It’s inescapable, this sense of “What Is Remembered” being an alternate version of “Tricks”. (If you want to avoid general spoilers, best not to click on that link, for you will intuit the sort of ending which that story has and thus the contrasting tone herein.)
Once again, our narrator is reflecting upon the events of the past, trying to decipher the point at which the narrative of her life took a turn.
And fundamentally important to readers’ understanding of these events are the sex roles of those times which are being remembered.
In discussing Alice Munro’s stories, I have avoided long excerpts, but this passage is particularly revealing of the preoccupations of her fiction.
Expectations of men and women, differing expectations.
Expectations of husbands and wives, differing expecations too.
These are at the heart of her collections, and the quotes which follow are all-of-a-piece, but the paragraph has been broken into segments to insert comments, about “what is remembered” of other Alice Munro stories.
“Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies.”
Here I think of “Cortes Island”, of the detailed description of the “little bride” who is so “fond and cherishing” and the first apartment, so wondrous and limiting. And “The Office”, in which women are equated with the home, not just associated with it. Even those both narrators turn to words for an escape, this is a complicated process, identities eroded even as they are constructed.
“Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.”
This brings to mind the way that Pauline was implicitly required to care for the children all the time, even when the entire family is on vacation, in “The Children Stay” and the judgement she receives for wanting to participate in the community theatre production of Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice.
“What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics, as well as about the jobs that had to maintain their families for the next quarter of a century.”
But although the authority resides with the men, the women’s list of chores is long and complicated too. Think of “Material” and the need to have the snow tires put on and to return the beer bottles, because “their husbands are such brilliant, such talented incapable men”.
“It was the women, then, who could slip back—during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of the children—into a kind of second adolescence.”
Which leads to the scene of Amy and Kath and the make-over in “Jakarta”. The importance placed upon the application of lipstick, the adoption of a second-skin.
“A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn’t there.”
I think of the stories about Rose’s relationship with Patrick in Who Do You Think You Are? — particularly “The Beggar Maid” (for which the American edition of the collection is titled) — the awkward adjustments to the reality of marriage, the redrawing of boundaries and identities.
And Rose’s friendship with Jocelyn, filled with laughing fits but also “embarrassment, withdrawal and regret. “Then, to “Mischief” and the pursuit of lightening of spirits in the absence of husbands.
And Kath and Sonya’s conversations about books (in “Jakarta”) and the long discussions referred to in “The Moons of Jupiter” about “our parents, our childhoods…our fathers and mothers, [how we] deplored their marriages, their mistaken ambitions or fear of ambition, how competently we filed them away, defined them beyond any possibility of change”.
I remember Julia and Douglas, in “Hard-Luck Stories”, musing on the two kinds of love, one of which women don’t want to miss out on and the other being the married practical kind.
All of this, alongside the stuff of the story, is what is remembered.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the seventh story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next: “Queenie”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
The details in “Post and Bean” matter. The specific itty-bitty matters of surprising consequence. Not necessarily what one sees at first glance, but what one uncovers, what the broader whole can be understood to mean.
Take the group of people in the church office. At first, a stranger to the office might think, “Oh, what a cozy bunch”. One might wonder at how well each of them must know the other, sharing such a small space, and how might that familiarity engender a comfortable working environment.
“Everybody munched on secret eats and never shared.”
That fact alone colours the entire scene. But in an Alice Muno story, events can turn on a detail. On its symbolic importance. On a misunderstood importance. Or a lack of importance.
There is Janine with her caramels. And Lionel with his sugared almonds. And Mrs. Penfound — but what snack does she favour? What is as surprising as the fact that she doesn’t leave the wrappers in the bin is the fact that someone has checked the bin.
Readers are meant to take time with the details, to assemble layers of meaning.
Polly doesn’t simply bake treats from the recipes in her grandmother’s cookbook; she bakes chocolate date cake, macaroons, and divinity fudge.
It is not enough to know that Lionel “would not have changed out of his workday outfit”; readers need to know that that outfit consists of “[d]ark trousers, a white shirt that always looked grubby and worn around the cuffs and collar, a nondescript tie”.
A description of a kitchen is not complete without the observation that a mirror hangs above the range, with a tin trough built beneath which always held “a comb, an old cup-handle, a tiny pot of dry rouge that must have once been her mother’s”.
Sometimes these details are sketched for obvious reasons; it is convenient for readers to have a clear picture of Polly, who has come to the west coast to visit Lorna, who now lives in the post and beam house with her husband.
