Sunday, September 07, 2008

The New Yorker: "Face" by Alice Munro

This is the third Munro story of the year, the first two being “Free Radicals” and “Deep-Holes.” And for most of this one, I was entranced. There’s a confident voice and an intriguing set of tensions—between the narrator and his father, the narrator and his mother, the narrator and the neighbor family, and even between the narrator and his own face.

The story is retrospective, although the distance from which is told is not made immediately clear, and the retrospection is handled beautifully (and instructively) with snippets of present tense that occasionally return the reader to the narrator’s present frame of mind, while most of the story is told in past tense, because the events being recalled occurred when he was a child and, later, a college student. He was born with a birth mark, a port-wine stain, covering half his face. The mark reveals, but probably didn’t cause, his father’s meanness. In any case, there is little further contact between father and son, even though the father remains in the home. There is a bond with his mother, though, and the reader might suspect that the unnatural bond would be central to the story, but in fact the narrator has a more or less natural existence. He’s lonely, in large part because of the birth mark, but he’s otherwise normal. The retrospection dwells for the most part on Nancy, the neighbor girl (the daughter of a horrible woman who may have been the father’s mistress), who was his best friend and constant playmate, until the day she painted her face red, horrifying the boy with an idea of how the world must see him. The incident probably could have been smoothed over by the parents, but they only make it worse, and so it sticks in the mind of the boy and, as later events show, the girl.

But all that is there in the past of the story. There is also action in the present. The narrator, while gardening, is stung on the eyelid by a wasp. He manages to drive himself to the hospital, but is kept overnight because his eyes are bandaged (to prevent strain) and while he is in bed he is visited by someone who offers to read to him. Or is he? In fact, it seems, he’s having a dream, in which he is able to recite volumes of poetry—which, since he was a radio actor, maybe he would be able to do, but it seemed like fantasy to me—including specific lines that he cannot identify when he wakes. Somewhat by accident he discovers in his father’s books a hand-written copy of the poem from which the lines came, a piece by Walter de la Mare, and not only is the whole poem appropriate to the vision he had in the hospital, but de la Mare’s work in general seems to be also..

“His favorite themes, childhood, death, dreams, commonplace objects and events, de la Mare examined with a touch of mystery and often with an undercurrent of melancholy. His novels have been reprinted many times in horror collections because of their sense of wonder, and also hidden malevolence. However, de la Mare did not have the morbid atmosphere of Poe, but his dreamlike visions had many similarities to Blake.”
See: Walter de la Mare

I’ve already gone on longer than I usually, do, but I imagine Munro reading the opening of the de la Mare poem (“There is no sorrow/Time heals never;/No loss, betrayal,/Beyond repair.”) and having that spark a story about old wounds, both physical and psychological, that cannot heal. And that’s what this story is.

September 8, 2008: “Face” by Alice Munro


John Clavin said...

Hi Clifford,

This is my first comment on your blog. I have been reading your New Yorker short story reviews with much enjoyment for a while now. I have no education in literature, but a late-in-life interest.
I really liked this Alice Munro story. The part that got me was at the end when the narrator talks about how there is maybe one place in our life where something happened. I often find myself on Google maps (satellite view) looking at the house where I grew up many years ago.

Unknown said...

Thanks for visiting. Yes, that moment in the story gave me chills, too. (I've done the Google maps thing, too, but I'm not sure anything ever happened in the house where I grew up!)

Mary Akers said...

Really nice review, Cliff. I think I need to read "Face" soon.

Unknown said...


Thank you for your review. "Face" has stayed in my mind since I read it last week. Your review expressed well its power and mystery.

Mark Richardson said...

I really enjoyed this story, too. I am new to read Alice Munro. I like how her stories (the three I've read, which are the three New Yorker stories from this year) don't seem to really have a point. She just lays it out there: here's what happened. And it works for me.

Thanks for the blog!

Vic Carson said...

I just finished listening to the audiobook of "Too Much Happiness," which includes "Face" and 8 or 9 other Alice Munro short stories. The author did not identify the name of the poem, although she did indentify the poet. I wanted to see the exact text and punctuation of the poem ("Away") because the audio version, of course, does not have the text. "Face" repeats the poem's phrase/line "Time heals never" at the very end of the story, when the main character asks if meeting Nancy again would change anything -- "The answer is of course, for awhile, and never." The short story captures the ambivalence of the poem -- time heals everything and/or time never heals.

I love Alice Monro's short stories and especially liked "Face".

Unknown said...

Thanks, Vic. I've been looking forward to reading Too Much Happiness.