A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day 2 – What Is Remembered

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day two – What is Remembered, by Alice Munro.

Read it online here:

What Is Remembered

This afternoon, I worked on making a list of stories I am going to read and write about for my June Month Of Short Stories and realized that a lot of them will be linking with the New Yorker. Well, not very surprising….

Here we are on the second day, and we have a story very different that the first… instead of the efficient, biting prose of Raymond Carver, we have the lush genius of Alice Munro.

She doesn’t cut her words to the bone. She is quite generous with her word count. For example, in today’s story, here is her description of the arrangement of napkins at a funeral’s buffet table:

She looked down at the table napkins, which were folded in quarters. They were not as big as dinner napkins or as small as cocktail napkins. They were set in overlapping rows, so that a corner of each napkin (the corner embroidered with a tiny blue or pink or yellow flower) overlapped the folded corner of its neighbor. No two napkins embroidered with the same color of flower were touching each other. Nobody had disturbed them, or if they had—for she did see a few people around the room holding napkins—they had picked up napkins from the end of the row in a careful way, and this order had been maintained.

The amazing thing, the genius of Munro, is that this seemingly odd bit of description encapsulates the whole story, somehow. It has nothing to do and everything to do with the rest of the work.

This is the story of an affair – or of a one-night stand… a one-evening stand, really. But it isn’t a prudish morality tale – it is a laying out of a woman’s life and how much more there is than meets the eye.

Alice Munro doesn’t write with words as much as she writes with time. What is Remembered, like much of her work, moves back and forth over handfuls of decades, following the echoes of the past into the future and the conception of the future into the past. Like the title implies, this is a story about memory and how a person’s fate isn’t so much shaped by what they do as much as it is by how they remember what they have done.

On the ferry ride home, after the fact:

She had to join the crowd of jostling bodies making their way up the stairs, and when she reached the passenger deck she sat in the first seat she saw. She did not even bother, as she usually did, to look for a seat next to a window. She had an hour and a half before the boat docked on the other side of the strait, and during this time she had a great deal of work to do.

No sooner had the boat started to move than the people beside her began to talk. They were not casual talkers who had met on the ferry but friends or family who knew each other well and would find plenty to say for the entire crossing. So she got up and climbed to the top deck, where there were always fewer people, and sat on one of the bins that contained life preservers. She ached in expected and unexpected places.

The job she had to do, as she saw it, was to remember everything—and, by remember, she meant experience it in her mind, one more time—then store it away forever. This day’s experience set in order, none of it left ragged or lying about, all of it gathered in like treasure and finished with, set aside.

She had “an hour and a half” and a “job she had to do.” She had to fix what had happened into her memory, all of it, exactly as it had happened.

As the rest of the tale unfolds, we learn she didn’t do her job well. She forgot a lot. And what she forgot might have been more important than what she remembered – it protected her from a life that was not only wildly different, was a life that would not have been her own.

What we remember, what we forget, what comes back to us after it is too late….

Short Story Day Thirty – Passion

30. Passion
Alice Munro
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/22/040322fi_fiction

As we are in the ninth inning, the home stretch, of my month of short stories we come across Alice Munro. She is the master – the best of the best.

I have been voraciously reading Alice Munro for decades now… and she should be in my list of writers that I have read everything – but she writes so much (all short stories) that there is always more. Most of what she writes shows up first in the New Yorker – she is the quintessential New Yorker fictioner.

What she does is magical. Read her stories and pay attention to how she plays with time. There is usually several different time planes going on – complex, yet made clear by careful attention to detail. The story is often told by illuminating subtle changes in a character between fictional scenes that take place on different sides of a shift in the story. Often times this shift is never actually shown or described… merely inferred from what has scarred or uplifted (or both) the characters before and after. There are subtle connections across time and place – you have to look closely to figure them out – but they resonate deep in your mind as you read.

Today’s story, Passion, is pure Munro. A woman is looking back over a critical period of her life – how critical it was and in what way isn’t clear until the final sentence.

I didn’t do this on purpose – but it is very interesting to compare this story to yesterday’s – The Garden Party. Both are tales of class differences. But Passion – the Munro story – is the opposite… a mirror image, of Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

In this one, the protagonist is a poor girl that stumbles into contact with the wealthy. However, as occurs in yesterday’s tale – once in the other’s camp she is exposed to death, and is changed in complex and subtle ways. Both women (both about the same age) are smart, resourceful, and perceptive beyond their years and expectations and are relied upon to help keep things going smoothly. However, both learn that the world is a harder, more complicated, and dangerous place – with darkness, passion, and beauty all wrapped up and twined, twisted, and knotted together.

The wealthy Traverse family in today’s story is not as isolated or as heartless as the Sheridans in yesterday’s – but they are every bit as flawed and are quietly doomed.

Munro spells out this doom without embellishment or symbolism – she simply tells the story – with great skill. It’s perfect. It’s why she is the best.

She had thought that it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what she’d been working toward at all. She had seen deeper, deeper into him than she could ever have managed if they’d gone that way.

What she saw was final. As if she were at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing that it was all there was.

It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction, like everything else, from the thing that was waiting, no matter what, all the time.
—-Passion, by Alice Munro

Short Story Day Nineteen – Eyes of a Blue Dog

19. Eyes of a Blue Dog

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/bluedog.html

This is day Nineteen of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Source Figure, by Robert Graham, foreground, We Stand Together, George Rodrigue, background

Source Figure, by Robert Graham, foreground, We Stand Together, George Rodrigue, background

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite writers of all time. One Hundred Years of Solitude was a revelation when I read it decades ago – it is on my desert island list for sure. Love in the Time of Cholera might even be a better book, all around.

My love for his prodigious output of short fiction has never matched that of his epic novels, however. In small doses his Magic Realism (can this style of writing even be done in English? In an American settting?) feels overly precious to me – though his genius is evident even there.

Even though I love his work, if you tell me you can’t get into it… I’d have a hard time arguing. It’s not for everyone. Either it resonates with you or it doesn’t.

Today we have an early short story by him, Eyes of a Blue Dog (originally published in – you guessed it – the New Yorker in 1978). At first the story is confusing… What is going on here? It doesn’t take long to figure out we are in a dream, and the author does a good job of implying the odd geometry of a slumbering illusion.

There are two people in this dream, a man and a woman. They meet in dreams, but can’t connect in real life, because – even though the woman wants to find the man and goes around spreading the phrase “Eyes of a Blue Dog” as a clue to her whereabouts – he can’t remember anything once he wakes up.

It’s a concice example of loneliness. Even when we have found a kindred soul, our passion and hunger are doomed because of the mortal shell we are all trapped within. This theme of the human soul desolate and alone runs through all of his work – despite plenty of life-affirming, entertaining, and hopeful passages.

Now, next to the lamp, she was looking at me. I remembered that she had also looked at me in that way in the past, from that remote dream where I made the chair spin on its back legs and remained facing a strange woman with ashen eyes. It was in that dream that I asked her for the first time: “Who are you?” And she said to me: “I don’t remember.” I said to her: “But I think we’ve seen each other before.” And she said, indifferently: “I think I dreamed about you once, about this same room.” And I told her: “That’s it. I’m beginning to remember now.” And she said: “How strange. It’s certain that we’ve met in other dreams.”
—-Eyes of a Blue Dog, Gabriel Garcia Marquez