“Some things about Polly’s looks Lorna had forgotten. How tall she was and what a long neck and narrow waist she had, and an almost perfectly flat chest. A bumpy little chin and a wry mouth. Pale skin, light-brown hair cut short, fine as feathers. She looked both frail and hardy, like a daisy on a long stalk. She wore a ruffled denim skirt with embroidery on it.”
But the tremendous irony is that the story is as much about forgotten details as remembered ones.
For all the importance placed upon details, what comprises a memory is often so vague it is barely more than forgotten. And the more vague, the more resonant, the more haunting.
“And even in that memory, her mother was only a hip and a shoulder, in a heavy coat.”
When Lorna tries to piece together an understanding of an acquaintance by visiting their home while they are away, she looks for details, but cannot find any and, therefore, cannot get a sense of who he really is. There is, paradoxically, more of a sense of connection in absence for Lorna here.
“Things must be hidden somewhere. In the bureau drawers? She couldn’t look. Not only because there was no time—she could hear Elizabeth calling her from the yard—but the very absence of whatever might be personal made the sense of [him] stronger.”
And Lorna’s sense of personal connection to Polly is fading too. Even when Polly is right before her eyes, Polly appears changed to Lorna.
“Polly was no longer that person who had rubbed Lorna’s small hands between her own, the person who knew all the things Lorna did not know and who could be trusted to take care of her in the world. Everything had been turned around, and it seemed that in the years since Lorna got married Polly had stayed still. Lorna had passed her by. And now Lorna had the children in the back seat to take care of and to love, and it was unseemly for a person of Polly’s age to come clawing for her share.”
Undoubtedly, as changed as Polly appears to be to Lorna, Lorna must appear differently to Polly, too. For starters, Lorna has status. She is married now. And married to a man of means. A man who can afford to have a house designed to look like a rural home but reside in the middle of a wealthy suburb. But whether this is an enviable state for any woman is questionable.
Lorna certainly recognizes that there is something she is lacking.
“It was not until now, not until this moment, that she had seen so clearly that she was counting on something happening, something that would change her life. She had accepted her marriage as one big change, but not as the last one.
So, nothing now but what she or anybody could sensibly foresee. That was to be her happiness, that was what she had bargained for. Nothing secret, or strange.”
She has bargained for this. To be paired off, like the girls in the madeleine story that she and Elizabeth have learned by heart:
“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread Brushed their teeth and went to bed—”
But readers know that Lorna began paired with another little girl, who rubbed her small hands between her own and knew things about the world. She began by imagining that something wonderful would happen.
And what of that strange and secret thing? That which was to have been their happiness?
What of that?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the sixth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Tomorrow: “What Is Remembered”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
Sometimes, when I begin reading an Alice Munro story, I am overwhelmed by a sense of “there it is”. It’s a feeling of immediate and undeniable recognition of familiar elements.
Like the beginning of “Nettles”, which begins with firmly rooting the reader in a time and place.
It is summer. It is 1979. The narrator is in her friend Sunny’s kitchen. The house is near Uxbridge, Ontario. And there is a man standing at the counter eating a sandwich. A ketchup sandwich.
How deliberate. I imagine readers who have turned to “Nettles” as their first Alice Munro story thinking “so this is how things will be”.
And I imagine them fidgeting in their seats with the next paragraph, which pushes and pulls the timeline, forcing readers to adjust their positioning after a single sentence.
In learning that the narrator has driven country backroads looking for this house, readers are reoriented.
The verb alerts readers to the fact that the driving took place in the past, so readers instinctively put the driving before the sandwich, but almost immediately realize that it’s more complicated than that.
For the driving did, indeed, take place in the past, but a different past, after that summer and that sandwich.
Because readers now understand that the telling is in the present, but not a recent present, rather a present which has afforded the narrator plenty of time to reconsider the events of this layered past.
There has been time for reflection, an attempt to find closure, but there is a lingering question which remains.
This is transmitted and mirrored in the structure of the second paragraph, with its first two sentences contrasting so dramatically.
“I have driven around in the hills northeast of Toronto, with my husband – my second husband, not the one I had left behind that summer – and I have looked for the house, in an idly persistent way, I have tried to locate the road it was on, but I have never succeeded. It has probably been torn down.”
How circuitous this sentence is; readers can imagine the up-and-down travels on those backroads, the retracing of steps, the stops-and-starts, the space afforded to interruptions and detours. And, finally, the acknowledgement that the task may be an impossible one. And, yet, a sense that the narrator is still seeking resolution. Particularly because there is a hint of success in the third paragraph.
