Thu October 10, 2013
Alice Munro, The Punchbowl And Everyday Villainy
Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature today, taught me something important and abiding and true about evil.
Specifically, she taught me about that singular species of evil we swim through all our lives. It's the evil to which we petty humans default, even — especially — as we reassure ourselves that we are blessed creatures, generous of spirit. It's the evil born of thoughtlessness and self-regard, and it crouches, waiting, in every conversation, every appraising look, every single human interaction that fills up our days.
Alice Munro taught me this. Actually, it wasn't her. It was the punchbowl.
A Tempest in Every Teacup
There was a time, back when the world was new and icthyosaurs swam the turbid seas, when I was a young writer who loved short stories. A young, short-story-loving writer too enamored of Donald Barthelme's splashy narrative water-ballets and Raymond Carver's boozy, tight-lipped asceticism, specifically. And that young, story-loving, style-besotted writer didn't get Alice Munro.
I'd flip open The New Yorker to see still another Munro story, and young, dumb, insolent me would scoff, "Really, Alice? Another young woman navigating life and love on the 19th-century Ontario frontier? Ter-RIF-ic."
The punk kid that was me wanted to live inside short stories. Barthelme was a swingin' '70s Day-Glo bachelor pad with colored lights and bead curtains. Carver was a spare wood-paneled basement — with a wet bar. But Munro? Munro felt fussily Victorian to me: overstuffed with ornate detail.
Even a jerk like me could see that her prose was beautiful and precise, of course, but it felt somehow prim and diffident, and not a little off-putting. Munro was my grandmother's living room — in which no living happened, lest it wreck the upholstery — filled with tea sets that never left their perch and cut-glass candy dishes whose butterscotch treasures we were forbidden to plunder.
It took me a shamefully long time to understand that Munro's tone was, of course, entirely intentional, and inextricably bound up with her chosen subjects: The vast distance stretching between the person we project into the world and our most essential self. Our dogged attempts to enforce tidy normalcy upon a messy world that gleefully undercuts us. The myriad ways we wound and comfort each other, unthinkingly, unceasingly. Which is to say: society.
It's why her story "Meneseteung" is my favorite. Because all those details I used to sneer at are, each one, doing good, hard work. Our modern-day narrator uses them to piece together a woman's life from the fragments she's left behind: a book of poems published in 1865, a handful of smirking mentions in the local paper. We move back and forth in time, layering one moment over another until this pioneer poetess — who is, like many Munro protagonists, an unmarried woman judged by the society around her — emerges clearly, a complete person, nuanced and whole.
And that's the moment — in the story's very last paragraph — that Munro's narrator chooses to reveal that the story we've just read is not history, but a tale she's concocted herself. (The version that appeared in The New Yorker was missing this conclusive rug-pull — it's likely the magazine editor lopped it off. But whenever the story is collected, that final paragraph remains.)
But back to that punchbowl.
When I taught fiction, I was struck by my students' predilection for villainy. Super-villainy, I should say. They peopled their stories with antagonists so vile and gleefully wicked they practically cackled.
In story after story, the bad guy got what was coming to him, but only after he'd spent pages exulting in his depravity like some archdemon squatting on a throne of kitty skulls. Even if said bad guy was, like, an accountant or whatever. Especially then.
When I wanted to show them that the evil that exists in the world doesn't always twirl its mustache, I'd bust out a very early Munro story, "Dance of the Happy Shades."
In it, a young girl goes with her mother to a recital in the home of the girl's piano teacher, Miss Marsalles. The piano teacher's home is in a slightly shabbier part of town. Miss Marsalles is distracted (she's looking after a sick relative) and, worse, single. As such, she lacks the organizational skills of the mothers who gather to whisper about the party spread Miss Marsalles has laid out — including a bowl filled with punch that has gone flat even before the first guest arrives.
"I tried to tell her not to put it all out ahead of time," Mrs. Clegg whispers, smiling delightedly, as if she were talking about the whims and errors of some headstrong child. "You know she was up at five o' clock this morning making sandwiches. I don't know what things are going to taste like. Afraid she wouldn't be ready, I guess. Afraid she'd forget something. They hate to forget."
"Food shouldn't be left out in hot weather," my mother says.
"Oh well, I guess it won't poison us for once. I was only thinking what a shame to have the sandwiches dry up. And when she put the ginger ale in the punch at noon I had to laugh. But what a waste."
This, I'd tell them. This is the evil of the everyday. The way we take delight in negating each other, all the while congratulating ourselves ("I tried to tell her") for our forbearance ("I was only thinking what a shame"). How, when confronted with something that offends our sensibility, we take comfort in rules ("Food shouldn't be left out") and piety ("But what a waste.")
The story continues, with Miss Marsalles' student playing their pieces one by one as the mothers sit stifling in the audience, congratulating themselves for how stoically they're suffering such deplorable conditions.
These women think they're pitying Miss Marselles, I'd point out to my own students. But what they're actually doing is looking through her. Negating her efforts, her experience. Her life.
The story concludes with one last student getting up to play her piece. But this girl is not like the others; she's from the Greenhill School, a facility for what we would today call special-needs kids. Her very presence alarms the mothers, though they are careful not to show it, and proud of their decorum.
But then she gets up to play her piece — "The Dance of the Happy Shades" — and proceeds to do so with an unforced and straightforward beauty utterly unlike the other girl's sweaty, earnest attempts. At first, the mothers don't know how to react.
Or rather — because this of course is Munro's real subject — how they should react:
The girl is finished. The music is in the room and then it is gone and naturally enough no one knows what to say. From the moment she is finished it is plain that she is just the same as before, a girl from Greenhill Shool. Yet the music was not imaginary. The facts are not to be reconciled.
"The facts are not to be reconciled." God, how I LOVE that. Something happens for which we are not prepared, something we cannot codify and assign to a tidy slot. What do we do with it?
Munro knows. She makes it start to happen in the very next sentence.
And so after a few minutes the performance begins to seem, in spite of its innocence, like a trick — a very successful and diverting one, of course, but perhaps — how can it be said? — perhaps not altogether in good taste.
There we go. That's how we dispense with it. We contextualize, normalize, minimize. And we don't stop there.
For the girl's ability, which is undeniable but after all useless, out of place, is not something that anybody wants to talk about. To Miss Marsalles such a thing is acceptable, but to other people, people who live in the world, it is not.
There, see? It's like that odd moment with the music, back there in that horrid house, never even happened. Normal service has returned. We can all go back to our lives, and get away from that pitiable punchbowl.
And why can we do that? Because that moment, that tiny sliver of mystery that entered our lives, is "useless." Because it is "out of place." It's perfectly possible for others to take note, but not us. Not people like us, who live in "the real world."
That's what Munro is doing, as her stories' layers of crystalline detail build and contradict and complicate: creating a rawer, truer, darker world of emotion and insight that lurks beneath our "real world," where evil quietly holds sway.