There’s no question that Alice Munro’s short story “The Office” – from her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968 – was written with Virginia Woolf in mind. The story’s opening paragraph is an arrow pointing directly at Woolf: “The solution to my life occurred to me one evening while I was ironing a shirt. It was simple but audacious. I went into the living room where my husband was watching television and I said, ‘I think I ought to have an office” (59). Even if A Room of One’s Own were an obscure volume known only to a few scholars, I would be certain that Munro had somehow found it and read it and written this story in response. At the same time, though, there is nothing spectacular about this story. It is elegant and spare and even a little minimalist – a word not often used to describe Munro’s work. Even the second word of the story – “solution” – is fantastically evocative, since nowhere in the entire story except right here in this word is it suggested that the narrator’s life before she rents an office is a problem. Her home, husband, and children seem blandly pleasant – although, of course, it is significant that they are rarely mentioned in the story.
I read Dance of the Happy Shades in the summer of 2009, and “The Office” is the only story in the collection that I remembered long-term. The stories in this collection are good, of course, but they’re not as inflated as Munro’s recent work. “Inflated” may sound like a bad thing, but I don’t mean it in a bad way. A bad story is like a flat tire. A good story is inflated just the right amount and carries its reader smoothly and carefully down the highway. Munro’s more recent stories – those in Runaway and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and The Beggar Maid – are like tires that have been overinflated with air. They still travel swiftly down the highway, but there’s a sense of danger there, a sense of imminent explosion. Most of the stories in Dance of the Happy Shades don’t have this quality – and, even though I admire it, I don’t think “The Office” has this overinflated quality either. “The Office” reminds me of a Raymond Carver story – and that’s a good thing, of course.
The first three pages of “The Office” do in the specific what A Room of One’s Own does in general terms. The narrator muses about the fact that men can work in their homes but women cannot. People defer to a working man, even when he is at home. They respect his seriousness and his privacy. “He can shut the door,” the narrator reasons. “Imagine… a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it; why, the very thought of it is outrageous to them… So a house is not the same for a woman. She is not someone who walks into the house to make use of it, and will walk out again. She is the house; there is no separation possible” (60).
So the narrator rents the office. I think offices were less expensive in 1968 than they are today – or maybe it’s just a Canadian thing – but no matter. She rents an office, and she furnishes it with a card table, her typewriter, and a second small table that holds a hot plate, a kettle, a mug, and a jar of instant coffee. The office is in a building owned by Mr. and Mrs. Malley. Mr. Malley is kind and friendly, but the narrator takes an immediate dislike to him – as I would as well. Mr. Malley approves of “hobbies” and shows the narrator all the ships in bottles that he likes to build, tacitly comparing them to the narrator’s writing. “I had not planned, in taking an office, to take on the responsibility of knowing any more human beings” (64), the narrator grumbles.
Don’t I know about THAT. There are times when there is nothing on earth more distasteful than a solicitous man.
The narrator begins working in her office – apparently quite productively. We are given very little insight into what the narrator is writing, except for an occasional reference to ‘stories.’ The focus of the rest of the story, as you might imagine, is on the encroachment of Mr. Malley. His advances are not romantic or sexual – advances of that kind are plausible in real life but would be a death sentence to this short story, and Munro wisely steers clear. No, what Mr. Malley wants is to disturb the narrator’s solitude. He’s the president of the Welcome Wagon, the five-time winner of the Neighbor of the Week award. He stops by to make sure the narrator knows how to turn the lights on and off. He offers to buy material so she can make curtains. He brings her a houseplant and a wastebasket and a package of tea – each time, of course, undermining the entire purpose of her renting the office in the first place. When she speaks up and makes it clear that she wants to be left alone, he does leave, but then she has to put up with a series of apologetic interruptions: gifts, notes, and promises that he will never, ever bother her again.
Then one night she tries something new. She ignores him. He knocks on her door, and she pauses to let him know she heard him, then resumes her typing. He knocks and knocks and knocks. Finally he goes away, but from here on out he is her enemy. He invents all kinds of grievances against her, accuses her of throwing parties in the office, neglecting her children, and vandalizing the building’s public bathroom. At the end of the story, the narrator admits that she has given up working in an office, at least for now.
