This is the opening of an essay on Alice Munro just published in CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries 79, in a special Short Story Issue to coincide with the biennial convention of the Society for the Study of the Short Story in English, currently taking place in Toronto.
The Mind of Alice Munro
by Douglas Glover
Alice Munro’s constant concern is to correct the reader, to undercut and complicate her text until all easy answers are exhausted and an unnerving richness of life stands revealed in the particular, secret experiences of her characters. She does this in two ways. First, she has a sly capacity for filling her stories with sex, thwarted loves, betrayal and violence while self-presenting (somehow, in the prose) as a middle-aged Everywoman with only the faintest hint of a salacious gleam in her eye. And second, she deploys an amazing number of intricately interconnected literary devices that ironize and relativize meanings while conversely revealing (unveiling as in “apocalypse”) an underground current of life that seems all the more true because it is hidden, earthy, frank, and shocking. In her story “Meneseteung,” for example, the truth has something to do with menstruation, bloating, diarrhea and opium. That this truth is called into question at the story’s close is pure Alice Munro whose message may only be that life is never what you think it is.
“Meneseteung” advertises itself as faux amateur biography of a forgotten and forgettable local poet, a spinster named Almeda Joynt Roth, who lived at the end of the 19th century in a small Ontario village just inside the advancing frontier. In 1879, Meda is drifting toward middle age when a salt well entrepreneur named Jarvis Poulter moves into town and half-heartedly begins to court her. One night Meda hears a drunken commotion in the street outside her house. Ignoring the ruckus, she manages to fall back asleep, but in the morning she discovers a woman’s body in her backyard and runs to Jarvis’s house, two doors down the street, for help. Jarvis nudges the body with his toe, pronounces the woman drunk and wipes his hand off on a leaf after shaking her roughly by the hair. Then, apparently aroused by Meda’s nightgown (suddenly seeing her in a sexual light), he invites her to walk with him to church later in the morning (a decisive signal of interest in the world of the story). Meda is in a tizzy. She has taken a sleeping drug the evening before, her period is starting, she has diarrhea, she’s making grape jelly; now she doses herself with nerve medicine (probably laudanum). Just before Jarvis shows up she pins a note to her front door; Jarvis retreats in silence. Meda spends the rest of the day in a drug haze, imagining the townspeople as gravestones toddling down the street. Then life returns to normal; only Jarvis is no longer interested in paying court to Meda. In 1903, village louts chase the eccentric old biddy into a nearby swamp. She catches cold and dies, leaving behind a slim volume of poems entitled Offerings.
That’s the story action, the bare bones. But with Alice Munro the difference between the bare bones of the story and the way she organizes the bones and flesh of her text is…
2010 © Douglas Glover