Being Subtle

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

In Miles City, Montana, Alice Munro is just too subtle. Everything adds up–slowly and with measure. And it’s all there too: space, maps, roads, rivers, water, borders. She even says it herself:

. . . I was happy because of the shedding. I loved taking it off. In my own house, I seemed to be more often looking for a place to hide–sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighborhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing what I wanted to hold onto. But on trips here was no difficulty. I could be talking to Andrew, talking to the children and looking at whatever they wanted me to look at–a pig on a sign, a pony in a field, a Volswagon on a revolving stand–and pouring lemonage into plastic cups, and all the time those bits and pieces would be flying together inside me. The essential composition would be achieved. This made me hopeful and lighthearted.

The outside and the inside are prominent here, an expression of mind and landscape, several maps at work here, and it just so happens that the next section of the fiction rolls onto the subject of maps, roads, and then to fiction itself, the narrator talking about laying her children out as characters. “We had them firmly set to play their parts,” Munro writes.

Everything is significant. Everything feeds back and links together. The map is map and referent to curving journeys. Water is relief and a killer. Parents are just always at the edge of tragedy; caregivers they are, loving their children, but also delivering them up to their webs of secrets and dishonors, and “giving consent to the death of children . . . “

In the story, before leaving on a trip in ’61, the narrator’s daughter says, “‘Goodbye, house.’ Then she said, ‘Where will we live now?'” The other daughter thinks this is funny. “‘Mother! Meg thought we weren’t ever coming back!'”

How wise the first is and how the second will learn. Yes, you will come back, but you will come back changed.

The story is a retrospective. It looks back and in its own internal logic finds expression of an earlier misgiving in more concrete terms. We may remember a moment in time long ago. That moment may be mysterious, but something about it lingers. It’s hard, seed-like, or comes like the sense of another presence in a dark room. In this case, it’s a death, a funeral, and a feeling that something else is going on behind it all.


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