Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Munro Doctrine

Two years ago, walking by the sea, I listened to the New Yorker's fiction podcast in which the writer Lauren Groff read aloud her choice of story from the magazine's history: Alice Munro's Axis. It was pleasant company for three-quarters of an hour, telling the story of two women, Grace and Avie, as they reach adulthood in the postwar years, go to college and begin relationships. For Groff, reading an earlier story by Munro was an epiphany and changed her mind about fiction. As a young writer, the writers she wanted to emulate were "very experimental, the breakers of the form". "I didn't scorn but I didn't love the realists" she says, but, after reading the story, she "looked up and the whole world had changed". Munro is "a revolutionary" in what she does with time and structure, "but it's not super-flashy; it's very deep". "Alice Munro does time and structure better than almost anyone", seeing time as "layers of tissue as opposed to a linear way", which is "incredibly interesting in a short story format".

The narrative twist of Axis is that the fictional events are narrated from the perspective of fifty years in the future when the past re-enters the present via a chance meeting, something that's bound to resonate with readers of a certain age, as it did with me. Nevertheless, two years on and surprised that Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize, I listened again hoping to appreciate why the committee chose this "master of the contemporary short story" over other living writers. In the end, it helped me appreciate a lot more.

Axis was doubly resonant with me because I was reminded of all the John Updike novels I'd read when I started reading fiction in the late 1980s, but perhaps not for the reasons you might assume. While Axis traverses the same landscape of lower-middle-class sexual politics as Updike's, it was above all the sentences that evoked that time; sentences in which the narrator has no qualms in explaining why, for example, Avie decided to have sex with her boyfriend:
She thought it would make him seem more manly, more assured. He was a nice-looking, eager boy with dark hair flopping over his forehead, and he had a tendency to pick out people he could worship: a professor, a brilliant older student, a girl: Avie. If they slept together, she thought, she might fall in love with him.
Sentences like this appear throughout. When Grace and her boyfriend Royce are in dialogue, she expresses her preference for Acacia trees while he holds his tongue and thinks:
Favorite trees? What next: favorite flower, favorite star, favorite windmill? Did she have a favorite fence post? About to inquire, he figured it would hurt her feelings.
There is something peculiarly north American in these sentences – witty, wistful, above all knowing – perhaps because every week on Michael Silverblatt's BookWorm podcast, I listen to extracts reporting the inner lives and experience of people narrated in the third person. In the movie Wonder Boys, Tobey Maguire's contribution to Michael Douglas' creative writing class begins in exactly this way. Updike's fiction is exemplary in its reliance on these reports, something Gore Vidal noted, if for different reasons. Summarising the plot of the 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, he quotes a typical line:
Clark is in rebellion against the Communism of his mother and her friends pinks if not reds [sic] and, worse, unabashed enemies of the United States in the long, long, war against the Satanic Ho Chi Minh. "Mom, too, wanted North Vietnam to win, which seemed strange to Clark, since America had been pretty good to her." As irony, this might have been telling, but irony is an arrow that the Good Fiction Fairy withheld from the Updike quiver. Consequently, this non sequitur can only make perfect sense to a writer who believes that no matter how misguided, tyrannous and barbarous the rulers of one's own country have become, they must be obeyed; and if one has actually made money and achieved a nice place in the country they have hijacked, then one must be doubly obedient, grateful, too.
For Vidal, the non sequitur is solely political but the sentence also enables us to recognise how Updike uses fictional characters as vehicles for comment, with their inner lives as accessible as mustard in a jar. Yet how did the narrator know Clark found anything strange? And, in Axis, how can anyone but Avie and Royce know what they thought?

In those early days of reading, I would not have questioned such narration and I suspect the vast majority of common readers will be nonplussed by such difficulties: this is what fiction does, after all, isn't it? Perhaps their happy innocence reveals what is after all ideological; that narration is imperial in nature, demanding that writers colonise minds as an empire colonises the world and calls it freedom. The ideology of power infects the reception of literature too, so that mastery is the guarantee of literary value. Note the prevalence of the word "tackle" in newspapers' description of what an author does to their subject matter.

