Unreal Nature

April 22, 2017

Every Last Thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.

This is from Alice Munro’s chapter in The Other Side of Dailiness: Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence by Lorraine M. York (1988):

… Rose, the heroine of Who Do You Think You Are?, argues for a vision which is neither shuttered nor peripheral. Remembering the mentally retarded girl who was raped by her brother in the schoolyard, Rose angrily upbraids “[m]en who made books and movies” featuring “the figure of an idiotic, saintly whore,” because “[t]hey cheated … when they left out the breathing and the spit and the teeth … ” A vision of life cannot exclude ugliness and pain; as the young girl in “Boys and Girls” comments on the shooting of a farm horse, “It was not something I wanted to see; just the same, if a thing really happened, it was better to see it, and know.”

Del Jordon, in Lives of Girls and Women, only gradually develops this photographic vision. As a child, Del both desires and fears to witness manifestations of evil or death. The dead cow in the pasture fascinates her, yet on the day of her Uncle Craig’s funeral, the dead body is like a “black dot” in a maze which she is desperately trying to avoid. Similarly, Del is curiously drawn to the madness and depravity of Uncle Benny’s wife, Madeleine, yet when she passes the local bootlegger’s house, she is terrified to behold a house which “seemed to embody so much that was evil and mysterious that I would never look at it directly … ”

[line break added] Later, Del neglects to look directly at her lover Garnet, ignoring the violent streak in him which reasserts itself during the “Baptizing” episode. Even at the end of the epilogue, Del say: “At present I did not look much at this town.” Nevertheless, as she listens to Bobby Sherriff, she fixes her gaze on the back wall of a nearby building and notes “certain stains, chipped bricks, a long crack running down diagonally … ” Here is the genesis of the full and honest vision of which Rose speaks. Only from the perspective of the future, however, do we see this mature vision in Del:

And no list could hold what I wanted, for what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.

… The inevitable result of this all-inclusive, photographic vision is paradox. The world becomes at once ugly and beautiful, familiar and strange, innocent and threatening.

… One of the most consistent and glaring paradoxes in Munro’s work is the fact that ordinary objects may inspire both reverence and suspicion. In “Images,” Del’s description of her father’s boots is both a celebration and a revelation:

His boots were to me as unique and familiar, as much an index to himself as his face was. When he had taken them off they stood in a corner of the kitchen, giving off a complicated smell of manure, machine oil, caked black mud, and the ripe and disintegrating material that lined their soles. They were a part of himself, temporarily discarded, waiting.

… In Lives of Girls and Women, the photograph of Marion Sherriff which hangs in the main hall of the school reveals a “stocky and unsmiling” girl holding a tennis racket, but conceals the mystery of her subsequent suicide. One is reminded of the concern with surfaces and depths shown in the earliest North American novel to deal with photography as a metaphor, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), in which Holgrave, the photographer, comments on his daguerreotypes: “There is a wonderful insight in heaven’s broad and simple sunshine. While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even if he could detect it.”

… The narrator [in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You] knows the truth about [her ex-husband’s] insecurities, such as his hatred of dentists; she knows all of the “lies, the half-lies, the absurdities” which make up Hugo’s personality. Noting the checked wool shirt and the undershirt which Hugo sports in this photograph [in a book of his short stories], the narrator senses that Hugo is attempting to create a false image of the writer aas a carefree lumberjack. Indignantly, she orders us to “[l]ook at Hugo’s picture, look at the undershirt,” and to compare the façade which we see there and in Hugo’s pretentious author’s “blurb” with the insecure and domineering man she knew in the past.

Munro’s acute consciousness of human transience is closely connected with yet anther paradox in her art — the paradox of control and helplessness, fixity and flux. As she commented to Graeme Gibson about her writing: “With me it has something to do with the fight against death, the feeling that we lose everything every day, and writing is a way of convincing yourself perhaps that you’re doing something about this. You’re not really, because the writing itself does not last much longer than you do … “

-Julie

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