31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 28: “Fiction” by Alice Munro

May 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Too Much Happiness

It’s become clichéd to call Alice Munro Canada’s Chekhov, but in her later period especially, she makes a strong case for another comparison: she’s our Henry James. The emotional involutions of her story “Fiction” are arguably as subtle and carefully constructed as those of James in his final novel, The Golden Bowl. And whereas James took close to 600 pages to unfold his narrative, Munro is able to deploy similarly complex psychological shifts in the space of a scant 30 pages.

The two key characters in “Fiction” are Joyce, a music teacher in Rough River, B.C., and Christie O’Dell, one of her students. Christie, who as a young girl went by Christine, is the daughter of Edie, who works as an apprentice to Jon, Joyce’s husband. Jon restores furniture in the shed behind the couple’s house; he agrees to take on an apprentice under the auspices of a government program that provides funds for students learning a trade: “At first he hadn’t been willing, but Joyce had talked him into it. She believed they had an obligation to society.”

This is the first ironic turn of the screw in Munro’s story: it is Joyce who convinces her husband to take part in the government initiative that results in him hiring Edie, with whom he gradually falls in love. Although “falling in love” is a loaded term, one that Munro exposes for its linguistic infelicity:

Falling. That suggests some time span, a moment or second when you fall. Now Jon is not in love with Edie. Tick. Now he is. No way this could be seen as probable or possible, unless you think of a blow between the eyes, a sudden calamity. The stroke of fate that leaves a man a cripple, the wicked joke that turns clear eyes into blind stones.

Indeed, it is language that first gives Joyce the idea that her husband has fallen in love with his apprentice, who is a reformed alcoholic. One day Jon suggests that Joyce should refrain from leaving wine bottles on the kitchen table:

“When does she get to examine our kitchen table?”

“She has to go through to the toilet. She can’t be expected to piss in the bush.”

“I really don’t see what business –”

“And sometimes she comes in and makes a couple of sandwiches for us –”

“So? It’s my kitchen. Ours.”

“It’s just that she feels so threatened by the booze. She’s still pretty fragile. It’s a thing that you and I can’t understand.”

Threatened. Booze. Fragile.

What words were these for Jon to use?

It is language that allows Joyce to comprehend the way the relationship between her husband and his apprentice has changed; she does not remark on the domesticity implicit in Edie making sandwiches for herself and Jon in Joyce’s kitchen.

Following her discovery, Joyce moves into an apartment and begins to plot her revenge. Edie’s daughter is a violinist in Joyce’s music class; if Joyce schedules a recital at the school, she thinks, her ex-husband and the girl’s mother will have to attend as a couple, and Jon would see Joyce “in command rather than moping and suicidal.” She would achieve “something she couldn’t define but couldn’t stop herself hoping for”: in short, she would remind her ex-husband of all the things he had lost by shuffling her off to the side in favour of Edie. The fact that she is using Edie’s daughter as a pawn in her scheme to get back at her erstwhile husband never once enters her mind. In the event, Jon and Edie do not attend the recital.

So ends the first part of the story, but Munro is by no means finished turning the screws of her plot. Years pass, and Joyce is remarried to Matt, who has two previous wives, including one – Sally – whose “brain was damaged in a car accident at the age of twenty-nine.” Joyce and Matt host a party during which Joyce spies a woman in “a short frilly black dress that makes you think of a piece of lingerie or a nightie, and a severe but low-necked little black jacket.” Joyce does not recognize this woman, but takes “an instant dislike to her.”

Later, Joyce passes a bookstore and notices a book in the window and a poster featuring the woman’s face. Her name is Christie O’Dell and her book is called How Are We to Live. On impulse, Joyce buys a copy and, in another instance of Munro at her most ironic and slyly witty, is dismayed to discover that it is not a novel, but a book of stories:

This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

Despite her reservations, Joyce delves into the book and is surprised to discover that one of the stories is about a young girl whose mother, an alcoholic, takes up with the husband of her music teacher. Joyce assumes that the music teacher will be cast as the villain, and is surprised to find that the protagonist of the story worships her teacher as a source of inspiration. The protagonist of Christie’s fiction allows Joyce to come to an epiphanic revelation about the nature of human interactions: “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.”

There is yet another twist to Munro’s tale, which it would be criminal to spoil for those who have not yet encountered it. Suffice it to say that Munro’s story captures the shifting spectrum of human expectations and desires as if in amber; her absolute control over her story’s movement is masterful, and her ability to subtly convey the shifting perceptions of her protagonist is nothing short of astounding. After she published The View from Castle Rock in 2006, Munro intimated that she would retire. Not only were the rumours of Munro’s retirement greatly exaggerated, “Fiction” stands as testament to the fact that in her late career, the most recent winner of the International Man Booker Prize is as powerful and potent a storyteller as we have in English today.

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