Monday, March 11, 2013

Prose close reading: Alice Munro

Quince tree
As Alice Munro's short story "The Moons of Jupiter" begins, the narrator—a middle-aged woman named Janet—has just taken her aging father to the hospital. The doctors have told him that he needs an immediate heart-valve operation in order to survive; even with the operation, however, he probably has only about three months to live. Janet lives in Vancouver, but she is house-sitting for her daughter Judith, who lives in Toronto; her father lives a couple hours away in rural Ontario.
The thought of my father's childhood, which I always pictured as bleak and dangerous—the poor farm, the scared sisters, the harsh father—made me less resigned to his dying. I thought of him running away to work on the lake boats, running along the railway tracks, toward Goderich, in the evening light. He used to tell about that trip. Somewhere along the track he found a quince tree. Quince trees are rare in our part of the country; in fact, I have never seen one. Not even the one my father found, though he once took us on an expedition to look for it. He thought he knew the crossroad it was near, but we could not find it. He had not been able to eat the fruit, of course, but he had been impressed by its existence. It made him think he had got into a new part of the world. 
—Alice Munro, "The Moons of Jupiter" (1978)
Alice Munro might be the most widely respected writer of English-language short fiction currently alive, but it's the plot and subject matter of her stories that most clearly marks them out as hers. I've always found her style strangely anonymous, more a matter of the kinds of observations her narrators make than they way they make them. She's far less idiosyncratic than someone like Cormac McCarthy or David Foster Wallace—writers who set out personal style as a deliberate end in and of itself. What is Munro's style? Even if it is not ostentatiously distinctive, it must exist. There are differences between her narrative prose and that of others who write graceful standard English; it can't be wholly impersonal.


She values lucidity, but never becomes choppy or terse. Transparent constructions mask circumlocutory contents:
The thought of my father's childhood... made me less resigned to his dying. 
It is easy to skate by that litotic negative comparison, "less resigned," but unpacking it proves complicated. She is not becoming more resigned, but neither is she losing her sense of resignation altogether. Her emotions are becoming more complicated. It would be much easier to feel straightforward resignation, or to have one's mind changed entirely. But to feel resigned while nevertheless understanding reasons why that sense of resignation might not be entirely "right" is more difficult.

The parenthetical statement in this passage—marked with emdashes—does not feel obtrusive, though when read aloud, it becomes immediately apparent how far removed it is from the rhythm of everyday conversation. The first occurrence ("the poor farm, the scared sisters, the harsh father") provides a tricolon of concrete images to ground the description "bleak and dangerous"; each item in the list further complicates or explains the last.
  • "bleak"—all right
  • but also "dangerous"—a complementary adjective, though not so boring as to be synonymous; we start to crave an explanation for both the bleakness and the danger
  • "the poor farm"—one can understand how a poor farm might be both bleak and dangerous 
  • "the scared sisters"—but what are they scared of? 
  • "the harsh father"—that is what the sisters are scared of, and that is what makes the farm (and the childhood of Janet's father) both bleak and dangerous
This sentence—which nests the parenthesis inside a relative clause—is the most syntactically complex in this paragraph. Elsewhere, she prefers parataxis or apposition as a means of elaboration, as in the next sentence:
I thought of him running away to work on the lake boats, running along the railway tracks, toward Goderich, in the evening light.
One alternative would have been to write "I thought of him running away in the evening light along the railway tracks toward Goderich to work on the lake boats," but this is clunky: there are too many prepositional phrases packed together. It starts to become unclear which phrase modifies which. Munro's equivalence of "running... running" helps organize and clarify the ideas, so that it's obvious that the narrator imagines him escaping in the evening light, rather than working on lake boats in the evening light. The repetition also creates a nice sonic effect, with its balance of liquids and nasals

The word choice "railway tracks" sounds slightly dated, though also vaguely rural—as opposed to "railroad" or even "rail tracks": it makes both Janet herself and her father sound slightly quaint, as though they have shed most of the traces of their pasts, but a few still linger and pop up in an odd turn of phrase. The same is true of the simple sentence "He used to tell about that trip": normally, we would expect tell to take an object—here, most likely, "tell me" or "tell us." The omission gives the sense of replicating some kind of regionalism—while also making "tell" surprisingly open-ended. Munro suggests that Janet's father did not simply tell this as a family story, or occasional tale, but a story that was repeated to any audience habitually ("used to" indicates the kind of story—an old and worn tale, a myth about the self).  

