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Writer Without Borders

Open Secrets

by Alice Munro
Knopf, 294 pp., $23.00

Alice Munro is the latest and best proof that a provincial literary imagination can be the most expansive kind of imagination there is. Fixated on lives in out-of-the-way Canadian places and dedicated to the short story rather than to what she has called “the mainstream big novel,” she finds pioneering energy in the “feeling of being on the margins”: it inspires the desire and the power to remake boundaries. For Munro, marginality has nothing to do with isolation, and everything to do with “connection. That was what it was all about,” she writes in The Moons of Jupiter (1983). In seven collections of stories and one novel, she has shown fate, and also fiction, to be a rather miraculous matter of unexpected linkages and leaps.

When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people,” Munro once explained. “In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people.” And when those towns abut on farms, which are edged by woods, you have very different worlds constantly colliding, within and between families. In Munro’s unillusioned vision, the contrasts don’t harmonize bucolically. They are jarring, and her vigorously supple style registers the prosaic details and the poetic depths of the jumble. “Stars and flowers and birds and trees and angels in the snow and dead children at twilight—that is not the half of it,” a small-town poet realizes in “Meneseteung,” a story in Munro’s previous collection, Friend of My Youth (1990). “You have to get in the obscene racket on Pearl Street and the polished toe of Jarvis Poulter’s boot and the plucked-chicken haunch with its blue-black flower.”

The models for Munro’s brand of regional consciousness have been, she has said, the writers of the American South. Especially the women among them—Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers—have helped to embolden her to claim the far corners of her rural enclaves as literary territory, to elevate “the freakish, the marginal” as major figures in her fictional universe. And the Southerners have also plainly helped to confirm Munro’s conviction that such remoteness from the ever more deracinated, commercial commotion of this century offers a special vantage on it. She betrays no trace of the defensive insecurity about her region’s place on the map that Margaret Atwood has called “the great Canadian victim complex.” On the contrary, the particular, peripheral sense of place that inspires her fiction gives her the assurance to matter-of-factly take up an especially large theme, the disorienting power of time.

In her stories, many of which have the geographical density and the historical sweep of novels, the plots again and again turn on the ways the past has of unsetting the present. Her characters—like their author—are forever trying to find some pattern, however tenuous, in the choices and accidents, the continuities and rebellions, of their lives. They privately set great store by those moments when, as a character in a story from The Progress of Love (1986) puts it, life’s “bits and pieces would be flying together inside me. The essential composition would be achieved.” But they don’t expect the compositions to be seamless by any means, or to hold firm.

And they aren’t inclined to broadcast their narrative efforts, for shyness is rampant in Munro’s rural Canada. (“I can tell you,” the protagonist’s mother says in Lives of Girls and Women, 1971, “there are members of your father’s family who would not open their mouths in public to say their house was burning down.”) Up north the yarn-spinning tradition lacks the Southern-style public flair, which complicates the writer’s role as eaves-dropper. To rescue the “essential compositions” is itself a feat of capturing and extrapolating from bits and pieces of unobtrusive tale-telling. “Even in that close-mouthed place, stories were being made,” Munro writes in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974). “People carried their stories around with them.”

From the start, Munro’s fiction has invoked the classic provincial odyssey of escape, with the important revision that the main figures in the drama are girls and women: the imaginative and proudly intrepid daughter, or wife, or ex-wife, or spinster struggles to move beyond her poor and proudly introverted family and region. Escape means, among other things (such as love and sex, often adulterous), the chance to tell a story about the struggle. But Munro has always specialized, and never more daringly than in her new collection, Open Secrets, in exploding the odyssey’s conventions as she assembles those stories. The journey from narrow country past to more spacious cosmopolitan future, though it beckons as liberation, is almost always revealed as a disconcerting illusion. The true path turns out to be a much more capricious trail from one shifting territory to another.

The Ontario town of Carstairs, in or near where all but two of the stories in Open Secrets mostly take place, is the familiar Munro country of the past. Yet this time she draws attention to just how unfamiliar this vanished world is, where before she often resurrected it with fond (though never softly nostalgic) immediacy through the artistic retrospections of her provincial escapees. “Now that she was sure of getting away,” Munro writes of her heroine, Rose, in The Beggar Maid, “a layer of loyalty and protectiveness was hardening around every memory she had, around the store and the town, the flat, somewhat scrubby, unremarkable countryside.”

In the new collection, Munro’s “borderline cases,” as she once described her main characters, aren’t budding creative interpreters, and they don’t escape in the traditional sense. They’re odder specimens, and their less self-consciously rendered versions of the place have an indigenous, rough-hewn quality. In Carstairs—more joltingly than in its predecessors Jubilee, Hanratty, Dalgleish—Munro is preoccupied with disconnections and unpredictable, implausible reconnections between then and now, between here in town and there beyond it. In turn, the jaggedness of the juxtapositions doesn’t feel predictably postmodern: more than a sense of relativist muddle, there is a sense of miracle in the transformations that have taken place.

