Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Harper's Magazine: "Fiction" by Alice Munro

There’s a terrific short story in the August 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “Fiction” by Alice Munro. It’s a big story, involving several well-developed characters and covering a considerable amount of time, unusual for short stories (and something some teachers will tell you shouldn’t be done). The story (upon reflection) seems made for a retrospective voice because it begins with Joyce as a young woman and ends with her as a middle-aged woman. Retrospection would allow the reader to juxtapose these two versions of Joyce, but that’s not how Munro has chosen to look at this woman.

As the story opens we see Jon and Joyce, a couple living a basic life (below expectations their families held for them). Jon is a woodworker, Joyce teaches music. But Jon begins to get too close to his apprentice, Edie, and soon Joyce moves out of their house. There’s no great drama here, which is a relief. This isn’t a story about broken marriages, even though over the very rapid passage of time in the story we see several. And finally we arrive at the present and Joyce comes face to face with someone from her past, which leads to something of an epiphany for her.

This story will appeal to short story writers. Munro has made the antagonist of the last part of the story a writer whom Joyce meets. Joyce buys the woman’s collection of stories and reads one, which Munro renders for us part in text and part in summary. Joyce realizes that the story is based on an actual incident and that raises some expectations for her about the author. But the author of the fiction, which doesn’t seem like fiction to Joyce, is detached from it. “You couldn’t even be sure that she recognizes the title of her own story,” thinks Joyce. And: “You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if the story was just a skin she wiggled out of and left on the grass. And as for whatever was true, before the story existed – why, that was disposed of now, it wasn’t even a skin.” Beautiful.

My only quarrel with this story (as if I have anything I might suggest to Alice Munro!) is that I don’t think the very last paragraph is needed. It seems meant to tie the story up, but I think it’s a bit of sewing that is unnecessary.


Mary Akers said...

I love that image of the skin on the grass.

Pamela said...

I agree with you--beautiful story. How does Munro do it, over and over and over again? How does she use summary so much, yet every line is so alive? Her manipulation of time here, as elsewhere, is breathtaking. I love that the short-story writer has written this deeply emotional tale based on her long-age relationship with Joyce, yet even after making Joyce feel that emotion (which Joyce didn't feel at the time), the two cannot connect through the story. I love what this seems to illustrate about fiction-- how it is both magic and impotent at the same time. I actually liked the ending. It shows that Joyce, in her way, is a storyteller, too. She too transforms events--in this case, into self-deprecating humor.