Monday, October 04, 2004

Not a Recommendation

Friend of My Youth, by Alice Munro, Read by Beth Fowler, BBC Audibooks America, 2000

I’ve made the distinction before about what I consider the qualities that make up a good audio-adaptation of a book. While she is a fantastic writer, capable of stories of exquisite beauty, sensitivity, and depth, containing characters whose lives are filled with common drama, Alice Munro is best-left on paper. Perhaps she was ill served by her reader, Beth Fowler, who delivered the stories in a curiously flat and unpersuasive voice, but most likely the culprit is simply Munro’s style.

While the deliberate toying with differing time frames is a fundamental and beneficial element of many of her short stories, this literary device is best presented when you can simply flip back a couple pages to clarify. When listening to a story on CD (or worse, on tape), it is much more difficult to pinpoint at which stage in the production confusion set in. Further, the often-uneventful beginnings to Munro’s tales, filled as they are with character biographies, descriptions, minor instances that offer greater symbolic payoff down the line, town histories, and other such dry material, do not offer themselves up as good hooks.

Now, it is to believe, if you’ve read previous reviews, that it just might be possible that my judgement of audiobooks might be somewhat warped from my public library’s wide variety of thrillers, crime novels, and mysteries and rather low figures of sensitive, intelligent fiction. That could be argued were it not the case that I simply love Alice Munro. I was introduced to her writing in the mid-1990s and quickly consumed everything she had written up to that point. I turned other people on to her work. I adopted parallel time track structure in some of my own writing.

But there are writers that should remain simply in their books. Everyone is familiar with writers whose transfer to the screen came off less than satisfactorily. The brilliant sheen of an intelligent writer’s thoughtful prose being maudlined into the Hollywood pap of Possession is an especially painful reminder of this. While inarguably, audiobooks are on a scale of degrees lower in the transfer process than the full studio treatment of adaptation for the silver screen, I maintain that some authors compose in a style suited best for the quiet interior of the mind.

Which is why I found BBC Audiobooks America’s rendition of Munro’s Friend of My Youth such a painful experience. I now know the feeling book cultists have when a particular favorite is thrust into the multiplex, script-doctored to death, the entertainment version of bleeding with leeches. I almost feel as if I can never look at nor read Munro in quite the same way, the haunting psychic wound of this experience forever tainting my enjoyment.

It was difficult throughout the eight-disc set to keep my mind fully engaged on what I was listening to. Munro’s stories have this almost meandering quality that suggests this story isn’t going anywhere in particular, a subtle way she has of leading you down the garden path. Oh yes, you think, I know this woman, I know this kind of story, all the while Munro is salting little hints and nudges throughout the text of the chilling tragedy or life altering revelation that is just about to happen.

What makes this task of concentration even harder is just how effectively, thoroughly, and passionately, the Canadian writer has mined the exact same vein of material. When one picks up a collection of Munro short stories, there’s a good bet you will encounter complicated mother-daughter relationships in which important things are left unsaid to fester inside, you will find spouses being quietly unfaithful, you will find middle aged women striking out on their own after leaving careers such as teaching or being someone’s nurse, nanny, or secretary.

This constant overlapping of characters, employment scenarios, and familial breakdown further muddy the waters. Haven’t I heard this part already, I often found myself thinking, and once, didn’t I listen to this story previously? The collection is ten stories long and each story clocked in at somewhere around one hour. Munro’s story length allows her, in book time, to offer you space to tarry, to read slower, to savor — which is precisely what you are prevented from doing in an audiobook. For that reason alone, the inability to loiter, more thoughtful and poetic books are often bad choices for this kind of listening. To have someone read to you is preferable, as you can urge him or her to slow down, to back up, to repeat a choice passage.

In my desk drawer, I have a little notebook in which I catalog all the books I read. Included on this list are audiobooks, which I note with a little “A” after the date I finished them. My wife has long since accused me of cheating or padding my list by including this kind of material on it, contesting the idea that listening to someone else read a book constitutes actual “reading.” I’ve dodged owning up to that with a variety of semantic wrigglings on the nature of reading and the precise definition of “reading.” Ask yourself this: if you finish Franz Masereel’s novel in woodcuts Story without Words, can you say you’ve read a book if it didn’t contain one single word?

That’s neither here nor there, however.

But to some degree, my wife’s criticism of this kind of “reading” has much validity. I no more “read” a book I listen to than my toddler daughter reads Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb when I read it to her. But more than that, my wife has often suggested that these other readers are putting their own interpretation on the words, an interpretation unlikely to have occurred to me possibly. As such, they are subtly undermining my own personal experience of the book.

Be that as it may, this is not a collection I can recommend to anyone for any reason. If you at all enjoy good writing, I can heartily recommend the author. I would be quite happy for Ms. Munro to continue writing for the next fifty years should she live so long. However, should someone in Hollywood get the clever notion of capitalizing on Munro’s literary cache and success, I can recommend several medieval torture devices.

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