What Lauren Groff sees as revolutionary appears then to be merely the condensation into a short story what Proust or Sebald do in the novel. But, in their works, the narration is for the most part first person or telescoped through that first person, so the kind of sentences Munro uses would never appear without qualification. In this way the literary project is borne on uncertainty in the way life, as seen in the conclusion to Axis, is determined by either chance or necessity. The impact of this revelation in Axis is certainly moving in context, but hardly deep or revolutionary.

The alternative in the US, those "very experimental" writers, those "breakers of the form", might be the school of Gordon Lish, whose writing "represents the US's answer to Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard". His creative writing classes advanced "a distinctive and demanding approach to the craft of fiction", preaching "what his student Gary Lutz has called a 'poetics of the sentence' – an almost mystical attunement to language's hidden rhythms and resonances". So let's sample some of Lutz's sentences from his short story Loo narrated by an unnamed sibling:
She supposed that it helped her to be far from the center of anything and uninfluenced by what went on in any thicker populations.
Her private life was not so much private as simply witnessless.
Her life did not so much advance as narrow itself out unamelioratingly.
In isolation the contrast to the work of Munro is not subtle, but the epistemological certainty here and throughout is identical.

Kafka recognised the danger of such sentences in a diary entry from 1911 in which he says the "special nature" of his inspiration is that, as a writer, he can do everything: "When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, ‘He looked out of the window’, it already has perfection." On first glance this appears to be uncharacteristic hubris, but "perfection" here is the mastery Georg Bendemann exercises as he gazes through his window high over Prague and writes to his Russian friend before being condemned to death by drowning by forces without and within the domain of writing. Georg's real life begins only when the sentence has been carried out and the story ends. The rest is fantasy.
I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. [...] I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the court-yard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.
Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being begins by presenting the main character as both a product of imagination and independent of it, with the effect of foregrounding the work and responsibility of the imagination rather than indulging its freedom to noodle with language. (The claim to know Tomas' uncertainty exists under this effect.) What Beckett and Bernhard, Kafka and Kundera have in common then is very different to what is shared by Munro and Lutz.

While thinking about the differences, I remembered an essay in this book by John Mepham on narrative and fictional time in Woolf's To the Lighthouse. It might help. He begins by acknowledging that for a story to be told at all there must be "the voice of one who knows". Writing would then be a means of creating order by means of an independent framework much like those provided by political or religious values. "But", Mepham writes, "what if we lack this sense of epistemological certainty? What if our experience seems fragmented, partial, incomplete, disordered?". The reader is then asked to think about the memory of a person they have loved, an act perhaps similar to Munro and Lutz writing about Grace, Avie and Loo. Without the means of thought and expression provided by an independent framework "we might have the feeling that the remembered person escapes us, is ungraspable, cannot be contained in our minds except as a disordered flow of particular fragments of memory". We might still feel there is a unity in these memories if only we could use them as raw materials to "work on, condense, assemble into a form of speech worthy of their object":
If writing could be the means of completing the half-finished phrase, or bringing together and thereby enriching the fragments, then writing would not be primarily the telling of a story but the search for a voice. Narration would not be the embodiment of some pre-existing knowledge but the satisfaction of the desire to speak with appropriate intensity about things of which our knowledge is most uncertain.
Does the search for a voice define what is unique about contemporary European fiction in that the sense of epistemological certainty is certainly lacking? Mepham goes on to examine the relationship between the narration of To the Lighthouse and the fictional story told within that narration. I was struck by a quotation in which parts of words are emboldened to emphasise the narrative's own search for a form worthy of its object, while also reminding me of Lish's demand for an attunement to the hidden rhythms and resonances of language:
Standing between her knees, very stiff, James felt all her strength flaring up to be drunk and quenched by the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the make, which smote mercilessly, again and again, demanding sympathy ....James as he stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rose-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy.