But, then, readers are pulled back even further into the past. Before the somewhat-promising discovery. Before the series of stop-and-start explorations. Before the second husband. Before the sandwich. Before the first marriage ended. Before Sunny either sold or bought that house. Before she and Sunny became friends. Before nearly everything.
So, there it is.
There, and here.
In which a line is drawn to the first paragraph:”The things Mike remembered were different from the things I remembered.”
In which a line is drawn to the second paragraph: “Future absence I accepted—it was just that I had no idea, till Mike disappeared, of what absence could be like. How all my own territory would be altered, as if a landslide had gone through it and skimmed off all meaning except loss of Mike. I could never again look at the white stone in the gangway without thinking of him, and so I got a feeling of aversion towards it. I had that feeling also about the limb of the maple tree, and when my father cut it off because it was too near the house, I had it about the scar that was left.”
In which a line is drawn to the third paragraph: “Those plants with the big pinkish-purple flowers are not nettles. I have discovered that they are called joe-pye weed. The stinging nettles that we must have got into are more insignificant plants, with a paler purple flower, and stalks wickedly outfitted with fine, fierce, skin-piercing and inflaming spines. Those would be present too, unnoticed, in all the flourishing of the waste meadow.”
But I could share dozens of quotes, each of which seems integrally connected to other parts of this story, the beginning and the middle and the end and all the parts between. And, noow that I look at these three, they don’t seem as clearly connected to earlier parts of the story as they seemed initially, but nor do the other passages feel more so, and I cannot imagine discussing the story without mentioning any of them.
And, then, I want to mention all the stories to which “Nettles” seems to be connected (for the idea of missed connections, connections formed in early life which haunt one later, painful divorces with children involved, apartment life in downtown Toronto, summer homes, fading friendships between women, suffering and hospitals, the chaotic activity of a growing family).
There it is, then.
The all-of-a-piece-ness of it.
That which makes me want to re-read immediately.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fifth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next: “Post and Beam”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
Mid-way through February, not one book in my reading log for this year bears a 2015 publication date. Not even 2014. The book published most recently was Carla Gunn’s Amphibian, from Coach House Books in 2009. Although I’m not exactly pulling Ovid and Milton, Aphra Behn or Jane Austen from the shelves either. The earliest publication date for my reading year so far is Gabrielle Roy’s 1951 novel, Where Nests the Water Hen.
Perhaps that’s why, although there are a lot of quotes from Dawn Powell’s diaries interspersed (as are here), the bulk of my notebook in recent weeks has been devoted to recent booklists, from the CBC Bookie award lists, the ReLit award lists, and The Morning News Tournament of Books list. New books, shiny temptations.
(With the exception of the CBC Canada Reads titles — a couple of which are more Amphibian-vintage, though nothing even close to Water-Hen-vintage — all of these are 2013/2014 works, the perfect temptation for my backlist focus.)
2015 CBC Bookie Awards (Votes are accepted until February 23rd, here.) [Edited to add a link to the winners, here.]
Ben Lerner’s 10:04
✔Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
✔Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows
Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names
✔K.D. Miller’s All Saints
Alison Pick’s Between Gods: A Memoir
Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage
Michael Harris’ The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
✔Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey through the Turbulent Waters of Native History
Don McKay’s Angular Unconfirmity
Adam Sol’s Complicity
Arleen Pare’s Lake of Two Mountains
Ken Babstock’s On Malice
Karen Enns’ Ordinary Hours
Linwood Barclay’s No Safe House
✔Linden MacIntyre’s Punishment
Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home
✔Nick Cutter’s The Troop
✔Russell Wangersky’s Walt
Peter Watts’ Echopraxia
Dave Duncan’s Queen of Stars
✔Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven
William Gibson’s The Peripheral
✔Kelley Armstrong’s Visions
House of Anansi, 2014
✔Sarah Ellis’ Outside In
Kenneth Oppel’s The Boundless
Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener
✔Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer
Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels like the Movies
✔K.D. Miller’s All Saints
Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations
✔Mireille Silcoff’s Chez L’Arabe
✔Kathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere
✔Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress
Marie-Louise Gay’s Any Questions?
