When I began rereading The View from Castle Rock, I stumbled. It had not been a favourite and my return was not an easy one.
I wondered if this had something to do with my personal response to the idea of expecting words to hold losses. I had lost a friend recently and I was on the cusp of another loss. These were things that I was not prepared to put into words myself at the time, and I thought perhaps I was overwhelmed by the inadequacy of words under such circumstances.
So I set aside the reread, and I did not return for several months. I felt a shift in my response. At that point, I desperately wanted words to swell so that they could hold losses. So that entire lives and experiences could be preserved, in some fashion. But still I did not connect with these stories.
As much care as I took to examine and consider the author’s intent, as clearly as I understood her words, my actual experience of The View from Castle Rock remained something outside of my previous experience with Alice Munro’s writing.
“You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.”
And that is clear, is it not? More truth than is in many stories. More narrative than is in much of history. Two streams coming together.
So there we have it: The View from Castle Rock.
Had I met the work on those terms alone, as described by Alice Munro, I believe my response would have been different from the outset.
But there is the word “Stories” on the cover. And the classification as fiction. Which could have been a simple marketing decision.
This was pre-Nobel-Prize for Alice Munro. Her devoted followers would be expecting a collection of short stories. Two years prior to The View from Castle Rock‘s publication, confirmed fans bought and read Runaway (less history and more narrative, a single stream, no channel). Those readers would have been eager to receive another collection of short stories.
Perhaps it made sense fiscally to identify the work as fiction, which suggests more of a single stream than one channel comprised of two streams.
And perhaps having the word ‘Stories’ on the cover did not disrupt other readers’ expectations as it disrupted mine.
For instance, I am not bothered by the idea of fictionalized biographies, but I understand that they irritate some other readers.
Those other readers might prefer this work be identified as fiction. For a sentence like this one might not fit their understanding of biographical or historical writing:
“Now all these names I have been recording are joined to the living people in my mind, and to the lost kitchens, the polished nickel trim on the commodious presiding black stoves, the sour wooden drainboards that never quite dried, the yellow light of the coal-oil lamps.”
For Alice Munro was not there to personally inhabit all these lost kitchens, to smell the drainboards or read by the yellow-light of those oil lamps. Some might believe it would have been disingenuous to have the pieces in The View from Castle Rock be identified as anything other than Stories.
But, for me, I would have preferred that they be presented in some other way.
In a way which allowed them to inhabit their own space, separate from Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), The Progress of Love (1986), Friend of My Youth (1990), Open Secrets (1994), The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), and Dear Life (2012).
For the works in The View from Castle Rock grow increasingly vivid as the years pass. The sensory detail is accentuated and the scenes are more evocatively sketched in the works which are more securely in the author’s reach, geographically and experientially, and the style of the later stories resonates more strongly with the other collections.
Alice Munro is certainly capable of pulling readers into other times and places wholly and completely in works of fiction, (consider: A Wilderness Station), so the fact that readers feel more distanced from the tales earlier in this collection than the later tales seems to reflect more of an autobiographical than fictional truth, to reflect more of the author’s personal relationships with her ancestors than her relationship as a fiction writer with her readers. (Or, maybe that says more about me as a reader than it says about her as a writer, for reading and writing flow together too.)
I love the idea of exploring those lost kitchens, and I would have been more content to use Alice Munro’s words as a map through that territory without having a signpost to identify the stories along the way.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in The View from Castle Rock as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the final story in this collection. The other stories in this collection appear as follows: No Advantages, The View from Castle Rock, Illinois, The Wilds of Morris Township, Working for a Living, Fathers, Lying Under the Apple Tree, Hired Girl, The Ticket, Home, What Do You Want to Know For? Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next: discussion of 2009’s Too Much Happiness.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.