A Real Life” is a good introduction to the physical and social landscape that grounds Munro’s world, and to her provincial saga, which she here stands on its head. In her three main characters she deftly maps her typical prewar rural territory, with its well-defined social intersections, which are not conventional class stratifications. “In her reasonable eccentricity, her manageable loneliness,” Dorrie Beck lives on the edge of farmland, happiest when out trapping in the woods, like a grownup child or a trusted animal. (“A man in the area,” Munro comments in her fondly comic vein, “had named a horse after her.”) Millicent, once a schoolteacher, is now a farmer’s wife who keeps a shipshape farming household, and just slightly off-beat friends, since the proper town ladies don’t invite her to tea: along with Dorrie (whose house is on her land), Millicent depends on the company of Muriel Snow, the rather scandalous, unmarried music teacher, forever on the lookout for a man.

But this social geography does not turn out to dictate destiny in any formulaic way. Instead Munro unfolds a kind of counter-legend of liberation. Muriel, the classic candidate for leaving town in a cloud of dust, hitches up with a censorious minister. It’s Dorrie, the character most rooted in “a life of custom, of seasons,” who escapes in an outlandish fashion, married off to an Australian briefly visiting in town. And it’s well-settled Millicent who cagily sees to it, when Dorrie balks at the last minute, that her departure actually comes to pass. Yet mixed in with the triumph, Munro admits a hint of melancholy in the way things work out in the long run. Dorrie’s innocent independence in Carstairs retains an allure that her adventures in exotic places (she dies climbing a volcano in New Zealand) somehow can’t match. And Millicent’s great pride in having helped to fulfill a fantasy is shadowed by disappointment in reality.

Social geography and destiny are even more unsettled, not surprisingly, when Munro turns to the more distant past of Carstairs. Her interest is more explicitly historical than ever before in “A Wilderness Station,” which opens with the town’s original clearing in the mid-nineteenth century, and in “Carried Away,” which begins in the disarray of the homefront during World War I. These formative moments of the past serve as a stage for a rather different and earlier provincial saga, which for Munro has always hovered not far behind the mid-twentieth-century drama of frustration and escape: the frontier story of adventurous arrival.

In the two stories the provincial present is revealed to rest on foundations of the most fortuitous kind. Reversing the rural-town-insider-becomes-worldly-outsider story, Munro here relates how the least likely outsiders become the anchors of the town, thanks to completely implausible and violent twists of fate. In “Carried Away” a traveling librarian stays in Carstairs, only to see the soldier she’d hoped to marry (having corresponded with him, but never having met him) decapitated in a freak accident at the local piano factory. She ends up marrying his boss and, now a member of the foremost commercial family in town, eventually runs the factory herself. “A Wilderness Station” is a variation on the same theme. An orphan recruited by mail to marry a homesteader discovers after her husband has been killed in the woods that the cause is his axewielding brother (not a falling branch, as claimed), but she keeps the secret. The strain of the deception turns her into an eccentric, while her brother-in-law goes on to join a thriving clan that boasts among its descendants a prominent Canadian politician.

It’s not easy to convey the texture of these stories, which are epistolary (“A Wilderness Station” entirely, “Carried Away” in part) and full of stories within stories and multiple perspectives. Here Munro’s narrative audaciousness—she routinely includes more plot turns and more angles of vision than most other short story writers would dare—calls special attention to itself. The effect is precisely the disequilibrium she has in mind. We’re drawn in by the immediacy of the letters, and yet simultaneously distanced by their fragmentariness, by the elusiveness of the voices in them; the documents are pieces of unreliable second-hand evidence which are meant to do the work that, in Munro’s earlier fiction, confident memory has often done. The stories close, tellingly, with glimpses of the erstwhile librarian and orphan, now ancient ladies, struggling to make their memories conform to an utterly transformed world.

Changing your perceptions of what is possible, of what has happened—not just what can happen, but what really has happened”: that feat of imagination and memory, Munro has said, has come to seem ever more pressing as she has gotten older (she is now in her sixties). The truly momentous journey isn’t so much a matter of emerging from cramped provincial home into the wide world as of making it from “that time” to “now,” through all kinds of “disconnected realities.” It was a challenge that struck an old man back in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You as nearly overwhelming:

Nobody could get from one such time to another, and how had he done it?…It was sensible perhaps to stop noticing, to believe that this was still the same world they were living in, with some dreadful but curable aberrations, never to understand how the whole arrangement had altered.

