Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Some Women," Alice Munro. An Antithetical Review: Moving Toward a Critical Realism?

SOME WOMEN, by Alice Munro
Part I: A Search for Thoughts That Might Turn into a Review (Review to Follow)
The New Yorker: December 22 & 29, 2008,

(Links now are to the New Yorker archive, which requires free registration to view)

I was at the  Lucky 13 the other day, sitting at the bar, going over pages I'd written that afternoon, working on a glass of wine--in a quandary over how to write this review. The woman next to me had been watching me. "I understand you're working on a novel," she said. (My son is the chef here. People know me.)

"A novel," she said, (though that wasn't what I was working on at the time) I waited for the inevitable question.

"How cool! What is it about?"

"I don't know," I said. "That's why I'm writing it--to find out."

An honest answer. Well, half honest. Even if I'd finished it, I still wouldn't know how to answer. The truth is, I don't know what the question means. No wonder I'm not making any progress on this review.

What is it about? I ask myself--this story:  some women? That's what the title tells me.
If I wanted to write a conventional review, I would lay out the plot, write about character development, points of view, look for thematic ideas, see if I could come up with a central, controlling idea, place it in the context of her body of work Or I could take a more critical tack: mine it for symbolic content, apply methodologies adopted from other disciplines: psychoanalysis, sociology, linguistics; compare it to other art forms, films or music, say--or, stripping it of its aesthetic mystique, decode its implied ideological and political message. Any of these approaches might prove interesting. Interesting... but not what I want to do.

"What is the story about" is, of course, the wrong question, taken seriously only by the most unsophisticated readers and reviewers, like the woman at the bar... or is it? What if the problem lies in my assumption that demonstrating "how it works" is the real answer, when in truth, it's not an answer at all--that I'm begging the question before I've made the effort to take it seriously?

What did that woman at the bar mean when she asked me what my novel was about? Here is the novel, the short story, and over there is what it's 'about,' as though they were two different things, occupied different kinds of cognitive space, an assumption I want to resist. The meaning, what it's about, can't be someplace else, something different, something other than the story itself. Silly woman. How can I expect her to understand this?

But how do I know that's what she means? Even if she hasn't thought it through? Maybe she hasn't worked it out, but that doesn't make her question meaningless. Like literary realism. The problem isn't the expectation that fiction has something to do with reality: it's in the assumptions about the nature of reality and representation that lie behind that expectation. Let me put these two questions together, the 'what is it about' question and the 'realism' question, set aside for now what the 'about' question would mean if directed at a work of fantasy. Alice Munro doesn't write sword and sorcery fantasy. She writes realistic fiction, so if we ask of one of her stories, "what is this about," at least a part of any answers we might come up with would involve, have to do with, point to--aspects of a reality larger and other than the story itself., such that, the 'is' in 'the story is about' is not an equal sign, but an arrow. An arrow within the story pointing out. Not a one-way arrow, but an operational sign that points in two directions, away from the work (where the interpretation occurs, where the explanation is deciphered, where the reality of the fictional universe encounters and interacts with that of the reader's experience) and back into the work, where it (the story) receives its meaning through that very interaction. The critical formulation of the question, what is it about?; is not concerned with how it works, but with where the encounter takes place and what is its nature, what is the difference that it makes?

The limits of a non-critical realism, (or is it "pre-critical?) ... like that of James Wood, is that it can only compare what it finds to what it already knows. Compare and contrast, without real interaction. Here is reality. Here is its representation. How well do they comport? Statements of judgement regarding verisimilitude, because they can only be directed one way, are tautological, and as long as verification of the fictive representation is dependent on preconceived ideas of reality there is nothing to be learned--no new knowledge is generated. Aesthetic judgement, bound as it is to conceptions of representation, is likewise compromised.

I've been mulling this over for days--how was I going to review this story? Standing at the window of the station at 69th Street waiting for the bus yesterday afternoon, my eye was drawn to tufts of snow on the boughs of a pine tree. An incident came to mind from my childhood: a film or slide show--one of the lectures or presentations my aunt would take me to (was this at the Field Museum?)--I don't know. Someone in the film shook snow from the branch of a tree. The lecturer lamented his action--the idea being, as much as I can remember it, that they were there to observe, not to disturb nature. I thought about this memory the rest of the way home. How little remained of the original incident, how thoroughly overwritten. I thought of different kinds of memory, ways of recalling--how embroidered our memories with explanations, recreations of context, narratives. At some point it occurred to me, in asking myself the meaning of this spontaneous association, that I had been thinking of it as a one-way reaction: tuft of snow on the tree recalling the incident from childhood--that in losing myself in the effort to reconstruct the original impression I was ignoring the other half of the reality, as though the 'meaning' lay buried in the past and not in the present. Isn't it equally true that it was the irruption of memory here that called me into the present?  That until that moment, while I had seen it, was aware of it, I was not present to it, or it to me, but rather in the convergence of where I had come to with where I found myself , that through all the layers of difference since that childhood event--there at the window of the station before a pine bough weighed down with snow: that here, here were the elements of the encounter: the seed of memory, the layers of story--the reality of the present generated out the remembered moment and memory recalled by the present, each a creation of the other in the encounter, the encounter itself the reality.

This, I thought, is what I learned from Alice Munro's story. This is what it was "about." I know, I've told you nothing of the story itself... or have I?

To answer that, we--you and I-- will have to read Part II

Some further thoughs on aesthetics of process, HERE


  1. A very nice post, Jacob, and I look forward to the follow-up. One thing that came to my mind while reading of the distinction you're drawing between the two modes of criticism - roughly the one-way comparison with a stable "reality" versus the two-way transaction - was the distinction that historical materialism makes between merely contemplative philosophy and praxis, or practical-critical activity. Maybe we could further now and say: Critics heretofore have only considered literature; the point is to change it.

  2. To change it.. .I like that, but without an agenda! To bring change by pointing out--not faults in the work, but 'gaps' in the convention. Where I want to go with the review, which I hope I can post tomorrow. Munro has such masterful control of her form that you can see over the edge, beyond it, right there in her own mode--something that's facinating to think about, that those who expand the limits are not only the ones who challenge and subveret the conventions, but artists like Munro who seem to complete it--to push others on to new ground by exhausting the possibilities--something you can only do by doing it surpassingly well.

    Honestly, have no idea whether this is going anywhere, but I've been obsessed with it... dreaming of that story off and on all night last night. We'll see...