Chieri Uegaki’s Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin (Illus. Qin Leng)
David J. Smith’s If: A Mind-Bending Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers (Illus. Steve Adams)
Kyo Maclear’s Julia, Child (Illus. Julie Morstad)
Christine Baldacchino’s Moris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (Illus. Isabelle Malenfant)
Graphic Novel or Graphic Memoir:
Julie Delporte’s Everywhere Antennas
Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life
Pascal Giraud’s Petty Theft
Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds
✔Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer
Ben Lerner’s 10:04
✔Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names
✔Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks
Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist
Thomas Pikeyy’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Trans. Arthur Goldhammer)
Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable
2014 ReLit Awards
Savage 1986-2011, Nathaniel G. Moore (Anvil)
Rogue Cells/ Carbon Harbour, Garry Thomas Morse (Talonbooks)
✔Miracle of Ordinary Men, Amanda Leduc (ECW)
Burning From the Inside, Christine Walde (DCB)
The Strangers’ Gallery, Paul Bowdring (Vagrant)
Sneaker Wave, Jeff Beamish (Oolichan)
Anatomy of a Girl Gang, Ashley Little (Arsenal Pulp)
✔Caught, Lisa Moore (Anansi)
Paradise Revisited, Shane Joseph (Blue Denim Press)
✔Say Nothing Saw Wood, Joel Thomas Hynes (Running the Goat)
✔Infidelity, Stacey May Fowles (ECW)
The Alphabet Stones, Ursula Pflug (Blue Denim Press)
Fallsy Downsies, Stephanie Domet (Invisible)
✔The Desperates, Greg Kearney (Cormorant)
Every Little Thing, Chad Pelley (Breakwater)
Juanita Wildrose My True Life, Susan Downe (Pedlar)
Auxiliary Skins, Christine Miscione (Exile)
Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2014
Dear Leaves I Miss You, Sara Heinonen (Mansfield)
All We Want is Everything, Andrew F. Sullivan (ARP Books)
The Critic and Other Stories, Martin Hunter (Cormorant)
After it Rains, Bill Haugland (Vehicule)
Someone Somewhere, Dana Mills (Gaspereau)
You Haven’t Changed a Bit, Astrid Blodgett (UOA Pres)
The Other Side of Youth, Kelli Deeth (Arsenal Pulp)
Exceptions & Deceptions, Cliff Burns (Black Dog Press)
Keeping the Peace, Colette Maitland (Biblioasis)
They Never Told Me, Austin Clarke (Exile)
Life Without Death, Peter Unwin (Cormorant)
✔Islands of Decolonial Love, Leanne Simpson (ARP Books)
✔Red Girl Rat Boy, Cynthia Flood (Biblioasis)
Placeholder, Charmaine Cadeau (Brick)
The Ends of the Earth, Jacqueline Turner (ECW)
Monkey Soap, Glen Downie (Mansfield)
Forge, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff (Invisible)
The Sea with No One in it, Niki Koulouris (Porcupine’s Quill)
Liquidities, Daphne Marlatt (Talon)
Coping with Emotions and Otters, Dina Del Bucchia (Talonbooks)
When This World Comes to an End, Kate Cayley (Brick)
How Poetry Saved My Life, Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp)
Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis, Robin Richardson (ECW)
The Family China, Ann Shin (Brick)
Love’s Not the Way to, Stan Rogal (BookLand)
The Polymers, Adam Dickinson (Anansi)
Hard Ass, Sharon McCartney (Palimpsest)
The Lost Letters, Catherine Greenwood (Brick)
The Cockeyed World, Jim Christy (Guernica)
For Display Purposes Only, David Seymour (Coach House)
Multitudes, Margaret Christakos (Coach House)
Complete Surprising Fragments of Improbable Books, Stephen Brockwell (Mansfield)
What the World Said, Jason Camlot (Mansfield)
A Pretty Sight, David O’Meara (Coach House)
Our Days in Vaudeville, Stuart Ross (Mansfield)
2015 The Morning News Tournament of Books
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor
✔All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Harper Collins, 2012
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Redeployment by Phil Klay
✔Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
✔Adam by Ariel Schrag
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
2015 CBC Canada Reads
✔And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier (Trans. Rhonda Mullins)
✔Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee
✔Ru by Kim Thúy (Trans. Sheila Fischman)
✔The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid
Are you scribbling big reading plans in your notebook?
Do they seem to have any bearing on the books in your current reading?
(Only two of them are actually in my current stack of reads, and it’s harder to explain how the other dozen books got there.)
Are you following any of these events in particular, vaguely or diligently?
While Nina was playing tennis, Lewis was killing himself. Readers learn this at the outset. Nina played; Lewis died.
Back and forth across the net, Nina volleyed and returned serves; Lewis plunged downward into first unconsciousness, then…
As a science teacher, who insisted that evolution be taught in classrooms despite creationists’ objections, Lewis would have spoken about the cycle of life, not about religious concepts of an afterlife. (The controversy and comments made about it remind me of Alice Munro’s response to the attempts to have Lives of Girls and Women removed from school curricula.)
