Monday, August 22, 2011

Alice Munro and Short Story Community

As some of you already know, I'm on sabbatical leave from my school, Saint Martin's University, in Lacey, WA.  It's a rare opportunity and I want to take full advantage of it.

Though I know this will afford me no sympathy (more on this in another post), I have to be back in the classroom on January 17, 2011, a little less than 5 months.

And I'm feeling the back to work...

Friend and mentor Charles E. May (and my MA thesis adviser at Cal State Long Beach in 1996; here's his blog on the short story) has graciously asked me for an essay on Alice Munro for his upcoming collection on the excellent and prolific Canadian author. Charles knows I worked with Munro for my dissertation on short story and community; he also listened to me present a version of this paper at the Int'l Conference on the Short Story in English in Cork, Ireland (2008).  Needless to say, I was thrilled to be asked.

Currently 80, this short video of Munro was uploaded by BookLounge to youtube in 2006:

I'm currently at one of my Northern California sabbatical HQs: my Mom and step-dad's house in Kings Beach, CA. The folks are in Hawaii visiting my brother, Jon, and his wife Megu, who live outside of Tokyo, in Mito (Ibareki Prefecture).  Hawaii, then, is convenient middle ground. In any case, I have the Kings Beach house to myself, which means writing in the morning, a swim in Lake Tahoe around lunch, then reading and a nap, and more writing in the evening. Or, that's the theory anyway. It's a rare opportunity, and I need to take advantage of it.

Testing the clarity of Lake Tahoe
 The deadline for this essay is September 15, no extensions possible, which has gotten my attention. But, finally, I have the fortune to have uninterrupted time to work, so very different than during the semester.

So, now, to work! But, you know, Virginia City, where Mark Twain got his newspaper start, is pretty close by...

My essay:

The Houses that Alice Munro Built: Community in
The Love of a Good Woman

Then I bought another notebook and started the whole process once more. The same cycle—excitement and despair, excitement and despair. It was like having a secret pregnancy and miscarriage every week.

—Alice Munro(1)

. . . [O]wing to the shape and the scope of Munro’s art—story following upon story, reconnecting, redefining—the critical monograph is not really up to Munro at all. Rather, individual articles on individual stories or connected groups of them now seem, to me at least, to offer the better critical course.

—Robert Thacker(2)

Taking up Thacker’s advice, I argue that reading Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman (1998) as what Sandra A. Zagarell terms a “narrative of community” illuminates the repetitive, stultifying demands which rural, middle class Canadian society makes of its women. From story to story, Munro’s women are ritually and repeatedly required to nurse the broken bodies and lives of the families around them, thus leaving them with a choice. They must decide between the community (in which they take on the role of nurse and nurturer) and the wilderness (wherein they might pursue their own desires of autonomy and self-knowledge, although usually at the expense of family). It is an ugly choice, made more difficult to negotiate because the terms of the decision are rarely explicit, mentionable, or even wholly knowable, though they underlie every action and every choice the characters make. Reading Munro’s book as a whole, wherein each story represents one space in a larger community, allows the reader to both celebrate the uniqueness and independence of each story and explore inter-story connections and themes that, because of their varied repetition, take on a greater, book-length significance. If each story in Good Woman represents what Frank O’Connor calls the “unearthly glow” of the light of the short story, then to approach the book as a narrative of community is to witness multiple lights amidst the darkness of the Canadian prairie. Thus, O’Connor’s “submerged population groups” emerge right before our eyes in the form of white, middle-of-the-road Canadian women, women who try to negotiate the difficult line between the claustrophobic sanctuary of the home and the possibility of the vast prairie.
1 In “Cortes Island,” The Love of a Good Woman (New York: Vintage): 124.
2 In “Alice Munro, Writing ‘Home’: ‘Seeing This Trickle in Time,’” Essays on Canadian Writing 66 (Winter 1998): 5.

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