I bought a copy of The View from Castle Rock when it was first published in 2006, and I read about half of it before putting it aside. I just didn’t like it – and I was well aware that not liking a book by Alice Munro is an act of terrible blasphemy. But it was as it was – I had a demanding job back then and was also devoting ten or more hours a week to practicing Tae Kwon Do, and I just didn’t have time for books that I didn’t find riveting.
The hardback copy that I bought in 2006 has since disappeared – I am pretty sure I gave it to a friend or sold it at a yard sale before I moved cross country in 2007. I purchased a paperback copy a few months ago on the recommendation of the instructor of a workshop I am going to take later this month. This instructor is very interested in the idea that fictional and autobiographical stories should be told using identical techniques; he seems to think that we are misguided in treating memoirs and novels (or story collections) as two different genres. I mentioned on Friday that I have been writing some autobiographical stories, and that the process of coaxing memories into story form is going well. I’m grateful that the work is going well, but I don’t think my general stance has changed much. I still think that people like to know whether the stories they are writing are fictional or autobiographical. I think we write about our own lives in one mindset and about fiction in another, and I think readers are aware of this distinction too. I know people who happily read autobiographies and memoirs but “see no point” in reading fiction, and I know avid readers of fiction who avoid reading memoirs. People like to classify things. We are the sons and daughters of Aristotle, of Linnaeus, of Darwin. We like to know how the parts of our world interconnect.
My paperback copy of The View from Castle Rock contains a subheading – “Stories” – that I am pretty sure was not on my 2006 hardcover copy. This edition also contains a two-page foreword in which Alice Munro describes how her relationship to these stories evolved. “I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigidly factual way,” she writes. “I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they never did in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with. These are stories.”
I can’t remember for sure, but I don’t think this foreword was present in the 2006 edition. I know I could probably look it up and find out, but stay with me here. The point isn’t to get the answer (on Postcards from Purgatory, the point is never to get the answer – do we need to tell you again about the Missing Day?); the point is to consider the question. Somehow or other, between the 2006 hardback and my 2013 paperback, Alice Munro and/or some combination of her editor, publicist, agent, or best friend felt the need to justify this book, to remind us in two prominent places that we should read this book as more of a story collection than as a memoir, in spite of the fact that I know for a fact that in 2006 this book was marketed as a memoir. I know for a fact that even before I went to the bookstore to buy it I 2006, I knew that Munro’s latest book was a memoir. Since then, though, its strategic brand consultant or who-the-hell-ever decided to hedge her bets.
It’s true that this book is a bit of a hybrid. The first five stories in the book are set before Munro was born and read, to me, like essays about her family history. I found that these moved slowly and did little to separate themselves from the many, many other immigrant stories out there. This is not to say that they are bad, exactly – but they dragged. Part II consists of six stories whose protagonist is a person very like Munro, and I recognized many of the details of character and setting as similar to those of Munro’s earlier stories, especially the ones in The Beggar Maid. These six stories are organized around the idea that (I’m quoting Dickens) “tis a right miserable thing to be ashamed of home.” Munro writes about her fascination at her father’s fox farm and her recognition – even as a schoolgirl – that when her father closed down this business and went to work as a night watchman in the foundry, he was diminished in his own eyes and, therefore, also in hers. She writes about her mother’s degenerative illness, about her first forays into sex, and about the odd shame of being intelligent in a small town. Her feelings of shame color her summer job as a maid to a wealthy family, her infatuation with books, and the complex experience of marrying a man from higher social class than her own – a man who wanted to be the one who “saved” her from her past, in spite of the fact that (she realizes) she is actually not ashamed of her home as much as she thought she was and has no desire or need to be “saved” from anything.
All of this material is rich and wonderful – and I had no problem at all reading this book this time around. I always looked forward to coming back to it and reading more. However, the stories in this book are not subtle enough to be treated as fiction. Munro explains herself and her memories too much – and trust me, I know full well that recent Nobel laureate Alice Munro does not need a lesson in ‘show, don’t tell’ from me, and I have no intention of giving her one – and this kind of explanation is what makes this collection a work of autobiography in my mind.
Case in point: the use of the future perfect tense. It’s all over the place. Munro is the omniscient narrator of this collection (as she should be), and she steps in way too often to tell us what WILL happen ten years after this neighbor dies or six months after Munro and her husband leave for Vancouver. On the one hand, omniscient narrators can do this in fiction, but it’s still primarily a technique one sees in autobiography.
There’s nothing wrong with writing a memoir, of course, especially when one’s life has been as rich and complex as Alice Munro’s. I may be wrong, but it really does seem to me that some marketing decisions made between 2006 and 2013 have effectively “rebranded” this book as a collection of stories – and I think this decision was misguided. This is a book of family history and memoir. Why can’t that be okay? Does fiction sell more copies than nonfiction? (cough – Cheryl Strayed – uncough) Did bookstore managers not like having to stack this book in the nonfiction section while the rest of Munro’s work was shelved in fiction?
I like this book less than any of Munro’s other story collections (I’ve read all but two or three of them), but, of course, it still stands head and shoulders above most of what’s published out there. I don’t like thinking about how marketing affects stories and the ways they are communicated to readers, and I can’t help thinking that the fact that this book feels less powerful and less authoritative and less sure of itself is that perhaps on some level Munro didn’t know what kind of stories she was writing, and her own timidity became the book’s timidity.
I’m not going to say anything more against this book. At its best moments, it’s brilliant. At its worst, it’s dull. You know – kind of like life.
Remember how long it took me to get into this book? I put it down for months and months, read a bunch of dumb stuff, and finally picked it back up. I did enjoy it eventually. I’m not quite sure why I couldn’t get into it at first–it was the first short story collection I’d ever read for pleasure, and I suspect that was part of the problem. I did have a hard time figuring out if it was fiction or autobiography–I read the hardcover version and I don’t think it said “stories” on it and I am not convinced I remember there being a foreword by Munro either, but I read this book in 2010, so it could have been there. I will say that this book alone did not convince me of Munro’s brilliance.
Everything that’s good about this book is in the second half – this time around I sort of knew that, so that’s what motivated me to read the first half.