. “You dramatize,” the man says. “I dramatize!” the woman responds. Her descriptions of him are acidic, like the wound is still fresh. He’s fat, he’s puffy. “I am content with such clichés,” she says. “I have not the imagination or good will to proceed differently.”

When the narrator reads her ex-husband’s story about a person they both knew, she is overcome with emotion. Part of her reaction is due to her assumption that she knew the person better. But the other part is due to an overall feeling of debt owed. She says of what her ex-husband has done with this other person, this memory they both have:

There is Dotty, lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of a special, unsparing, unsentimental love. A fine and lucky benevolence. Dotty was a lucky person, people who understand and value this act might say (not everybody, of course, does understand and value this act) … She has passed into Art. It doesn’t happen to everybody.

The temptation to pull this out and call it a point of view, not just a character’s musing, is obviously too great, because that seems to be what I’m doing. If this is not Munro’s position, then I would be okay with saying it’s mine. That figurative “marvelous clear jelly” is peculiar, and I value it.

The narrator does not value it above her own memory. Later she sits down to write a letter to her ex. “This is not enough, Hugo,” she writes, as if the story was his apology and she was rejecting it. “You think it is, but it isn’t. You are mistaken, Hugo.” She admits that she blames her ex for deciding “what to do about everything they run across in this world.” She envies and despises them for it. It seems to be an arrangement he has made, an easy way out, a compromise, and it’s atrocious, really, that people like this man should get on so easily.

Reacting to fiction like it’s an argument is not a good idea, generally speaking. Like most bad habits, I do it sometimes. I understand that need to claim something ordinary as your own, the way you would have it, the way you want others to see it. I get the appeal of quarreling over which version seems truer, whose story is better. And I see the complaint that art, especially realistic art, can be thoroughly mistaken, more often than not, about its subjects.

But I do not agree that it is not enough to ask questions like Alice Munro asks them. I don’t think that it is as easy as that. Munro writes in her introduction to her Selected Stories that she likens a good story to a house. (How many rooms are in it? Christian Lorentzen wants to know.) You can go in any room you please, discover new corridors, and peer out its many windows. “It has also,” she writes, “a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” And then she trails off with a quote from Tristram Shandy saying that “we live amongst riddles and mysteries,” of which we cannot make total sense, in which we can still find good, and this is “enough,” ultimately.

“How can you get your finger on it,” she says elsewhere. “Feel that life beating?”

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