Storytellers Book Club #1: The Progress of Love by Alice Munro
This update’s been a long time coming. I signed up for this CanLit challenge back in August. Alice Munro’s Nobel win inspired me to get cracking with The Progress of Love. I’m down to the wire here – I have till Dec. 31st to review a book club selection for a chance to win all five books, including selections from CanLit heavyweights Davies, MacLennan, MacLeod and Gallant. I’d tell you to get on it too, but with two days to go, you’re either in or you’re out by now!
The Progress of Love: Review
I was third in line for this book at the library for a couple of weeks, which is unusual for something published 25ish years ago. Must be that Nobel buzz! But you wouldn’t know this book is 25 years old. Munro’s stories are timeless, and you feel they could have been written 100 years as easily as 10 years ago.
The Progress of Love isn’t Munro’s most famous collection. It won the Governor General’s Award but her two Giller winners, The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway, seem to be the most well known. My only experience with Munro is Too Much Happiness, and with only that for a basis of comparison, The Progress of Love didn’t quite measure up. The first five stories were so good that the rest were slightly disappointing. My favourite was “Miles City, Montana” which shows us that the Mommy Wars are nothing new:
I had a dread of turning into a certain kind of mother – the kind whose body sagged, who moved in a woolly-smelling, milky-smelling fog, solemn with trivial burdens. I believed that all the attention these mothers paid, their need to be burdened, was the cause of colic, bed-wetting, asthma.
Munro’s stories tend to have a central image that makes or breaks the story. In “Lichen,” it’s a Polaroid photograph (Google it, kids) of pubic hair that looks like lichen and it’s just weird enough to make the story compelling. In “Eskimo” it’s a girl licking a man’s face and it’s just weird, period. It’s not all sordid though! The title story has two such images, one of a mother with a noose around her neck and one of that same mother literally burning money. With both, it’s impossible to tell if all is as it seems or not. It’s that kind of tension that makes the stories work.
Even the stories that didn’t quite work for me are saved by the characters, and the collection as a whole is saved by its emotional range. I hear Munro criticized because she writes the same thing over and over again, which is true on a superficial level of setting, but to write children and adults, husbands and wives, rich and poor, among other types, so convincingly, and to make each plot interesting, even (especially) the ones where nothing happens – well, what more can you ask for in a writer?
Speaking of criticism, I read a blog post or something recently (of course I can’t find it) that took Munro to task for not addressing race in her work. It’s true, these stories are about white people exclusively, though there are different ages, classes, abilities, sexual orientations and so on. At first I was a little defensive: she writes about rural Ontario, usually in the past tense, decades past; perhaps there weren’t any people of colour to speak of? But then I thought, there must have been someone? Aboriginal people? Is Munro white-washing or what?
So, I did what any market researcher/book blogger would do and looked up Huron County census data and… yeah this is one white community. In 2006, only 1.5% of the population was a visible minority of any kind. Compare that to Edmonton, which I would not call an overly diverse city, at 17%. Anyway, the article posed an interesting question about a writer’s obligation to address social issues versus writing “what you know.” If anyone can point me to that article I would appreciate it; my Google skills are lacking today.
Well, that was a bit of a tangent! I didn’t end up saying much about the stories at all. With time running out to get this posted in 2013, allow me to direct you to Buried in Print, who ran a comprehensive series of posts analyzing Munro’s work story by story. This is one of those cases where I don’t think I can say it better!
Stories about Storytellers: Chapter Review
I’m reading Douglas Gibson’s publishing memoirs as I read through his book club selections. The story of how The Progress of Love came to be published is the last piece in the book, and Munro wrote the book’s introduction – she is clearly the main draw. Given that, I was surprised by how thin this chapter was. There’s a great attention grabber – that Gibson stopped Munro from giving up on the short story – but that anecdote wasn’t strong enough to carry the chapter for me. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know that much about Munro. I get the feeling that there are certain assumptions made about the reader for this book, that we are up to speed on our CanLit and publishing history. There’s a lot of name dropping that doesn’t resonate. I feel like I need more of a primer.
Storytellers Book Club
The online material for The Progress of Love is much more robust – like the other book club picks, there’s a long list of discussion points and questions. I chose a couple to write about. If you’ve read the book, I would love to know how you would answer these questions!
2. The English writer Claire Tomalin reviewed this book in the Observer, saying, “Read not more than one of her stories in a day, and allow them to work their spell slowly; they are made to last.” Did you slow down to read just one story a day? If so, how did that affect your reading? If not, did you see any benefit to reading the stories back to back?
Nope. I didn’t. I read this book how I read almost every book. In ten minute spurts, with one or more child on my lap, while eating, or while lying in bed. I certainly finished and began stories in the same sitting. I don’t see a benefit either way. In the book’s introduction, Richard Ford says:
I never sit down to read an Alice Munro story unless I’m sure I have time to read it all. No hauling The Progress of Love to the dentist of the department of motor vehicles in case the wait’s long. Short stories, of course, are written to be read in single sittings (novellas are said to be perfect for medium-length train journeys.) Most short stories stop making sense, and certainly stop making the sense their authors intended, be being sliced into bits, interrupted by the telephone, kids getting in from school, by the leaf blower in the hands of our next-door neighbours. By sleep.
…and it pissed me off! Not quite as badly as David Eggars in his intro to Infinite Jest, but come on, literary types, not everyone has dedicated time to read free of interruptions! Why can’t reading be integrated into everyday life? We can all glance at our phones in between activities so why not a book? This argument reeks of snobbery to me, and I don’t think you can say that every short story author has the same intentions, either. Bah!
6. “Lichen” has a startling, intimate image represented in the title. When the story ran in the New Yorker, the very conservative editor William Shawn commented, “The central image gave me misgivings, but the writer has earned the right to use it.” Were you startled by the lichen image, and by how Stella’s former husband used the photograph? Do you agree with William Shawn? Would he have made the same decision with a male writer’s story? Should he have?
I talked about the “startling, intimate image” earlier in this post (it’s pubes!) And yeah, I was a little startled, I guess, more so by how he used the photograph, like a naughty school boy showing his friends a stolen Playboy or something. But I don’t know if I agree with Shawn’s premise that anyone has to earn the right to use any particular image. That’s an odd concept to me. How do you earn it? By writing about safe topics, very well, for X number of years? But it’s the last two questions that really weirded me out – is “sexual” writing more palatable if it’s written by a male author? I would have thought not, given that most romance writers are female (or posing as, with pen names.) But this is literature we’re talking about, so maybe it’s different. The fact that I haven’t thought about this is strange as I’m usually pretty aware of gender issues and what not. Maybe this kind of thing simply isn’t shocking anymore, as it may have been in the 1980s.
My next Storytellers Book Club pick is The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan. Watch for that in the new year. Thank you ECW Press for the review copy of Stories About Storytellers!