Nina honours his wishes.
“She got the box open and put her hand into the cooling ashes and tossed or dropped them—with other tiny recalcitrant bits of the body—among those roadside plants.”
Creation and devastation. Growth and decay. Mythic ideas have long infused the tenets of short fiction.
But what makes their appearance remarkable in Alice Munro’s stories is her impeccable attention to detail and her willingness to bend the structure to mirror the theme’s complexities. (This particular mythic reference brings “Save the Reaper” to my mind.)
“But while she was out, Lewis had been dying. In fact, he had been killing himself.”
Things do happen all-at-once. Not conveniently streamed, as a piece of music has a beginning and an ending.
Events in this story are not presented chronologically, and the passage of time in “Comfort” is anything but comfortable for readers.
And, how suitable. For Lewis and Nina have endured great discomfort in recent months since his diagnosis.
That aspect of the story feels despearately linear at times – his steady decline towards death – but readers are reminded, though Nina’s memories of Lewis, that the scientific view of the situation is broader; it’s cyclical, not linear, so the story’s structure makes perfect sense.
But so much about this situation seems senseless, too. And Nina struggles to make, if not sense, some kind of order out of the scene. She looks for a note; she looks for meaning. She asks Lewis to clarify what happens in the funeral home, the scientific processes involved, and, yet, she also asks him if he believes in souls.
The details do matter. Imagine what a different story this would be were Nina running a marathon rather than playing tennis. Or if she had been playing at noon. Or if she had buried Lewis at dawn.
Alice Munro volleys this one to the readers: “And it was the small miracles—surely it was the small miracles that helped prepare us for the great ones?”
If this is true, then do small tragedies help to prepare us for the larger ones?
And if Lewis’ death is a larger one, what smaller ones should have prepared Nina for the loss?
“What had been between them, all these years, had been kept in balance because of their two marriages. Their marriages were the real content of their lives—her marriage to Lewis, the sometimes harsh and bewildering, indispensable content of her life. This other thing depended on those marriages, for its sweetness, its consoling promise. It was not likely to be something that could hold up on its own, even if they were both free. Yet it was not nothing. The danger was in trying it, and seeing it fall apart and then thinking that it had been nothing.”
Particularly in the context of what is shared about Nina’s relationship with Ed Shore before Lewis’ death — including Nina’s impressions of Ed’s wife’s over-exuberant religiosity, which stands in stark contrast to Lewis’ approach to finding meaning in the world — readers are left to wonder about the significance she places on opportunities missed. Perhaps the tragedy is not the death in this story, but the slow extinguishing of life while one settles for comfort in a marriage when she could have had a passionate love affair instead.
It’s literally late-afternoon when Nina is playing tennis, it’s after dark soon enough.
The burial unfolds beneath the moonlight. But although this story end with winter’s chill, it is the image of a still-cold lake in June which remains with readers, the resurfacing of a diver.
Ultimately there is a hint of summer in “Comfort”, endurance in the presence of devotion.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the fourth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Tomorrow: “Nettles”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
Molly Peacock’s Paradise, Piece by Piece (1998) reconstructs the poet’s life using fragments of memory and experience, in orderly lines of text. The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) is a biography, sumptuously illustrated. Both books consider women’s work and creativity (among other things).
McClelland & Stewart, 2014
In many ways, Alphabetique feels like a union of these earlier works. It takes as its subject, the biography of the alphabet, but not just their familiar outward forms but their intimate under-sides, strikingly illustrated with a series of collages by Kara Kosaka.
Reaching beyond the author’s oeuvre, there are glimpses of Dr. Suess in the vein of “Big I, Little I, what begins with I?”
Here is part of Molly Peacock’s answer in Alphabetique:
“It was independence itself she helped her patients aim for, though Dr. I expressed this indirectly. She vowed to ease the irrational, inspire the irritable, illumine the ill, and lead them all into images of themselves, pictures they could draw internally. Dr. I thought all her patients were intrepid, even the timid ones. She understood that ichors of being flowed up and down the cores of every last one of them.”
These short narratives are playful (perhaps best enjoyed in short bursts of reading, so as they don’t become a blur of cleverness) but also acute observations of behaviour.
“U loved being useful. He was a guy who could clean an eavestrough of a Saturday morning and plough through handyman chores faster than a vacuum cleaner. He was neat, too. Always swept up the sawdust from the drill, wiped up the gunk from the old plumbing he coaxed into another year, and kept his beautiful wooden worktable oiled. The table was the pièce de résistance of his workshop off the garage, a utopia of neatly racked hardware and tools. It stood in the center, huge and ready as a canvas for the next project.”
