Monday, April 30, 2007

The Long View

The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro, Read by Kimberly Ferrar, Books on Tape, Inc., 2006

One of the pleasures of a subscription to The New Yorker is seeing the shape of Alice Munro's upcoming book months prior to its publication. With her longer stories published four or five times a year, at least half of her book is available in your back issues before the review copies are at the publishers. Of course, the drawback to this should be obvious — having read the stories once within the a twelvemonth, there’s a dampened desire to revisit these tales.

Not that Munro actually disappoints taken in context. Though I’m a cynic, at this late stage in Munro’s career, it’d be hard to imagine her stories losing their cool depth and assured emotional complexity — especially if we credit her hints that this may be her final published book.

The precise weakness herein though is at the collection stage. Taken individually, each story’s characterization, structure, pacing, and tone is remarkably satisfying. If you love well-crafted short fiction, picking any story from any one of her many volumes will provide you vital gratification. You will feel as if something profound and central to a life has been granted to you. Thus, Munro’s fiction, broken up and doled out over the course of a year is immensely pleasurable.

To read one whole volume of her quiet, reflective pieces, however, is to pine for some variety. Munro has so well-honed her style that such high doses expose the weakness of her material over the course of a long and celebrated career. As the book progresses, you long for some unhinged madness to jolt the blood pressure, something out of the ordinary.

Instead, to pick up her latest volume, The View from Castle Rock, is to revisit Munro’s gentle, fur trapping father, the mother against whom the main character must rebel, the small town Canadian provincialism, the stern and stoic Scots, the crippling fear of “standing out” or being thought a snob, the sexual hungers tempered by propriety, and a whole grab bag of tricks Munro’s been presenting since her first collection, 1968’s Dance of the Happy Shades.

The novelty Munro brings to this collection is the first half’s linked focus on retelling the story of her family’s original Scottish settlers. Taciturn back to the root, we follow those who sailed over to Canada and successive generations down the line. This first half of the collection is entitled “No Advantages,” and it takes its name from a description in a 1799 Statistical Account of Scotland of the valley Munro’s branch of the family inhabited. This particular judgment epitomizes Munro’s characters and clearly indicates she gets this underwhelming view of her life honestly.

Following these Scots ancestors as they land in North America, we trail them across the US-Canadian border, some members slipping down into the states while the bulk of the rest of the family march ever westward. “Illinois,” the third tale tells the rather harrowing story of what happens when a young son, displeased by his widowed mother’s choice to go north with her in-laws, hides the newborn baby in the woods. Munro’s not above cruel twists in her stories, family members disappearing without a trace, illnesses sweeping away children, and thus of all the stories collected here, this one had a real sense of suspense and drama to it.

The book’s title is taken from the collection’s second story in which a father and his son Andrew climb up to the Castle Rock in Edinburgh. There, the old man points out across the water and tells his son that what they’re seeing there in the water is the far off shores of America. Andrew later learns that in fact what they’ve seen is merely Fife and not America at all.

In a nutshell, this is one of Munro’s most fertile vein,s and she’s mined it over the last forty years with some tenacity. Over and again she returns to the friction caused between what an adult tells a child and the sneaking suspicion in the child that he or she knows better. Mixed in at this moment is the feeling of mortification that other people who overhear this exchange are secretly mocking both father and son.

It is the childhood stories making up the book’s second half, “Home” where this ground is revisited in fashions we’ve seen many times before in Munro’s work. The author tells us quite explicitly in an introduction that these second-half tales are much more autobiographical than her previous writing, though that hadn’t stopped her from fictionalizing elements and adding and subtracting. If you’re familiar with Munro’s work, it’s easier to guess from certain repetitions what’s most likely non-fictionalized, and here is where the collection really stumbles.

Having mined this turf before, there’s little Munro can add here that is exciting and up to quite the same level as established in the first half. “Hired Girl” is familiar territory wherein the narrator/Munro-stand-in gets a summer job that prickles all her notions of self-worth as well as her sexual awakening and the various levels of social power. “Fathers” likewise retreads how different the narrator feels in another girl’s home, seeing how loving, how demonstrative other people’s parents can be in comparison to her own, the more overt emotions almost shaming the narrator. Pieces like “The Ticket” don’t even read as completed works, rather as lengthier vignettes.

In short, the second half of this collection reads somewhat like a series of stories Munro hadn’t been satisfied with on previous writings but used here to fill out what would have been a terribly slim volume of family recollections and recreations. I, for one, would have gladly appreciated, if this is Munro’s last book, the more slender edition, each of the stories within shined to highest polish.

Instead, the collection ends rather on a down note, a disappointing epilogue to a career marked by some of the best short fiction writing of the twentieth century. It is a mark of how great a writer Munro is that even her failures stand head and shoulders above so much other current writing out there today.

Reader Kimberly Ferrar can easily fool you into thinking that she might be a young Alice Munro, so well accomplished is her sympathetic rendering of the material. Authors aren’t generally the best readers of their material, but oddly enough the best readers can trick you into thinking they are indeed the author. Fancy that.


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