Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Back To School"

As a fun fundraising activity, Anna’s alma mater Sarah Lawrence College stages what it calls a “Faculty on the Road” event, in which an appropriately-sized house is volunteered and former SLC students and their families gather together to hear one of the school’s resident professors deliver a lecture on some aspect of the discipline in which they specialize.

The alerting flyer announced that this year, an English professor would be speaking on the topic:  “Time in Fiction and the Art of Alice Munro.”  Dr. M and I both really like Alice Munro, so we immediately signed up. 

Jumping past the food table, which, since I had recently returned from a Fitness Spa gave every confection the look of an individualized pile of refined sugar, we were directed to a room full of rows of none too comfortable folding chairs, the professor began her talk, and it immediately felt like school.

The moment the lecture began, it appeared everyone regressed back to their academic earlier selves.  There was:

The meticulous notes-taker, the “Teacher’s Pet” nodder-in-constant-agreement-with- the-lecturer, there was the Class “Funny Man” (possibly me), the forgivable slacker (“I’ve been reading the story while you’ve been talking about it, or half of it at least.”), the hyper-confident know-it-all peppering their definitivenesses with multiple “obviouslies”, the contrarian iconoclast (possibly me again; you can be two things on this list) and the cowering majority, making themselves small and praying not to be called upon in class.

School was definitely in!

For those who are unfamiliar with her, Alice Munro is a hugely respected, Canadian Nobel Prize Laureate who specializes in short story writing, focusing on the areas and characters of her particular locale.  We once listened to a book-on-tape of her stories during a trip to San Francisco, and the six-hour-and-ten-minute drive flew by, despite the cognitive dissonance of Canada in our ears and California out the window.   

The short story selected for the lecture entitled Train, however, was not to my liking.  The narrative, a series of massive, apparently unmotivated, life-altering jumps by the protagonist – he ran into a woman whom he stayed with for years, then he abruptly dumped her and started managing an apartment building he’d inadvertently walked past, then he abruptly left there and moved someplace completely different – seemed jarringly disjointed, leaving me unable to decipher what exactly the author was trying to say. 

After the lecture concluded, the subsequent “Questions and Comments” covered numerous comments and concerns, including the observation that the characters in Munro’s story seemed inordinately distant and sexually repressed, and the questioner wondered why that was.

There was a momentary silence, broken when someone in the audience offered,

“It’s Canada.”

I got a solid laugh with that one.  Though I felt some regret earning it at my Home and Native Land’s expense.  Americans laugh too easily at Canada.  The way Canadians laugh – or at least used to laugh – too easily at Newfoundland. 

The second-to-the-last question was mine, now in “Contrarian Iconoclast” mode.  It went almost exactly like this:

“If this writer were a nobody instead of a Nobel Prize Winner, would it be possible to see this story as arbitrary?”

The professor pressed me on “arbitrary.”

“Random events,” I replied.

The professor responded that she did not believe the story was arbitrary, because it worked as a satisfying, coherent piece of writing.

I did not believe it did.  But then I went home and that night, my mind, thinking entirely on its own, delivered an epiphany:

The professor was right.

What I cherish most about Alice Munro is that she had made it her life’s work to chronicle the distinctive essence of the Canadian persona.  And nobody else did that.  I realize there are exceptions – the two Margarets, Laurence and Atwood – but the majority of the Canadian writers I knew all wrote about whales.

(I love Mordecai Richler, but the only thing truly Canadian about his characters is that they try to act like Americans but they’re not good at it.)

The protagonist of Train, whom I originally viewed as haphazardly jumping around, turned out to be a person who, on every occasion in the story, was relocating himself to avoid the discomfort a confrontational “scene.”

Upon further examination, the unwillingness to face the uncomfortable music turns out to be the prevailing undertone in Train.  In one revelatory sequence, opening up – and, being Canadian, doing so only because, after surgery, she is in the throes of post-anesthesial delirium – a woman confides to the protagonist that once when she was young, her father spied on her, standing naked in the bathroom, and on the evening after that happened, the father was run over by a train.

The connection appeared obvious.  Though there was a perfunctory “I’m Sorry” –  “That’s okay” exchange between the two of them, the story’s message was that, as opposed to working through the transgression to an ameliorating resolution, a Canadian father would rather put himself in front of a barreling locomotive.

And the daughter forgave him!

“It seems to me just now I have got a real understanding of it and that it was nobody’s fault.  It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation.  Me growing up there and Mother the way she was {an invalid} and Daddy, naturally, the way he would be.  Not my fault not his fault.”

Can you imagine Americans taking it like that? 

Americans would sign up immediately for “Family Counseling”, where, after an appropriate “healing process”, they would emerge stronger and more cohesive than ever, feeling almost grateful that the terrible incident had occurred, since it had, as a consequence, brought this now deeply loving family closer together.

Canadians?  Not their way.  No “touchy-feely” shenanigans for them.  They would rather step in front of a moving train. 

(Or hop a train, the piece’s now clearly accurate title.)

“It’s Canada” was a joke.

But it is also the genius of the story.

Thank you, Alice Munro, for showing the world – and Canadians themselves – who we are.

It may not be pretty,

But it’s us. 

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Interesting. I think, though, that *some* Americans would react the same way as your Canadians: the US is a big country with a lot of regional variation, and parts of it are extremely taciturn and disinclined to have difficult interactions. Have you traveled much, for example, in Minnesota or Maine?