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.
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.