In this [Mepham writes] we suddenly hear the narration transformed into poetry. We hear repetitions of metrically striking phrases. It is as if the narrative space and time are multiplying themselves. Things which are singular and short-lived in the fiction become multiple and protracted in the narration, as if their fictional intensity were forcing an expansion of narrative dimensions. Repetition slows down fictional time for us, and opens up its pores and allows its full force to swell through into the narration.
The word repetition reminds me of the most alluring feature of Thomas Bernhard's prose (which of course also had a deep influence on Sebald) but which is used less in his short stories, suggesting that the short story itself is less amenable to the slowing down necessary to be worthy of its object. Of course, Woolf also uses the kind of sentences of which I have been suspicious, but here the attunement is to another's experience sensed in the swell of wandering words. The short story instead tends to display a confidence in form, of the strength of a long-practised voice, and the dominance of narrative time. It is appropriate then that the Nobel committee chose the word "master". Contrast this to Woolf's creative letting go.


  1. Well, I read Munro's prose and I see nothing remarkable about it. But I have no problem seeing Kundera, Kafka and Woolf are light years ahead of her.

  2. I probably haven't read as much Lutz as you (only the first two collections, not "Divorcer") ... but I think most would strongly disagree with the idea that his writing exhibits any sense of "epistemological certainty"! My understanding is that he has much more in common with, for instance, Emil Cioran, than with Alice Munro ... that comparison is a real stretch. Similarly, all of that Lish-inspired stuff about the "poetics of the sentence" is basically about the structural play of repetition and difference -- one thing it has in common with Bernhard, although there are methodological differences too. Brian Evenson pinpoints that in a more nuanced way: "Bernhard provides a verbal event constructed around opposition and paradox, a binary movement forward and backward. Lish, on the other hand, operates in terms of the rotation of objects, bringing the same objects to attention in a changing sequence."

  3. Thanks. I think you're missing what I mean by epistemological certainty. "Loo" is the only story of Lutz's I've read and it's identical in the way I've explained to the only Alice Munro story I know. Perhaps EC needs to be defined: the narration has an a priori knowledge of its object (the named character) and then perhaps "operates in terms of the rotation of objects" etc. I'm sure this appreciation is relevant in a rhetorical approach to reading, but that's not what I'm interested in here, which is closer to an ethical demand.

  4. Ah, I think you might need to read more by both authors, although I've not read much Munro either! But there is a very simple sense in which the "Lish style" (if we can call it that) is far from epistemologically certain: writers who write that way literally do not know where language is leading them--they're using the rhythm and grain of language to propel their writing along (largely using different kinds of repetition), instead of "plot" or "character". One thing's for sure: there definitely, definitely aren't any stable, fixed, or "known" characters (known to the author, or to the reader) anywhere in Lutz's writing, from what I've read! There are really only rhythms and voices.

  5. We'll have to disagree because I think the evidence is overwhelming and there's no point repeating the argument.

  6. Fair enough, but (I'll leave it at this- sorry!) I think you'd need to read more than one story by each author to get a grasp of the "evidence"...

  7. For the record: I'm referring to the evidence of the sentences in the two stories rather than what I've read about them.

    1. To pass judgment on an author's "epistemology", you'd need to be better acquainted with their work than that. Worth noting as well that Gary Lutz is a great admirer of Woolf, for the exact reasons Mepham describes. And as for his certainty and mastery, this interview with Blake Butler is telling: "Life is plotproof, muddled, desultory, irreducible to chains of cause and effect. It’s sweaty and rampantly sad. It’s a motion of moments. There’s no line of any kind other than the one that runs from birth to thwarting to death. As a reader, I drop out of a novel or even a short story as soon as I sense that the writer has a scheme and is overarranging things. I’ve had it with the masterminded."

  8. Thanks for the interesting post. Could you say a bit more about why Kafka belongs -- by this particular metric -- with Bernhard, Beckett, Kundera? "The Judgement" seems to have plenty of "extracts reporting the inner lives and experience of people narrated in the third person." Right away we're told what Georg is thinking, feeling, and so forth. I don't quite get the argument as to why this isn't what you've called epistemological certainty. Only because the story fringes on fantasy?

    Thanks again.

