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“Pride Goeth Before Destruction”: On Alice Munro’s “Pride”

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.

16 thoughts on ““Pride Goeth Before Destruction”: On Alice Munro’s “Pride”

  1. Seems a mostly fair assessment of Munro’s language. If someone wants virtuoso language there is Schutt, Woolf, Dickinson. But no one has ever held Munro up as a paragon of language. She is renown for her plotting. And I don’t think she can be faulted over euchre-its the job of the reader to pick up a dictionary if they need to.

    Basically what I see this coming down to is this: people read for different reasons.

    One reader wants story.

    One reader wants characters they care about.

    One reader wants language.

    One reader wants language and story and characters.

    The list goes on. Just because Munro’s language doesn’t dazzle doesn’t mean she’s not interesting, for me. I see Munro portraying characters that are pretty alert and conscious in matters of the heart, as well as the dumbfounded ones and it is enjoyable to see these forces going up against each other. As she has seen a lot, so have they (I’m talking about most of her other stories, I haven’t read this one).

    Years ago a writer teacher told me to read her to get a sense of the plain style because I was writing knockoffs of Beckett and didn’t know what I was doing. Munro’s consciousness is different than that of Joyce, etc. She moves on the surface while the others move under the surface. I don’t think it’s wrong. It just so happens the plain style has won out in popular fiction for the moment. Carver certainly helped usher that in. Films as well.

    1. Greg,

      Slavish devotion to a writer, or to anything for that matter, is pathetic. And your coming to the defense of this story without having first read it strikes me as coming from such a state. It’s odd that you would defend this story based on what you think about her other stories. Is it possible for Munro to write a terribly written story? Why do you cower before this sacred cow (as her narrator might say, albeit without the, arguably, lame wordplay).

      I began my piece here describing what I’ve been told over and over again by you and others about what to expect from an Alice Munro story. I read this story and she didn’t deliver what I was expecting.

      Not only did she not deliver on those expectations (and no one could fault her for that), she also did not deliver what I would expect from any writer, that is, writing free from clichés, writing that doesn’t circumvent what it wants to do, which, in this case, is to narrate a this-follows-that-and-I-felt-this-and-that-about-it-until-this-and-that-happened-and-then-I-felt-this-and-that-about-it-type story, a story, in other words, that falls through some or all of the expected components of dramatic structure.

      You’ve misread my take on Munro’s use of the word “euchre.” I’m not faulting her for using what was, for me, an unfamiliar word, but for her bringing it up and then doing nothing with it, when she could have used the trick-taking aspect of the game in some interesting way. A writer is free to introduce things and drop them at will, but this dropping of an idea struck me, as I’ve already mentioned, as a missed opportunity, one of several, in fact.

      You write that Munro is “renown for her plotting.” Plotting is just one element among many that a writer needs to emphasize, critique, or address in some other way (one could also simply ignore it). Sure, in this story, Munro takes the reader through a journey, like any raconteur does, Munro’s narrator impressing his way on the reader whenever he says “I mean,” and other such tools of the storyteller; whenever he ladles out tepid “chicken soup for the soul,” like: “Life is harder for some, we’re told. Not their fault, even if the blows are purely imaginary”; like: “But good use can made made of everything, if you are willing”; like: “Just living long enough wipes out the problems. Puts you in a select club.”

      Munro’s language in this story doesn’t dazzle. It doesn’t have to dazzle. A writer can use what is ostensibly a limited lexicon and still produce an interesting fiction. Is it necessary to list the massive list of writers who do just that? It isn’t Munro’s word usage, her plain style as whole, that’s at issue here. It is, instead, the way she circumvents her own story by burdening it with what an amateur burdens his or her story with, i.e., clichés, a botched ending, unnecessary defusing of tension, empty thoughts in the hopes that the reader will fill it up with meaning and then regard it as universal, etc., in other words, all those things that a writer would remove, or if she or he has missed it, be forced to remove by any self-respecting editor.

      Who ever said that the plain style is wrong? I certainly haven’t.

      Munro’s narrator in “Pride” isn’t what I would call alert. He’s mired in conventional thinking about things; he thinks and speaks in stereotypes (look at, for instance, his thoughts about blonds, or how he blames American travelers for bringing back diseases from “Mexico or the West Indies or some place we never used to have anything to do with”); and offers hardly anything insightful about what you’re calling “matters of the heart.” But it’s not the narrator who should be faulted. This is not a person, after all, but a fabrication, and a poorly wrought one at that.

      Once its faults are addressed, and once its strengths are developed, once its dropped opportunities are taken up again and developed, this story could be a good one, so that “Pride” might be something to actually be proud of.

      1. John,

        Of course it’s possible for a great artist to write a terrible story. My comment was not about the story. Off line you’ve critiqued her use of language and cliche as well, as you did others in this post: http://bigother.com/2011/01/23/the-national-book-critics-circle-finalists-for-2010-awards/ I was trying to open the discussion to larger issues than one story. Why we read what we do? and why a certain type of writing is more honored? Why is it more digestible?

        1. I read your comment as a detour away from the subject at hand. And I still do. I wrote about the flaws I found in a new Alice Munro story. I think you’re dodging the subject of my post in order to bring the spotlight away from the flaws of this story. Why not read the story and get back to me about it?