In the second half of the paragraph, Janet's attention turns to a single detail of that story—the quince tree. 
Somewhere along the track he found a quince tree. Quince trees are rare in our part of the country; in fact, I have never seen one. Not even the one my father found, though he once took us on an expedition to look for it. He thought he knew the crossroad it was near, but we could not find it. He had not been able to eat the fruit, of course, but he had been impressed by its existence. It made him think he had got into a new part of the world. 
The quince tree stands in metonymically for everything that she has chosen to leave out. It is arguably a more elegant strategy than actually retelling the entire story. It also mimics the effect of listening in on Janet's mind, rather than listening to Janet tell us a story. Janet does not need to think through the whole story, since she already knows it so well; we, the audience, however, receive only a piece. In first-person narrative, it can be harder to blur the lines between speech and consciousness than in third-person narrative, with its well-developed, well-taught strategies of free indirect discourse, rhetorical question, and so forth. 

Munro then allows Janet to hijack the story of the quince tree. Janet interjects her own observations and memories into her father's recollection: "Quince trees are rare... I have never seen one." "[H]e once took us... we could not find it." Only after a full three-sentence-long interruption does she resume reporting her father's story. We could eliminate those three sentences entirely and the sense would remain intact:
Somewhere along the track he found a quince tree. [...] He had not been able to eat the fruit, of course, but he had been impressed by its existence. It made him think he had got into a new part of the world. 
Those three sentences remind us of Janet's presence, disrupting the clarity that we would otherwise presume: this story has not necessarily been accurately or impartially retold. At the same time, it represents a joint project of Janet and her father, a composite story in which two minds collaborate—an important early moment in a story whose "subject" is, on one very plausible reading, the distance between parents and their children. Once Janet has scribbled over her father's story with her own commentary, we are left wondering how much of the remaining two sentences are her, and how much are her father. Does the aside "of course" come from her father—the wide general knowledge that he displays elsewhere in the story? Or does it come from Janet—a mild nudge of condescension at her father as well as at the reader? There is certainly a note of condescension towards her father's adolescent provincialism in the last sentence. But that attitude could have come either from Janet or her father, remembering this memory as an older man. The source of and authority for the account have been obscured. 

"Think" is the most frequent substantive word in this passage (more than "father," more than "quince"), recurring polyptotically in different forms: 
  • The thought of my father's childhood
  • I thought of him running away 
  • He thought he knew the crossroad it was near
  • It made him think he had got into a new part of the world.
"Think" always introduces something else: you think that, you have a thought of. It carries an interesting connotation of doubt or uncertainty. ("He thought he knew" even nests that uncertainty in layers.) This paragraph is about infirm memories and uncertain retellings; it feels blurry, unconfident, even while the syntax and rhythm are simple and clear. Its main tensions lie between transparency and opacity, first-hand knowledge and second-hand memory, acquisition and doubt. Time passes; trees die; landscapes change. The quince tree is always there, but sometimes even the person who found it the first time can't find it anymore. 

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I've written a pastiche of the Munro passage below. It's a moment from a different piece of fiction, rewritten—with what I can only hope is passable skill—in the style of this paragraph from "The Moons of Jupiter." It's not an obscure work, by a long shot. If you can guess it, you'll win undying glory on this blog! Use the comments section below if you want to guess. 
I was less disgusted when I realized what he had done. I always imagined his life as mysterious and sad—a cruel father, the French ballerina, that sweet and lonely child—and the thought of this marriage made me think of him sailing back to England, sailing towards moors, towards deception, over the chilly water. He told me about that trip. Two weeks in, he spotted a whale to port. I have never seen a whale, except in books. Even he has never seen another since then, though of course he has barely had time to travel abroad. He thought he knew its species, but when he looked for it in his library, he could not find it in any of the volumes. He had never forgotten the whale, however. It was the most free he was ever to feel. 

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