More recently, a character in Friend of My Youth worried over the fragility of any effort to find coherence in life’s fragments: you can see them “in their temporary separateness, all connected underneath in such a troubling, satisfying, necessary, indescribable way. Or you can see rubble. Passing states, a useless variety of passing states. Rubble.”

Munro in Open Secrets doesn’t hesitate to dig yet more deeply into time’s rubble, insisting on the useful variety of passing states, not only within Carstairs but beyond it. She is a regional writer without borders, as she proves in the most unusual of the eight stories in the collection. In it she leaps across one of the historically least passable of all boundaries, Albania’s.

The Albanian Virgin,” a story within a story, is a hybrid of extremes: “one such time” is made alien, “now” is thoroughly unmoored, and the links between them almost baffle belief. The plight of the narrator of the framing story, who is nameless throughout, is familiar from Munro’s preceding books, especially Friend of My Youth. A shaky newcomer to Victoria, British Columbia, from London, Ontario, where she has left a betrayed husband and a lover, she is the provincial astray: one of Munro’s women adrift in the changing city of the Sixties, marriages behind them, the drama of their country childhoods crowded out of mind by more recent loneliness and guilt. Like her predecessors, this woman, cut off from friends and family, sets up a half-baked commercial enterprise (in this case, a bookstore), less to make money than to find some solace among strangers.

The narrator establishes a curious bond, “both intimate and uncertain,” with the strangest of the strangers, a velvet-cloaked older woman named Charlotte and her husband, Gjurdhi, shabby in his equally peculiar costume and yet also somehow ferocious. Munro manages to make the narrator’s odd friendship with these ragged creatures seem outlandish and yet also completely and prosaically real, a vivid piece of Victoria life during a transitional period; they’re in a sense hippies before their time, except that the narrator retrospectively appreciates “the risky authenticity that marked them off from all these later imitations.”

Just how jarringly, surreally authentic they are only gradually becomes clear as Charlotte, who falls ill and goes to the hospital, spins out the story within the story to the narrator who sits at her bedside. Ostensibly the saga is Charlotte’s idea for a movie—an eccentric old woman’s scheme for cashing in on the market for fantasy, and the perfect way to bore a captive hospital visitor. The story is theatrical—about a young Canadian woman visiting the Dalmatian Coast in the Twenties who gets abducted into an Albanian tribe and is rescued by a fierce-looking, gruffly protective Franciscan priest of the region. And yet it mocks precisely the Hollywood “historical epic” that jumps from one fabricated climax to another. For Charlotte’s tale has a kind of mundane marvelousness that would drag quaintly on the screen but is mesmerizing on the page.

And as the pieces of that far-away fable fall together, the story subtly links up with the trio in Victoria. The narrator isn’t quite sure what to make of what she hears. But she, like the reader, is gradually drawn to feel that the tale is, as Charlotte mumbles late into it, “from life”—that it really has happened, as it could have, the reader realizes with amazement: forty years earlier, in remotest Albania, Charlotte would have been a young woman and everything would have been undreamably different. The narrator’s numbness in the wake of her own peregrinations fades as it dawns on her what far-flung realms have been traveled by this wandering pair.

The story works its uncanny effect on another level as well, and marks it as not only (only!) a radical innovation for Munro but also a kind of symbolic culmination. In venturing so far from her traditional landscape, Munro has stumbled on a place in which her peculiar and powerful version of the provincial story meets a ritualized reflection of itself. The young Charlotte is taken prisoner because she boldly sets off alone on her European tour, one of those Munro heroines who reject their small world’s assumption for women that “a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self protection were called for.” The irony of Charlotte’s fate is that she is trapped all over again in a clannish, isolated culture, where gender less demurely but just as absolutely divides life: “Women were with women and men were with men, except at times in the night (women teased about such times were full of shame and denial, and sometimes there would be a slapping).”

The salvation from the narrowness of this mirror world lies in a tribal rite of marginalization: Charlotte, now known as Lottar, is anointed a “Virgin” by the clan, an outsider status that entails an androgynous identity and a ruggedly independent existence far from the village. Like Munro’s more familiar rite of passage for rebellious girls, which it exotically parallels, Lottar’s rescue is liberating, but only provisional; there will be yet another escape. As so often in Munro, the search for a new balance almost always means the discovery of new ambivalence. This precarious predicament, far off in Albania, has become in Munro’s hands “shockingly like, and unlike, home.” Such jolts of recognition amid strangeness, and of strangeness amid the familiar, inspire the most haunting—and exhilarating—kind of disorientation. It is the restless provincial’s spiritual staple, and Munro’s seemingly boundless imaginative subject.

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