  2. I’m glad I read this review of Pride. I felt awful after reading the story in Harper’s because it was so awful. I also questioned my response to it because of Munro’s status and because I have usually enjoyed her work. In fact, I’ve usually been slightly awed by her work, and here, in this totally underwhelming story, I can’t find a redeeming detail. Good review.

    1. Thanks, Gillian. It’s funny how much external, seemingly extraliterary, stuff–like a writer’s status; like our own previous responses to a writer’s writing; like our own awe, bias, etc.; like the context in which we read something, in this case Harper’s–alters the way we read things. And it’s important to question all of those things. It is the rare writer who doesn’t slip, and it’s the rare successful writer who doesn’t rest on her or his laurels (to use another cliché), no matter how dry and crumpled they may be.

      1. It is the rare writer who doesn’t slip, and it’s the rare successful writer who doesn’t rest on her or his laurels (to use another cliché), no matter how dry and crumpled they may be.

        This is exactly what I was going to say re: this review. I haven’t read the story, but I don’t find it at all hard to believe that a successful writer wrote a disappointing or even terrible story. This story does not invalidate Munro’s previous or future work. It stands alone, and should be reviewed as such.

        1. I don’t find it hard to believe that a successful writer wrote a disappointing or even terrible story either. And one poorly rendered story certainly doesn’t invalidate an entire body of work. But reading a poorly rendered story from a writer certainly doesn’t inspire me to seek out more work from that writer.

          This wasn’t a review of Munro’s career, but of a single story. I’m sure her legacy, whatever it may be, is secure from negative criticism of a single story.

  3. My first reaction to “Pride” was that it’s not Munro’s best. That said, a lot of Munro’s work has initially left me nonplussed. It’s only after second or third readings and reflection that I’ve come to see the intricacies of her writing, which, to me, is a mark of her greatness.

    John Madera writes: “But reading a poorly rendered story from a writer certainly doesn’t inspire me to seek out more work from that writer.” Fair enough. But if you’re going to write off an author based on one story (I’m assuming this is your first Munro?), at least let it be one of his/her most acclaimed ones. If you read “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, “Friend of My Youth”, “A Wilderness Station”, “Save the Reaper”, “Runaway” or “The Beggar Maid” and still think she sucks, then, yeah, maybe she’s just not for you. Even a recent story of hers published last year in The New Yorker, “Corrie”, is a much stronger representation of her late period stuff, in my view.

    1. No, this isn’t by any means my first Munro story. As Greg has intimated above, I have read a smattering of stories by Munro, and have come up with similar conclusions about what I would regard as lazy and uninspired writing.

      While a reader might be shortchanging her- or himself by writing a writer off, that same reader might also be allowing more room for the reading of writing that he or she finds carefully crafted in terms of language and structure, and whatever else. I could, as a reader, take your advice and give Munro yet another chance by reading the stories you’ve listed (actually, at least one of them, namely “Runaway” would be a reread), or I could go ahead and reread Lucie Brock-Broido’s three books (which I read over the past couple of days), her oeuvre, that is, books that are virtuosic in their range, voice, style; that are characterized by their engrossing narrative propulsion; each book organically and delightfully intertextual. And, unlike Munro’s “Pride,” in Brock-Broido’s books there isn’t a single cliché in the mix.

  4. I too was surprised that Harper’s, a paragon of adventurous writing as far as mainstream publications are concerned, would publish such a lame piece. But I lay part of the blame on the editor’s; the flaws you rightly identify would never have passed scrutiny at the New Yorker, in which I have read some splendidly dramatic Munro- Wenlock Edge and Free Radicals for instance. Editors can play a huge role in the final outcome of a piece.
    One thing that bothered me about this story was its treatment of time. Whole decades are passed over – the story begins with the narrator just out of highschool and ends with him contemplating ‘careful old age’ – and nothing happens, nor does the narrator offer any insight or reflection about the progress (or lack thereof) of his life during this period. This is the main reason why the story had an air of unreality, and why I didn’t care (all that happens in your entire life is that you get sick and a woman wants to move in with you? Why are you wasting my time?)
    This points to a large criticism I have of Munro: her fondness for condensing huge swaths of time into a short story and rendering it a mini-novel, a form that does not satisfy on either level. The best short stories have something to say about a moment in time, or organize time around a very specific theme. Munro wants instead to offer up an entire life and make time a real issue. The result is not very interesting because it’s the short story’s specificity, and therefore its capacity to offer meaningful detail, which makes it interesting. And this approach is also the source of all the clichés because so much time and so little space means having to resort to language which summarizes and sketches.
    Another thing- the voice of the narrator has a distinctly feminine quality. It’s hard to describe all the elements of voice, but you know it when you hear it, and this narrator doesn’t sound male to me. He never mentions other males, nor does he address being a life-long bachelor. Apparently, he’s completely sexless. He just simply gets angry at the suggestion of Ida moving in? It never occurs to him she might be attracted to him, despite his condition? It never occurs to him to, I don’t know, possibly seduce such a pretty woman? She’s just a TV buddy and I the reader am supposed to accept this as being normal? I don’t think so. And anyway, why do I want to read about such a dull dull guy- so dull it borders on pathology?
    To summarize, this story sucked. Quite possibly I will never read Munro again. I enjoyed your incisive criticism.

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