Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Quick Review: Alice Munro

Alice Munro, "Free Radicals"
New Yorker, February 11

A new story by Alice Munro in the current New Yorker had the Hound up part of the night, and just when she had begun to think that Munro couldn't zing her anymore. The twist in plot took her completely by surprise. Cheeky, it is. A smart rewrite of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," a story that has troubled more than one fiction writing class, and not only for its absolute darkness of vision (a fact O'Connor argues). It's also a reminder that what Canadians think is a kind of unique brand of Canadian fiction isn't at all.

But the story, yes, the story. We start off in typical Munro land: "At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much..." Quickly we learn that Nita is living in a ramshackle (artfully so) house on the outskirts of town and is recently widowed by her professor husband. Up until this point it's difficult not to think of "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" of course, a kind of flip-side to it, but there is something different about the voice, as the narrator herself says later on: "a crack in it, a rising pitch that made her think of a television comedian doing a rural whine." And that idea of the flip-side becomes important because once we get comfortable with Nita and her loneliness, her grief (we find out she has recently lost the husband/professor that she won, or stole from his first wife, and has just beaten cancer: for now), she discovers a young man at her door, "come to check the fusebox."

Now without giving too much away what follows to my mind in any case, is a brilliant updating of the infamous scene between "the old lady" and the Misfit, the "unconversion" tale if you will, at the heart of "A Good Man." Much is changed, much is updated, and the south we are in is Southern Ontario, but the basic gothic strategy of "telling a story" to save one's life is there. And Munro handles it brilliantly. What a coup. Is it because we weren't expecting another from her that this turn comes as such a surprise? Again, our narrator:
She took a big chance. She said, “I just think you haven’t ever done anything like this before.”
There were a few moments when the veneer of the young man wore thin, but on a second read those shortcomings faded into the cabin walls and what emerged was a woman who had become quite comfortable with her narrative and who had suddenly, and with great grace and obvious delight, turned it on its head one last time easily convincing the stranger in her house, and in the process, completely delighting herself, and settling into her status as master.

O Connor's story ends with the chilling:
"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."

There followed a kindly stern lecture. Leaving keys in the car. Woman living alone. These days you never know.

Never know.

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