These are not portraits conceived of in isolation, in some make-believe world that might be indexed in The Dictionary of Imagined Places. These letters inhabit a world that readers will immediately recognize and, possibly, relate to their own personal experiences.
“…her new heroines would be exceedingly vigorous and mature despite pesky ailments like heart trouble. She chose two. One came from the afterlife: Diana Vreeland (who mounted a dozen costume exhibits extraordinaires before her heart failed at eighty-six). Among the still living, she took as a heroine the spirited Diana Athill, celebrated editor and memoirist, keeping up her elucidating correspondence at ninety-six.”
(Not surprising to find contemplation of the creative life for female artists, feminism and the identification of heroines molding independent and spirited existences, when so much of Molly Peacock’s writing considers these themes.)
“Because both Diana A. and Diana V. advised the wearing of makeup in advanced age, X decided to make a short excursion of her own to an exclusive makeup counter, one of those exorbitant places that, to her, was both exhilarating and exhausting.”
Repetition and rhythm, delicacy and deliberation: Alphabetique can tickle and toy with readers’ expectations of prose, and that is largely because the work began as lyric rather than narrative. The author’s note explains the work’s transformation over time.
“The first notes of the tales began as poems. Then they transformed into stories, as if from space to time, with the radiant guidance of editor Lara Hinchberger. When the tales became formed in their imagery, CS Richardson, art director and author of the inspired abecedarian novel, The End of the Alphabet, stepped in with a brilliant layout. He then encouraged the visual poems of Kara Kosaka….”
But although the whimsical flavour lingers, strength lies at the heart of this work, inside its central core.
“T wasn’t a journalist, or a historian, or a meteorologist—she just recorded what happened in her diary. It was a self-portrait, really. Locked inside her central core. They’d have to chop her down to get at it.
Even if you’ve never wondered what the letter T’s diary might contain, Alphabetique might make you wonder why you’ve never wondered about wondering it before.
Weeks after reading these stories, a glance at the table of contents brings back their characters and arcs in a moment. (With “Flower Watching” and “Eskimos” I also required the aid of the characters’ names I’d noted.”)
These stories stood out, not only as independent narratives but, simultaneously, for the connections between them; as with Bronwen Wallace and Margaret Atwood collections, not all tales intertwine, only some and not necessarily all in a row, as Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence have done).
House of Anansi, 2014
The first story, also the title story, immediately grips the reader. Although a story rooted in stillness, there are jolts and jerks of motion which force the reader to sit upright.
This is highly appropriate given that the narrator’s existence is preoccupied with stillness. She has chronic health issues, because her spinal fluid is leaking and her brain has no suspension. A simple car ride holds the potential for excruciating pain, as the vehicle’s driver negotiates the bumps in the road.
The narrator is navigating with care and caution as well. Her life has been transformed by illness, and there is motion even in the stillness, as her body works to adapt and, hopefully, heal.
But there are bursts of intrusion with as she emerges tentatively into the outside world, and these force readers to readjust their expectations. For as small as the narrator’s world is currently, her existence is not solely defined by her illness.
This exchange between her and her mother reveals some of the themes which resurface elsewhere in the collection.
“‘You know they have some Israeli food there – labneh and zatar.’ [The mother says.]
‘It’s Persian food.’
‘Labneh is Israeli food.’
‘No, it’s Middle Eastern food. Israelis eat it because their country is in the Middle East.’
‘I grew up eating labneh.’
‘Yes, and if the Jewish state had set up shop in Sweden, you’d have grown up eating lingonberries.’”
Questions of identity, voice and belonging,relationships between daughters and mothers (and one notable step-mother), the meaning of home, the intricacy of treaties (personal and political agreements), gaps between understanding, and food: these make multiple appearances in different stories, so those readers who enjoy a tightly curated collection will likely find Chez L’Arabe quite satisfying.
Mireille Silcoff’s use of figurative language is deliberate and spare. The sky might be the colour of overlooked veal. Trouble might slide over someone like water over a rock. The leaves of stippled white birches might shimmer. But more often a story simply considers the hot and dry places in America or the contents of a shop carefully itemized. The style is matter-of-fact, measured and, on occasion, distanced. Readers are not invited to inhabit the narratives completely, but they are made comfortable in their seats on the margins.
Readers who have enjoyed the works of Ayelet Tsabari, Sarah Selecky, Clark Blaise and Saleema Nawaz, will appreciate Mireille Silcofff’s debut collection.