  9. OK, my point is that The Judgment is a deceptive artifice like the letter Georg is writing and is punished for such deception as the story is *punished* by ending abruptly without any apparent logic. Writing is true only insofar as it can follow Georg into his death sentence (hence its end). Kafka belongs with the others in that he writes within this distrust of language. Clearly there's an element of taste in this but this is a provisional attempt to understand why do writers like these speak to me in ways the other two don't.

    1. But isn't your implied argument of "American fiction = (bad) mastery; European fiction = (good) uncertainty" kind of breathtakingly crude? Especially as you don't seem to have read much American fiction. Countless counter-examples can be martialled on either side, it seems.

  10. Got it, thank you. Though the explanation makes me wonder if the unit of the sentence will do what you want it to, in terms of separating the skeptical, distrustful writers from the overly confident ones. With Beckett, Sebald, and especially (to the point of absurdity) Bernhard, you pick up a sentence and you immediately see the uncertainty -- in the daisy-chained attribution tags and all that. But Kafka's sentences aren't like this. He can put together a story using nothing but normal-looking sentences narrated in the third person (roughly in the same genus as Munro's and Lutz's sentences, even), and still produce the same kind of uncertainty. His consternation, as Beckett said, is in the form.

    In other words, I don't think serene, unqualified third-person sentences are necessarily inconsistent with "epistemologically uncertain" writing. The uncertainty can show up elsewhere.

  11. Max, yes, you're right and this has been the danger of isolating something higher in what's very low. I'm not saying "anyone who uses these sentences is an imperialist who has epistemological certainty", I'm saying it reveals a tendency to accept their passport to bypass consternation and/or fascination with writing in favour of creative writing class-based noodling.

    James – there's a reason I don't read much American fiction, for the same reason the Hunger Artist doesn't eat much. However, I wrote an essay on Ford's Bascombe trilogy, which at least shows there are exceptions to the doctrine:

  12. I guess what I'm saying is that you can't credibly propose any kind of doctrine if you haven't done the reading.

  13. I agree, which is demonstrated in that comment: you clearly haven't recognised the qualifications written into the general point.

    But, to be sure, how many American novels and novelist should I read before I can comment: 10, 20, 500, 501?

  14. Well, as the other commenter suggests, you could start by properly reading the ones you've decided to attack! Honestly...

  15. I am not *attacking* anyone but attempting to define a difference I've noticed over 25 years of reading. If I stopped reading American authors, it was because I've had enough of a lack of nourishment. The same goes for English authors.

    "Properly" is a vague term.

  16. Thank you for taking on figure of the masterly (and masterful) mental eavesdropper so forthrightly and thoroughly. And I understand the inexorability of the demurral that "Isn't this what fiction does?" Some years ago I lost the ability to tolerate omniscient third-person narrators, and when I try to justify my intolerance to my fellow-readers I feel as though I sound as perverse as I would in explaining that I had given spinach for health reasons. Two complementary remarks: 1) In Bernhard, as I'm sure you are aware, the renouncing of any claim to be privy to the thoughts of others is usually signaled by his making it clear at the outset (e.g., through an interpolated "So-and-so writes") that the text is already something already written and that therefore mediates rather than registers thought; that it is from the outset a product of the reflective use of language and hence is already publicly oriented. 2) Kafka is usually (though not always) writing within (even if also against) the tradition of the Märchen or tale, in which actions not thoughts are paramount, and in which indeed subjective states can only be rudimentarily described; such that when (as in "The Judgment") he starts reporting such states in an involved Henry James-esque sort of way it is already a sign that something is epistemologically out of joint, that "somebody" may be if not "telling lies" then at least well beyond the reach of the truth.

  17. Many thanks Douglas: such a relief to have a comment like this. Of course, Bernhard's Lime Works is made up entirely of overheard and attributed remarks – an extraordinary achievement and easily missed in the headlong nature of the prose.

    I have the same intolerance for third person narrators and begin much heralded novels in some confusion when they start narrating in sentences lacking any truth or necessity.

  18. Anonymous5:46 pm

    It seems fair to equate epistemological certainty with an unreliable author, not unlike the unreliable narrator. Of course epistemological certainty has a hint of certitude itself.

  19. This instead of a proper Nobel lecture.



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