Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Last year, I read and reviewed Yiyun Li’s short story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. A regular commenter suggested that I also read some Alice Munro as well, given some of the similarities. I figured Munro was a natural fit for me. After all, I love short stories. I enjoy female writers. I don’t find regional fiction or small towns to be boring - although I have nothing against city stories. (I own and have read the complete O. Henry.) Even the name was promising. I am a big fan of Hector Hugh Munro (no relative to Alice), better known to the world as Saki. 

I cannot recall exactly how I settled on The Moons of Jupiter, but it may have been because it was checked in at the library when I put it on the list last year. Who knows? It’s not her best known collection, and I have no idea how representative it is.

That said, it was a good read, full of interesting characters and psychological insight. Like many Munro stories, these are primarily set in small Canadian towns, and involve ordinary people. There isn’t much of a plot to most of the stories, in the traditional sense. In some, a moment is presented, and nothing more. The “action” isn’t in the events, but in the inner life of one or more characters. As often as not, there is no resolution, and the story ends before one can determine what happened. All that is certain is that a character has changed in some way. This technique seems common enough now, but it was unusual when Munro pioneered it at the beginning of her career.

A significant reason for Munro’s long success as a writer surely must be her characters. Despite simple language and spare descriptions, they are easily pictured in the mind - and resemble people I know. The large, intimidating maiden aunts in the first story, “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” for example.“Old Maids was too thin a term, it would not cover them,” as the author puts it. Several faces - and figures - spring to mind.

Munro focuses on middle aged women in this book, and - not coincidentally - on loss, regret, and uncomfortable transitions. By the time she wrote this book, she had already divorced and remarried, giving her plenty of material. The questions are universal: what does one do after one’s world has changed? When the kids leave the house, when a relationship crumbles, when one becomes old and disabled? How does one rebuild, when one’s very sense of self has been revealed as a facade?

I have been ruminating on a few of the stories in particular. “Accident” is the rare one (in this collection) that covers a longer period of time, and has a resolution of sorts. The protagonist becomes involved with a married co-worker, whose marriage is crumbling. The stasis of the triangle is disturbed when the man’s son is killed in an accident, and his wife’s relatives descend en masse, leading him to realize that he cannot live like that anymore. I do find this kind of story interesting, because Munro understands that the vast majority of failed marriages are not cut and dried, victim and wrongdoer. As the saying goes, “It’s Complicated.” Fourteen years of work in family law has proven this true. The moral ambiguity in this story is heightened by the awful tragedy of the inciting force. In a Victorian story, either the death of a child would save the marriage and make everything end happily (except for the wanton woman, who would die in misery - can’t leave her unpunished), or the sinners would at least pay for their sins. Yet, there is no note of triumph either. Indeed, it isn’t even clear if the relationship is a good one, but what happens happens. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”

Another story that hit close to home was “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd,” a tale of two women in a nursing home, thrown together again after going to school together, although they traveled in different social and class circles back then.

A number of the stories are about a visit - a really awkward visit. There are several in “Chaddeleys and Flemings,” but two other stories make the visit the central incident. In “Visitors,” it is the visit from a brother not seen for the past 40 years that makes up the story. The brother, his puritanical wife and her equally puritanical sister visit their rather free-and-easy relatives. The contrast between the approaches to life, and even their size and shape, makes for an interesting study in discomfort. I have certainly experienced a few awkward encounters of this nature. Even the food becomes a source of contrast, with the sisters ordering small vanilla ice creams, while the less inhibited sister-in-law gets a double rum raisin and praline cream.

In the second story, “Labor Day Dinner,” an entire family of less-than-healthy characters visit neighbors barely more functional, and even good intentions cannot make things quite right.

I’ll mention a few good lines from the book.

One is an extended bit on the views of homosexuality in this particular setting. (From “The Turkey Season,” one of the few in this book about a young woman.)

There wasn’t any idea then - at least in Logan, Ontario, in the late forties - about homosexuality’s going beyond very narrow confines. Women, certainly, believed in its rarity and in definite boundaries. There were homosexuals in town, and we knew who they were: an elegant, light-voiced, wavy-haired paperhanger who called himself an interior decorator; the minister’s widow’s fat, spoiled only son, who went so far as to enter baking contests and had crocheted a tablecloth; a hypochondriacal church organist and music teacher who kept the choir and his pupils in line with screaming tantrums. Once the label was fixed, there was a good deal of tolerance for these people, and their talents for decorating, for crocheting, and for music were appreciated - especially by women. “The poor fellow,” they said. “He doesn’t do any harm.” They really seemed to believe - the women did - that it was the penchant for baking or music that was the determining factor, and that it was this activity that made the man what he was - not any other detours he might take, or wish to take. A desire to play the violin would be taken as more a deviation from manliness than would a wish to shun women. Indeed, the idea was that any manly man would wish to shun women, but most of them were caught off guard, and for good.

Part of the fun of this passage is that I see myself in it. I have been mistaken for gay more than a few times, and I’m sure the violin playing, crocheting, and cooking were significant factors.

Another really fun bit was from the tale of why a character’s father ran away from home at a young age.

“It was this way. They always carried the feed to the horses, pail by pail. In the winter, when the horses were in the stalls. So my father took the notion to carry it to them in the wheelbarrow. Naturally it was a lot quicker. But he got beat. For laziness. That was the way they were, you know. Any change of any kind was a bad thing. Efficiency was just laziness, to them. That’s the peasant thinking for you.”
“Maybe Tolstoy would agree with them,” I said. “Ghandi too.”
“Drat Tolstoy and Ghandi. They never worked when they were young.”
“Maybe not.”

I’ve had a moment or two with that sort of person, and it is particularly maddening to me. Maybe I am lazy.

One final one, a bit bitter, perhaps, but nonetheless true.

They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.

I’m a pretty optimistic and positive person, even if I can be kind of introspective and moody in my blogging. Still, there were those moments with very small children when it was impossible not to feel that way. One’s life often does seem less scintillating than it looked when one was anticipating adulthood. On the other hand, it is in many ways much better too. It’s just those days with too many diapers and too little sleep.

So there you have it, my initiation into Alice Munro, and my thoughts thereon.

Notes on other female short story writers:

Lest anyone suggest it, I have read a good bit of Flannery O’Connor. A bit frightening sometimes, but nonetheless a brilliant writer.

I also like Willa Cather, but haven’t read anything of hers since I started the blog.

I have read - and reviewed - the following:

A Curtain of Green by Eudora Welty
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed Munro. I think you captured the essence of her stories with one sentence..."All that is certain is that a character has changed in some way." I think desire and discontent make frequent appearances in her stories too. As complex as her female characters are, I've always felt that they are holding themselves in reserve just a bit. As if there is something that they are just not showing me. Of the Munro stories I've read, I can't remember a male protagonist, and that may be one of her limitations.

    I read your list of 11 (or is it 22?) most influential books before this post, and it looks like I have a lot of reading ahead of me. I've only read 2 of the books you listed.

    1. That's a good way of putting it: desire and discontent. I agree about the reserve too. Either Munro is an introvert, or she observes us well.

      In this collection, there are no male protagonists either, so she may tend to limit herself to women. Not necessarily a bad thing. We men have dominated literature for centuries...