Some favourite quotes:
That night she let Anne get under the covers with the book from the kitchen. In bed, Anne didn’t snuggle it like a teddy but arranged it open on her chest, as if her heart could absorb its pages. ‘I like it like this,’ Anne said as her stepmother turned out the bedside lamp. The book’s spine peaked over Anne’s small rib cage like the top of a little house. As long as it was there, Anne felt, there was nothing to be afraid of. (“Davina”)
If I had suffered an ever-widening gulf between me and my best destiny, I could now feel the gap coming together, almost by magnetic force. There are no meaningless coincidences, I thought. I had zero guilt about my pilfering. I was sure that everything that was happening – that had happened – was part of a pattern, that something was happening through me, and happening for a reason, and it felt enveloping enough to contain the whole Ojai night – the stars under my skin, the moon glowing from inside my rib cage. (“Appalachian Spring”)
“Even though the author was in North America doing readings and giving interviews, it felt almost cosmically coincidental that his voice would be in my kitchen that Sunday, as if the preoccupations of / my house and that of th world outside were finally on the same page.” (“Shalom Israel!”)
“Betrayal was a point of conversion, a crux, where the victim careens to clarity. That evening, Elsa went to sleep still a dupe. The following morning, she woke up knowing it.” (“Complimentarity”)
And, even though I recalled the final two stories only foggily, when I glanced at the TOC, the following passages brought the characters back sharply.
“I had a book that had built itself up in my mind as being some kind of portal. But now I’d spend mornings raking through the first drafts of first chapters, looking for a live coal, and every paragraph trailed into ash.” (“Flower Watching”)
“There are people who just add zero to the world, so fully impermeable are they in their skin, that barely anything goes in or out.” (“Eskimos”)
Contents: Chez l’arabe, Davina, Appalachian Spring, Champ de Mars, Shalom Israel!, Complimentarity, Flower Watching, Eskimos
My grandmother attended All Saints Church. Although I was not a devout child, I have many happy memories surrounding that small brick building: bazaars and bake sales, pancake suppers and holiday lunches.
None of my happy memories reside in the pews or at the altar, however; they are attached to the basement or the kitchen, the foyer or the parking lot.
And, similiarly, the characters in K.D. Miller’s All Saints are sketched in laundry rooms and city parks, in armchairs and rehab, more often in ordinary places than in the church proper.
What unites the characters is their membership in All Saints, but otherwise the connections betweem them range from loose to non-existent (with some notable exceptions) and their connections to the church itself are of varying intensities.
Some, however, are integrally connected to the institution, as leaders (of/within the congregation), whereas others are occasional attendees.
“Yes, he would have his own parish. Finally. But it would be creaky old All Saints which was tiny and getting tinier by the Sunday. He doubted the bishop actually thought he was going to revive the place with his innovative ideas and commanding presence. More likely, it was a relatively painless way of getting rid of them both. Five or so years of ministering to a dwindling congregation would serve to end his career. And his retirement would make it easy for the diocese to turn a cool eye on All Saints, with its empty pews and emptier collection plates.” (Still Dark)
The tone shifts. Sometimes characters express themselves in brusque snippets.
“Silence. Oh, right. You know how it’s going to be now, once you do go up. She’ll put your lunch down in front of you without a word, then sit across the table from you not eating. Not talking. For once. And you’ll try. Try a little joke. Call her one of the old names. Say, How about supper down at the Legion tonight? Save cooking? No dishes? Still nothing. So finally you’ll say, All right, what is it then? And she’ll be all tears, blubbering on about the jar of pickles or whatever the hell it was that you wouldn’t bring up. Except it’s not the jar of pickles. It’s never the bloody jar of pickles.” (Barney)
Other times, characters make phrase-soaked observations.
“And remember the way the venetian blinds sliced the afternoon sun into bright stripes along the living-room floor? And the way the handles of their two umbrellas, in that white ceramic stand by the door, used to lean away from each other to form a heart?” (What They Have)
Sometimes the prose is lyrical, poetic.
“The sight of her fellow rehab patients—pale as skinned potatoes, slack on one side like marionettes with half their strings cut. Does she look like that? She has to get out of here. She has to get home.” (Return)
Other times, it is perfunctory, simply serviceable.
