Is it something like a triangle? With happiness, unhappiness and love arranged with an equal distance between each point?
Perhaps. Certainly there are triangles in “Fiction”, shifting alliances and fractures.
Love triangles. Happiness triangles.
Just enough. Too much.
The kind of happiness discussed in “Fiction” is different from that which Doree/Fleur muses upon in “Dimensions”.
Doree/Fleur recognizes it in other people. She barely remembers what that was like: the happiness that comes from a sunny day or peonies in bloom or the smell of rolls fresh from the oven.
In “Fiction”, it doesn’t seem to be a light feeling, but a more solid – if not heavy – sensation.
Not something ethereal and fleeting, but something with a definite presence, something which provides a weight from which something might pull away.
Or, is that unhappiness?
Is that where the question of transformation worms in?
The weight of what has been sloughed off, left behind. The lightness of the freshly possible.
“She felt herself shedding the day’s work, which was harried and uncertain, filled with the dispensing of music to the indifferent as well as the responsive. How much better to work with wood and by yourself—she did not count the apprentice—than with the unpredictable human young.”
The rhythm of Joyce’s daily life is very different from Jon’s. She seems to believe that his woodworking affords the potential for something pure, unadulterated.
Jon does not need to peel parts of himself away and rebuild them nightly.
Instead, he spends time in solitude, predictable and consistent, or with Edie, the apprentice.
“Edie does not believe in evolution.” Edie does not shed her day’s work nor does she shed her skin.
Snakes belong in gardens, with temptresses, in Edie’s static and dependable world.
From Joyce’s perspective, Edie does not seem to be the sort of person poised for a fall.
“She [Joyce] should have understood, and at that moment, even if he [Jon] himself was nowhere close to knowing. He was falling in love.
Falling. That suggests some time span, a slipping under. But you can think of it as a speeding up, a moment or a second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is.”
And, yet, there is a fall. Whether from grace. Or from knowing. What was once a haven is no longer.
“At this time many people, even some of the thatched-roof people, were putting in what were called patio doors—even if like Jon and Joyce they had no patio. These were usually left uncurtained, and the two oblongs of light seemed to be a sign or pledge of comfort, of safety and replenishment. Why this should be so, more than with ordinary windows, Joyce could not say. Perhaps it was that most were meant not just to look out on but to open directly into the forest darkness, and that they displayed the haven of home so artlessly.”
Readers experience the slipping that caught Joyce unawares. What was once comforting and safe, artlessly replenishing, has fallen, out of reach.
“The first thing you had to wonder was whether her whole body had been transformed in the same way.
‘How amazing,’ said Joyce, as neutrally as possible.”
Joyce has tried to get some perspective on the situation. She seeks to appear neutral, distanced, controlled.
Even at the time. But now, when the story is told, time has ticked past. “Fiction” covers a swath of years.
The final segment presents Joyce-transformed. Once music teacher, but now a professional cellist. Once Jon’s beloved, now Matt’s third wife.
And perhaps because she is now attuned to the subtle (and dramatic) transformations that can occur, across a lifetime or overnight, she recognizes the potential in Edie’s daughter. Who, one night, is dressed in black, a sombre and mysterious figure at a party. And on another day she is rosy, pink, and all-a-bloom.
“Then she sees a young woman altogether different from the girl on the poster and the girl at the party. The black outfit is gone, also the black hat. Christie O’Dell wears a jacket of rosy-red silk brocade, with tiny gold beads sewn to its lapels. A delicate pink camisole is worn underneath. There is a fresh gold rinse in her hair, gold rings in her ears, and a gold chain fine as a hair around her neck. Her lips glisten like flower petals and her eyelids are shaded with umber.”
For Edie’s daughter, Christie, has a particularly powerful ability to transform.
In The View from Castle Rock, the young Alice remarks upon this capacity.
She has it too, this ability to write about things and fundamentally change them, to consume them, to pull forth their secret and plentiful messages.
“The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same—nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the Town Hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages for me have drained away.”
Christie is a pained and tortured figure in one environment, but elsewhere, just a few days later, she is resurrected as a fiction writer.
“You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, that the story came from—why, she acted as if that was disposed of long before.”
The fiction writer can wriggle out of the genesis of a story and she can dispose of the distasteful parts on the grass behind her.
In story, one can transform. One can create a sense of gratitude for that which once caused great pain.
“Love. She was glad of it. It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness—however temporary, however flimsy—of one person could come out of the great unhappiness of another.”
When Joyce admires the crowd at Matt’s birthday part, she calls attention to the number of people in attendance. Look, she says: “It’s positively a life story.’”
And Alice Munro does have a way of transforming full and complicated lives into short fictions, doesn’t she. And we, as readers, can wriggle our toes in the grass.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Wenlock Edge”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.