Among the “first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life”, “Voices” is one of four stories in Finale, published at the end of Dear Life as “not quite stories”, part of a “separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact”.
Many of the themes which recur in Alice Munro’s fiction appear in these works, and the question of class distinctions and the lines drawn between town and country (and the no-man’s land between) also makes an appearance in “Night” although it dominates “Voices”.
This isn’t the first time that matters of class have been examined in a way which blurs the line between feeling and fact, fiction and reality either.
In the introduction to The Moons of Jupiter, Alice Munro states that “The Stone in the Field” comes from her personal experience, and one is left to deduce that the second half of the story, “Connection”, which features the same characters, does as well.
“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think,” she writes in the introduction to that collection.
The narrator in this pair of stories takes in both images of her mother, the presumed aristocratic connections and the trading and deal-making business woman, with a reputation for gathering up old furniture at estate sales, and she struggles to recognize her own connection with this woman, with the women on the Chaddeley and Fleming sides of the family.
These observations are pulled from “Voices”, but could have slipped into this earlier pair of stories too:
“She sounded as if she had grown up in some strange family who always talked that way. And she hadn’t. They didn’t. Out on their farms, my aunts and uncles talked the way everybody else did. And they didn’t like my mother very much, either.”
This also isn’t far removed from the awareness of the not-quite-story daughter in “The Eye” realizing that she has a distinct existence, apart from — though influenced heavily by — her mother.
And there are intersections between other fictions and these not-quite-stories as well.
The scene sketched in the first story, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” in Alice Munro’s first published collection of fiction Dance of the Happy Shades echoes some of the description of her home in “Night” as well. In her first collection, she considers the question of boundaries, between town and country, and describes the way that the town falls away as follows:
“Then the town falls away in a defeated jumble of sheds and small junkyards, the sidewalk gives up and we are walking on a sandy path with burdocks, plantains, humble nameless weeds all around.”
In “Night”, she describes the positioning of her home as follows:
The east side of our house and the west side looked on two different worlds, or so it seemed to me. The east side was the town side, even though you could not see any town. Not so much as two miles away, there were houses in rows, with streetlights and running water. And though I have said you could not see any of that, I am really not sure that you couldn’t get a certain glow if you stared long enough
To the west, the long curve of the river and the fields and the trees and the sunsets had nothing to interrupt them. Nothing to do with people in my mind, or to do with ordinary life, ever.
The distinction between town and country matters, and the fact that she inhabits a place in-between matters greatly.
In “Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink” in The Moons of Jupiter, “a girl would sit there to take off her rubber boots and put on her town shoes – hiding the boots in the ditch until she put them on again on her way home.”
This kind of camouflage afforded a kind of “passing” but the boundaries were ultimately more difficult to negotiate than a change of clothing suggested.
In “Winter Wind”, in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, they “were pleased and rather excited to be in town, to be able to go out like this into some kind of evening life, not just the dark and cold and rushing storms that wrapped our houses in the country. Here were the streets leading into one another, the lights evenly spaced, a human design that had taken root and was working.
It is only “going out”, visiting, not crossing into another identity, and in the absence of this human design, unpleasantness resides.
“Disgrace was the easiest thing to come by,” in “Half a Grapefruit”, in Who Do You Think You Are? and this idea permeates both this collection of linked stories and The Lives of Girls and Women.
Class matters: “What Jocelyn called bitterness seemed to Rose something more complex and more ordinary; just the weariness, suppleness, deviousness, meanness, common to a class.” (This is from “Mischief” in Who Do You Think You Are? but that sense underlies many other stories as well.)
Straddling the borders, between classes, between town and country, is awkward.
She states: “Our family was out of town but not really in the country.”
That is where the not-quite-story Alice Munro lives, where the town falls away, but in “Voices” she is looking back.
And memory might not be reliable (“If I was really ten, and I think I was…”) but she has another degree of awareness which might compensate for that lack: “Some questions come to mind now that didn’t then.”
More questions than answers, and it has long been that way, as it was, too, in “Postcard” in Dance of the Happy Shades, it “seemed to me that in every one of those houses lived people who knew something I didn’t. Who understood what had happened and perhaps had known it was going to happen and I was the only one who didn’t know”.
Differences between classes. Tensions between men and women. Boys and girls. In “Changes and Ceremonies”, in Lives of Girls and Women, the judgements fly, and their sharp edges are observed to be hurtful and long-lived.
Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on the wheels. And they would say anything.
They would say softly, ‘Hello hooers.’
When she sees Mrs. Hutchison — known to be a hooer — at the dance in “Voices”, however, the not-quite-story daughter perceives the cut as coming from another source, from a female not a male.
“It must have been that orange-dressed woman who had been mean, I thought, for no particular reason. It had to have been a woman. Because if it had been a man, one of her Air Force comforters would have punished them.”
It seems likely that it was her mother who was shamed to have had Mrs. Hutchison and one of her girls in attendance at the dance, inherently disgraceful all the other women there, but although the not-quite-story daughter recognizes that the danger and judgement can reside in both sexes, she does not overtly suggest her mother as the source of the hurt directed at Peggy, one of Mrs. Hutchison’s girls.
When she sees Peggy there — one of Mrs. Hutchison’s girls — she seems to look right past her, through her, as much because she recognizes her vulnerability as because she has accepted her mother’s perspective.
“It seemed as though some people were naturally brave and others weren’t. Somebody must have said something to Peggy, and there she was snuffling, because like me she was not thick-skinned.”
There is an echo there which redirects her eye from Peggy to the ever-admiring men, the internalized view of what matters, of the ways in which women are expected to behave. And just as there is a gap between the way that the not-quite-story daughter views this situation (compared to the way that she imagines her not-quite-story mother would want her to view it), there is a gap between the way she interprets the roles inhabited by Peggy and the young men seated beside her on the stairway.
The question of agency, shifting positions of power and powerlessness, are considered elsewhere in Alice Munro’s fiction as well.
Consider Rose’s experience on the train in “Wild Swans” (in Who Do You Think You Are?) in which Rose is about Peggy’s age and taking the train on her own for the first time and a man puts his hand up her skirt, moving it up her thigh, and she does not protest.
Perhaps Rose, too, was thin-skinned. In “Voices” the hands of the young men “blessed my own skinny thighs and their voices assured me that I, too, was worthy of love” and the not-quite-story ends with the same conflict and uncertainty that “Wild Swans” did, the not-quite-story daughter snuffling and unprotesting but dreaming of feeling worthy.
What do you think?
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, until now, this has been a chronological reading project, but I was unable to resist inserting her most recent collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This work is the thirteenth in Dear Life, with next Sunday reserved for the final, title work. Wednesdays and Sundays for Alice Munro, for March and April 2013