(Published in the Business Standard, Tuesday, October 15, 2013)
You don’t have to be a woman to love Alice Munro’s writing, but it helps not to be an obnoxious, pompous, and usually male, twit. Exhibit A: Bret Easton Ellis, who grumbled that Munro was “always an over-rated” writer and that her Nobel literature win proved that the Prize was a joke.
Bret Easton Ellis is hard to take seriously. He’s more than a little faded at the edges, remembered chiefly for a novel where his women characters were either senile or earmarked for corpsehood. Even his complaint lacked originality: Munro, unassailable on grounds of technique, has dealt with accusations that her writing is too domestic, too narrow, too ordinary, for years. But if you need one reason to read Munro, or to return to her short-story collections, start with ordinariness.
“There should be a soundtrack for our lives,” an old Internet slogan goes. Without the badabooms and the brass bands, the violins and the tarshenais in the background, the Timeline Events on Facebook and the Instagram photos, how else will we know what’s important?
Some years ago, Munro spoke about the challenge of investigating the apparently mundane, of looking beneath and beyond what seems to be familiar. And she said, of her characters, “Well, it’s important that they’re ordinary.”
I was reading The Progress of Love at the time, trying to make some sense not of stories but of the complex, tangled lives of ordinary people. People lived in messy first drafts or in blurred overlapping versions, nothing like the neat epiphanies or cleanly told tragedies that you found in even the best of books. Fiction, even apparently messy novels, had all the sutures in, the hems turned.
Munro’s characters, orbiting that apparently narrow slice of territory in Canada, understood the secret messiness of the world. Munro’s characters, like the couple negotiating the spaces between Azheimer’s and love in The Bear Came Over The Mountain, stay away from easy epiphanies. As Trudy thinks in A Circle of Prayer: “What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life—what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces. Is that all?”
A certain kind of reader doesn’t understand what they think of as domestic fiction or women’s writing—Richard Dawkins and VS Naipaul are cases in point. Dawkins dismissed all of Jane Austen because he couldn’t get excited about who was going to marry whom, and how rich they were. He missed the desperate life-and-death grimness of marriage in Austen’s time, when it determined all of a woman’s happiness, most of her wealth, all of her free time.
Naipaul, who felt that all women writers were unequal to him because of their “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” was merely being annoying as usual. But too many writers see the domestic world as a narrow, confined space, forgetting that this where you have the most primal of events, from love (licit and illicit) to births and deaths, to struggles for position, place and power. Such blindness ignores the many male writers from Chekhov to Cheever to Philip Roth and Marcel Proust who’re obsessed with families, marriages, the social world, the rich and endlessly mined territory of domesticity
“This does puzzle me a bit, though,” said Munro in the NYT podcast on the subject of ordinary people. “I know lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, and none of them seem ordinary to me. They are capable of quite unexpected things, sometimes.”
There are many other reasons to read Munro, not least because she freed herself from the tyranny of the novel, choosing the dense, compact, juicy form of the short story instead. There’s also the reasons of craft, the fact that she helps you make some sense of the muddle that is humanity. But I read her for an elemental reason: my friends and the people I meet don’t seem ordinary to me, either. Deep down inside, none of us believes that we’re ordinary, and Munro confirms that we might be right.
Oscar Hijuelos, 1951-2013: Hijuelos juddered through his thirties as a writer. The IRS was after Hijuelos to pay back taxes, and he couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in his world: “Who, after all, published Latinos?” He tried to write a “literary” novel instead, going out of the way not to write about his Cuban-ness. “My prose took on a delicacy and fineness of language…”
It was about a group of terminally ill children temporarily saved by magic, and when his agent confirmed that it was terrible, Hijuelos felt tremendous relief: he had “suspected it was a piece of treacle”. He went back to a book he’d been writing, about two brothers who were musicians. “Somehow, so many little bits I’d written, with so casual a freedom—and therefore brimming happily with tons of life—fit together so perfectly that, at a certain moment, I understood how jazz musicians feel when all their crazy-shit riffing falls into place, to make something you’ve never heard before.”
Years later, when he won the Pulizter for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said to him, “That’s a book I wish I had written.”
Hijuelos, RIP. As you said to Garcia Marquez, “God bless you, maestro.”