Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 12 March 2012

"Controlling the Uncontrollable" by Ildiko de Papp Carrington (Northern Illinois UP, 1989)

In this book some quotes by Munro about life are used to explain her writing style

  • "I want to write the story that will zero in and give you intense, but not connected, moments of experience. I guess that's the way I see life"
  • "I always realized that I had a different view of the world, ... one that would bring me into great trouble and ridicule if it were exposed. I learned very early to disguise everything, and perhaps the escape into making stories was necessary", p.17
  • "We always spoke grammatically at home because my father and mother knew how to. But we knew we should speak ungrammatically outside so that people wouldn't be offended, or make fun of us", p.22
  • "I feel that I am two rather different people, two very different women and so, perhaps, that's where I'm working from. That I would like to get them separate", p.30

Hence "the most central and creative paradox of Munro's fiction is its repeated but consciously ambivalent attempts to control what is uncontrollable, to split in half to control a suddenly split world. These internal and external splits produce the "intense ... moments of experience" that pattern Munro's stories", p.5. The idea of the split viewpoint interests me. It happens with: a self vs an earlier self; a self vs omniscient narrator; self vs their literary productions; self-as-daughter vs self-as mother, etc. "In The Moons of Jupiter (1982), in which half of the stories use the first person and half the third, Munro introduces a multiple point of view in both types of stories"

On p.39, 4 categories for her stories are suggested. Subsequent chapters tackle each category in turn.

  • "characters observe, and sometimes participate in, external violence ... These frightening eruptions make the characters lose control ... but then they struggle to regain it somehow"
  • Del Jordan stories
  • "ambivalent characters struggling for power, primarily the power to control sexual encounters ... But the situations that expose these characters' internal vulnerability sometimes also include aging or the ultimate humiliation of approaching death"
  • parents and daughters

As these common themes are explored, more are discovered that could reflect back onto the writer's experiences.

  • "In 'The Peace of Utrecht,' the mother's loss of language and its devastating effect upon her two daughters are described in an anguished detail that reveals what seems to be the deepest personal source of Munro's central conviction that there is something shameful about watching someone and something humiliating about the controlled manipulation of language", p.21
  • "characteristic elements that recur in her later work ... include a watcher, a sense of something secret, a sudden revelation of the secret, and a struggle to control the threatening results of this revelation... A sudden split in the concealing surface reveals this secret through an unexpected event or experience that threatens the character's control. Struggling to maintain or regain control, the character may attempt to control the threatening external or internal forces, to dominate a relationship with another character, or often to do both", p.38
  • "Munro writes not only about her characters but, as already illustrated, about the writing process itself. This reflexive combination is quite natural because many of her characters are writers. ... four of the eight first-person narrators in Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You and five of the narrators or protagonists in The Moons of Jupiter are writers", p.30
  • "the inevitability of death hovers over much of Munro's fiction", p.38

In the final chapter the psychoanalysis becomes more explicit. "The position of this detached observer, whether in the first person or the third, is one that Munro, like many other writers, deliberately adopted. .... But now it is also clear that this position was one of which she was naturally aware, long before so ever began to write. ... her initial sense or being an outsider developed into a compound of many painful elements. She was physically clumsy, female, and poor. ... reflecting the circular pattern of her own life-experience, she brings many of her characters back to the place where they once possessed their original Fingerspitzengefuhl. ... Munro's definition of the artist also stresses another recurring paradox: that the artist herself must be a double person, both a voyeur and an actress. ... neither Munro's early familiarity with seasonal flooding nor the narrowly averted drowning of one of her daughters necessarily explains why she uses drowning as a metaphor for the helplessness and loss of control that constitute the predominant dangers in her stories. ... Her horror of helplessness pervades both her nonfictional and fictional criticism of her mother's disintegration. ... These recurrent images and metaphors of drowning and Munro's repeated criticism of helplessly drowning characters suggest a close causal link between what seems to be her own fear of abdication, that is, her fear that she might give up or lose her own artistic powers. ... But to keep herself whole in this dangerous world, the artist must, paradoxically, split herself in half. ... And this split is the reason that metaphors suggesting spatial relationships - inside, outside, on top of, at the edge of, at the bottom of, underneath - are central to Munro's conception of the artist "

Miscellaneous other points of interest include

  • "although Munro has an ironic sense of humour and can be very funny, her fiction is often intensely uncomfortable to read. The final emotional residue that many of her stories leave behind ... is a lingering sense of unresolved ambiguity and dismayed unease", p.5
  • "She has a uniquely nonlinear method of reading other writers' stories: 'I can start reading them anywhere; from beginning to end, from end to beginning, from any point in between in either direction'", p.42
  • "John Moss believes than Munro's work 'offers none of the usual puzzles, ambiguities, or clever allusions which the student of literature expects of contemporary writing' ... But this link between Munro's obsession with controlling humiliation through art and her ambivalence about controlling her art is surely such a puzzle, one that is clearly central to understanding her fiction", p.14
  • "Munro often revises her stories between their original publication in a periodical and the republication in a collection. For example, she frequently writes a story from both the third-person and first-person point of view before deciding which to use in the final version", p.201
  • "Some of the most frequently used words are shame, humiliation, watch, back off, power, control, abdicate and abdication", p.5
  • "Munro professes to exercise control over her fiction only to a limited degree. The self-imposed limitation manifests itself in various ways: in her fondness for ironic or self-reflexive epilogues and in her resistance against neatly conventional plot resolutions, whether old-fashioned or trendily up-to-date; in her fluctuating use of thematic summaries; and in her emphasis upon her inability to understand the insoluble mysteries of life", p.13

No comments:

Post a Comment