From what I’ve heard tell of it, Alice Munro’s stories are marked by their compassion, their empathy, their poignancy, by a verisimilitude that contains multitudes, by their Chekhovian echoes, their efflorescence of desire and yearning, their sad but expertly submerged subtexts, each one tinctured with regret or loss or betrayal, where paradox intertwines with surprise and delight.
“Pride,” which appears in Harper’s Magazine (April 2011), is hardly a story to be proud of, and is marked, instead, by a flat voice from an equally flat character telling a story as flat as the pages from which I’d read it, as flat as the screens belonging to the many more readers, I would imagine, who will have read or will be reading it, making me wonder whether the New Yorker’s editors—who, with recent stories by Sam Lipsyte, Robert Coover, and Ben Marcus, seem to be veering away from their usual dull fiction offerings and getting a bit more adventurous—exercised their right of first refusal of a Munro story and turned it down. Strange, though, considering the story’s many flaws, that Harper’s, a magazine I greatly admire, would publish it.
Bracketed by two terrible sentences, the opener: “Some people get everything wrong,” and the closer: “We were as glad as we could be,” Munro gets almost everything wrong. One of the things that Munro gets wrong is putting “empty” words like “everything” and “everywhere” and “everybody” into her narrator’s mouth, expecting the reader to fill them up with the meaning that isn’t there. At one point, the narrator, reflecting on how fellow townsfolk had moved away, says they shuffled off “looking for something better somewhere.” Words like “everything” and “everywhere” and “everybody” need to be handled with care, otherwise “everything” becomes nothing, “everybody” becomes nobody, and “everywhere” becomes nowhere. (As I write this, I realize that this ambiguity could be a good thing, that is, a writer, craftily using these words, could create an intriguing world bereft of specificity.) Actually, every word needs to be handled with care, so why does Munro mismanage her words, offer clichés, like “look[ing] on the bright side,” “smell a rat,” “nobody the wiser,” “out on his ear,” “make the world go round,” “fits and starts,” and “‘one fell swoop.’” Some will argue that Munro uses clichés purposely, that this considered choice actually reveals her attentiveness. Since people actually speak this way, so the argument would continue, Munro should be applauded for her accurate depiction of her narrator’s somewhat narrow acculturations. People, including writers, chew on words like a ruminant regurgitates its cud, but this is hardly an argument for writers to spew it all over their fiction. A narrator’s educational background, upbringing, economic status, etc., can all be intimated without resorting to hackneyed phrases and ideas. It’s an odd idea to think that so-called authenticity and verisimilitude necessitates cliché.
Munro’s descriptions are fairly weak:
Horace Jantzen had certainly the look of a man born to be in power. A heavy white beard even though according to photographs beards were out of style by the First World War, a good height and stomach and a ponderous expression.
The initial sentence sketches an outline of what the reader is supposed to see, and is followed by an unnecessarily questionable sentence fragment of a description, which fills in the outline, albeit with a monochrome wash. Later, however, the narrator remarks: “Of course she had her good looks, all that fair dazzle of skin and hair.” While certainly not dazzling, the description is much more interesting, although it still suffers from the provision of a sketch, “good looks” in this case, only to fill it in with “that fair dazzle of skin and hair.” Munro’s narrator at one point mentions euchre, a trick-taking card game I’d never heard of, and then drops the subject. The narrator suffers from insecurities borne of a botched repair of a harelip, but Munro doesn’t do much with this aspect of his character. The narrator is capable of imagining a “leak of talk,” so why does he have to resort to cliché, to saying simplistic things, like “it makes me feel so sad,” over and over again?
Munro also misses out on several opportunities. One of the characters, Ida, who changes her name to Oneida, is the source of some ideas. That final word, “idea,” is intimated in the first name and embedded in the new name. But Munro doesn’t do much with these bits of possible wordplay. The story’s conflict centers around the narrator’s getting sick and Oneida taking care of him only to end up with an idea: that they should live together:
Another thing she said was that we were not entirely capable of looking after ourselves. What if I had got sick and been all alone? What if such a thing should happen again? Or should happen to her?
We had a certain feeling for each other, she said. We had a feeling for each other, she said. We had a feeling which was not just the usual thing. We could live together like brother and sister and look after each other like brother and sister and it would be the most natural thing in the world. Everybody would accept it as so. How could they not?
Promising stuff. Ida-now-Oneida’s idea comes, seemingly, out of the blue, as the narrator might say, but really comes out of her blues. The repetitiveness contained in the narrator’s recounting: “certain feeling for each other” and “like brother and sister”; and the contrast between “the usual thing” and “the most natural thing in the world” make for an eerily drawn, but all-too-brief, portrait of discomfort. Rather than increase the tension, Munro slackens it: “All the time she was speaking I felt terrible. Angry, scared, appalled.” How about showing instead of telling Munro? or how about telling in an interesting way, rather than giving a list of feelings and expecting the reader to feel those feelings along with the narrator?
Munro botches the ending as well: offering what could have been an interesting non sequitur, she turns the final scene, instead, into something amounting to a tapering yawn: “I thought she might say another thing, and spoil it, but no, neither of us did.” A shame Munro spoils what could have been a good story with clichéd writing, writing marked by a seeming unwillingness to make things strange, even when they are strange, by offering outlines, which she invariably fills in like a coloring book, by dropping the line when she’s about to reel in a scaly whatchamacallit from a life’s bubbling troublous waters.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.