Alice Munro is capable of spinning readers away from the salient detail of Austin’s death in a story like “Pictures of the Ice”.
Yet, she is equally capable of writing an opening which cannot be set aside and which demands rereading as the story unfolds, as with “Differently”.
Here it is:
“Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.”
Throughout “Differently”, the reader cannot help but hear this advice echo.
In the hands of another writer, there might well be too many things going on in this story.
Too many characters for them to remain distinct.
The reader might well struggle to decipher what the writer views as the heart of the story.
But, think of what?
Georgia now lives with that instructor; she shares a dwelling with the man who issued those instructions.
But what is the reader to do with all these characters, all these things going on?
Georgia used to be married to another man. She used to be friends with another woman. Georgia now has two sons and that woman is long dead. Georgia has gone to visit her sons and that woman’s husband. A landscaper was hired to create a garden for that once-alive woman, while she wasted away from illness on a couch with a view. That woman’s husband tells Georgia about this.
(Already there are too many characters, and the reader is on the fifth page of the story.)
That man tells Georgia that he thought the landscaper should have kept in touch with the woman after the garden contract was complete. But he does not tell Georgia that she should have kept in touch with the woman.
(Maybe there are too many things NOT in this story as well.)
That man does not know that Georgia knows that that woman was unfaithful to him years before. He does not know that Georgia was unfaithful to her husband at the time, too. He does not know about the encounter between that woman and Georgia’s lover.
What is the important thing? To which thing should we pay attention?
When Georgia is sifting through all of this, she is on the other side of it all. She is not spinning away from detail but spinning into detail. She is spinning a life of those details, in fact.
And, yet, it’s not the process that she might have imagined.
“People make momentous shifts, but not the changes they imagine.”
What is Georgia’s momentous shift? Surely that is what the reader is intended to attend to, what the reader is to mark as important.
Is the shift part of ‘then’ or part of ‘now’? Or does the act of writing blur the two states?
“Just the same, Georgia knows that her remorse about the way she changed her life is dishonest. It is real and dishonest.”
And now it gets even more complicated. Georgia does not trust herself. The reader cannot, then, trust Georgia either. Now, even if the reader can identify what is important, that realization was presented with Georgia’s assistance. If she cannot be trusted, the reader has no words — nothing honest — to count on.
“Listening to Raymond, she knows that whatever she did she would have to do again. She would have to do it again, supposing that she had to be the person she was.”
If “Differently” had begun differently…
But, no, it wouldn’t have mattered such a great deal.
The reader learns to begin with that Georgia does not follow the rules when she is writing a story. And, in the end, the reader learns that Georgia is dishonest.
At first, those two sets of sentences, pulled from opposite ends of “Differently” seem like a momentous shift.
But, just as Alice Munro promised, the ideas are not as profoundly changed as one imagined.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the ninth story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.