“But since we have been writing to each other, since these letters—sent and received—have begun to punctuate my week, I have become so much more aware of what is around me. I pay attention to the taste of my food, to the different tones of my minders’ voices. I notice now if a wall needs repainting. I can’t say I exactly care, nor would I ever point it out to someone in authority. Nevertheless, I notice.” (October Song)
In every case, however, there is a sense of careful and deliberate construction; the words are draped across the narrative as delicately as a garment over the back of a chair.
“Drapes the sweater over the back and arranges it so the button at the neckline is centred. That’s important. It gives the garment a presence, a sense of awareness. And there is something sweetly composed about the curves of the fabric joining at the button.” (Still Dark)
These stories are exceptional. The tone of the collection balances the need for variety in style with the need for consistency which builds trust with the reader, between and within stories. And the drama is drawn from the everyday, as remarkable — and memorable — as that may be.
“We all survived. I guess that’s what’s so remarkable—the sheer normalcy of the lives we ended up living.” (Heroes)
Contents: Barney; Still Life; What They Have; Magnificat; Ecce Cor Meum; Kim’s Game; Return; October Song; Spare Change; Heroes
“Yes, June collects sadness. What would happen if no one remembered sadness? We’d walk around mutilated and mutilating and not know how we got there or have any remorse.”
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Perhaps this is as true of the author, Dionne Brand, as it is of June in Love Enough, for characters in In Another Place, Not Here and What We All Long For seem to embody this quality as well.
Love Enough seems to simultaneously rail against this tendency and honour it. It is a mass of contradictions (as is love, itself): beautifully and hauntingly expressed.
Throughout the narrative, many characters come up against uncomfortable truths. They have believed something or someone to be true; instead, they have misunderstood.
“If you were to notice every small physical gesture of an individual person and if you observed those small gestures over the course of a year and a half, say, and if you were to lose that person you should be able to find that person. Like tracking the genome sequence, but the genome sequence of gestures. You should be able to find that person. You should.”
You should. You should be able to.
But the implication is that you cannot.
But, why not?
Perhaps we are tracking the wrong trail.
“As we all do, June had expected her own reflection in the lover’s face. Her reflection being a benign understanding. But the lover’s face, in the end, was fierce and foreign. It wasn’t the same person. Not someone June knew at all.”
A novel about the nature of love might be sprawling to afford the opportunity to contain all those unanswerable questions, but Dionne Brand is a poet. One expects precision of language and Love Enough exhibits this. A single sentence, for all its simplicity, may have been laboured on for hours. (Another contradiction.)
“The woman loves being loved, more than she loves. That the man loves her is more compelling than whether she loves him. But sometimes, as now, she is overwhelmed by this love and breaks off to the lake or to the red underwings of a black bird.”
Some of the statements seem also mythic in their universality. And the philosophical link between love and freedom (strikingly illustrated on the cover), connection and disconnection, is explored in layers. “To be lost or to be free.”
“They weren’t old men really, his father and his uncle, but they seemed old because of how their life was. It was all in the past tense. And when they told him what he should do, he felt as it they were welcoming him to some petrified life. So he had separated himself from them, separated himself from the grim warmth around the counter at Bilan. He felt left.”
With such exacting prose, it’s ironic that chaos lurks beneath. Disorder. Happiness?
“And people with ordered lives always think that people whose lives are in disorder are looking for their kind of order. They think their kind of order is happiness, when their kind of order is gluttony and selfishness. And with all this order, June thinks, we are creating wreckage and disorder, piling it up like a midden.”
There lies a midden of emotions.
“Then is when she decided that you had to keep the noise of other people out of you. This is when she knew the only recourse was to watch and wait. Wait, because you can’t change people, you can only change yourself.”
With those you love, you must disconnect. And yet there is cost not only with the unfiltered noise of love, but also with the protective layer of silence.
“He’s disappeared into the elements of mayhem and randomness. They are indeed elements, June thinks, like iron or mercury. Of course June knows she’s being a little precious. She laughs at herself out loud. Right now she is probably an odd-looking woman in the coffee shop. She looks around and laughs again. Everybody in the coffee shop is odd-looking except those who have someone sitting across from them talking. Companionship makes you look sane.”
Is it even about love? Perhaps, something else? Perhaps survival.
“You have to survive people. You meet people and sometimes you have no control of that, and then it’s a simple matter of waiting them out.”
Sometimes the shortest sentences contain the greatest amount of confusion: “(No one thinks they’ve been loved enough.)”
What one character muses is true, too, of a novel like Love Enough. “It is hard if you really want to do it right.”
It’s very difficult to produce a tightly honed novel on a subject which suggests that any book considering the matter should be the length of Anna Karenina or Kristin Lavransdatter.
Dionne Brand makes it look easy.