Virginia Woolf identified two elements that a female writer must have in order to be successful: financial independence and a workspace that is all her own. Woolf marvels at nineteenth-century novelists like Jane Austen and George Eliot who wrote their novels in the communal living spaces of their homes. When I am reading Woolf, I think of the now-legendary image of J.K. Rowling writing the Harry Potter series in a café, desperate for money to pay her bills, while her baby napped in their apartment above, but I also think of Cheever, who woke up each morning in suburban Long Island, dressed in a suit, rode the train to Manhattan with all the other husbands in his neighborhood, walked to his rented office, removed his suit, and worked on his short stories all day long in his underwear while his suit – the only one he owned – hung on a hanger, because he knew he couldn’t afford to buy a new one if he wore its knees and elbows thin. For Cheever in those early years, writing stories all day was a source of shame. He felt he couldn’t hold his head up in his community if anyone knew he did something as ridiculous as writing short stories, so he rented the office and kept up the charade of commuting to work in the city. Cheever’s office was not a refuge but a necessary evil, a hiding place. He probably would have been happier in a spare bedroom or basement office at home, or even at his dining room table.
Which reminds me: my current work space is the dining room table in my dad’s house, where I also live. I tend to work in the midst of a cloud of chaos, and the dining room table serves this purpose well. Within my line of sight at this moment are the new black ink cartridge I bought this weekend, a wadded paper towel, a sheet of paper containing two sexless naked people on which I have marked in black ink the places on my body where I experience pain (this form will be coming with me to a chiropractor’s office tomorrow), a stack of files of student work from a tutoring company at which I no longer work, some bills (credit card, car insurance, cell phone), a half-empty sheet of stamps, a ballot from the Dartmouth Alumni Association, a J.Jill catalog, and books, of course: One Writer’s Beginnings, Anna Karenina, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and – you guessed it – Paradise Lost. In the middle of this pile of clutter I sit, writing this review more or less productively. And also checking Facebook every few minutes.
Workspace has been a problem for me ever since college. When I worked on short stories my freshman year, I used to reduce the font as small as it would go – the page was just a mesh of thin gray lines. My roommate’s boyfriend complained to her that I reduced the font – which, of course, gave me all the confirmation I needed that I was right to protect against snoops. One night in late spring that year I needed to read a book – Diane Ackerman’s The Moon by Whale Light – in a single night, and I ended up reading it in downtown Hanover, sitting at the base of a streetlight and at the center of a swarm of bugs. I revisit that street light every time I’m in town.
I’ve written and/or graded papers almost everywhere. Planes and buses. All-night diners. Beaches and parks. An uncomfortable vinyl chair in the hospital room of my dying mother. At desks and in armchairs and flat on my stomach on beds. Motels. Once, last February, I took my laptop to Java Beach on Sloat and wrote five good, solid pages of a novel I had long wanted to start writing. It was the first time since I arrived in San Francisco three months earlier that I had gotten any productive writing done. When I got home, my elation vanished: my dad was in the process of leaving to go to the emergency room. He had been falling down, and he was diagnosed with blood pressure spikes likely caused by dehydration. In other words, he was fine: he just needed to be careful to drink enough fluids. He was admitted to the hospital for one night and came home the next day, just in time to make his monthly Costco run. But I didn’t write again for months. Writing felt cursed, like the selfish act of a perpetual child. Remember all those months when I only published a review on this blog once a week or so, or even less? That was March through November of 2013. I’m not superstitious, but I managed to convince myself nevertheless that writing was cursed.
I could go on, but it’s time to wrap this review up. The feelings that writers connect to their work – independence, shame, freedom, selfishness, the worry that one is simply very, very slow to grow up – are fascinating. I’m still making my slow way through A Room of One’s Own. It’s wonderful and I recommend it. For me, it’s turning out to be a thestral (and you can read more about my theory of literary thestrals here if you want to), and I’m happy that the Classics Club declared March of 2014 to be Feminist Literature month, giving me the impetus to read it.
And Alice Munro is great too. But you knew that.