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Monday, 14 February 2011

Alice Munro: Dimension

Well, I have an idea. Some of the stories I admire seem to zero in on one particular time and place. There isn't a rule about this. But there's a tidy sense about many stories I read. In my own work, I tend to cover a lot of time and to jump back and forward in time, and sometimes the way I do this is not very straightforward. I feel that this is something that people may find they have to adjust to, but it's a way of saying whatever it is that I want to say, and it sort of has to be done this way. Time is something that interests me a whole lot —past and present, and how the past appears as people change.
Alice Munro[1]
One  of the distinguishing features of Munro’s stories – most particularly in the latter half of her writing career - is the boldness with which she treats time in her fiction. Early stories may focus on a moment or specific event or series of consecutive moments or events  - such as ‘Red Dress’ - moments often  recollected from some present vantage point, or, increasingly, they will take great leaps in time (and the progression need not  be chronological), as in ‘Friend of My Youth’.
A typical Munro story may begin as a memory and then slip back  further to an explanatory past and then race ahead into a future that has been created out of such a past, but then slip back to  a memory of something left unsaid or a detail left unnoticed that will change our understanding or just tilt it so that it no longer seems complete or definitive.
Consider the story, ‘Dimension’ in this chronological summary:  a young girl meets an older man and moves out to the country with him; they have children; the relationship disintegrates; he kills all three children, and is put away as criminally insane; she visits him several times; he tells her that he communes with her dead children; despite his crimes and because of her grief, she realises that he is the only link to her lost children, but, traveling to see him again, she is involved in  a traffic accident in which she helps the crash victim,  and she decides to discontinue her visits.
This is the story, a list of stark sensational events, but this is not the plot as Munro fashions it, weaving as it does back and forth in time.
The story begins in media res – to be precise, as Doree takes her third trip to the prison, -  but, in truth, it feels like it begins in ultima res; it is as if we have come in at the end of the story: the worst has happened and we are waiting to be told what that might have been.
Doree had to take three buses – one to Kincardine, where she waited for one to London, where she waited again for the city bus out to the facility. She started the trip on a Sunday at nine in the morning. Because of the waiting times between buses, it took her until about two in the afternoon to travel the hundred-odd miles. All that sitting, either on buses or in the depots, was not a thing she should have minded. Her daily work was not of the sitting-down kind.
Considering the story’s events, this is a quiet and deliberately undramatic opening – almost dull. It is not a hammering of the organ keys to announce that marital abuse, infanticide and burning grief are ahead – or even behind us. It’s a paragraph only possible – that one might only dare write – once a writer has organised the material in her mind and then on the page: a long slow labour, built out of many decisions, of other choices made and then abandoned. ‘Dimension’ is the sum of Munro’s thoughts on the story: we may read it as if she is unfolding it for us as we read, but the carpet we tread has been woven and, indeed, nailed into place in advance. This is a finished piece. It is we who are dreaming it for the first time and not her. Only on a second, less dreamlike reading, would we realise why ‘all that sitting’ is something Doree might ‘mind’ and realise that this enforced stillness is also a terrible space of time that forces her to meditate on what has become of her and her family.
            Munro does not rush to tell us the story. The contrary. Doree’s work is a dull and dulling routine, but she likes it:
…it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night. She was seldom faced with a really bad mess, though some of the women she worked with could tell stories to make your hair curl.
It's only in the first sentence of the third paragraph that Munro presses down on the accelerator and even then quite gently:
None of the people she worked with knew what had happened. Or, if they did, they didn’t let on. Her picture had been in the paper—they’d used the photo he took of her with all three kids, the new baby, Dmitri, in her arms, and Barbara Ann and Sasha on either side, looking on. Her hair had been long and wavy and brown then, natural in curl and color, as he liked it, and her face bashful and soft—a reflection less of the way she was than of the way he wanted to see her.
And even here – on rereading the piece – we can see that what concerns Munro in this story, signalled by that phrase ‘as he liked it’, is not so much loss, but its seeming opposite, possession.
            The next section takes us back to the previous year, and her sessions with her counsellor, Mrs Sands. We learn only that Doree’s husband is in prison, that Doree lives alone, and the children are not there. Only Mrs Sands’ blush at using the word ‘death’ suggests the children’s fate – a fate that is not made explicit until the story is halfway told.
             One of the beats that reverberate in this tale of lost children is how Doree is most often in the company of those who are older than she is. Doree works with women who are older than she is. Even the women on the prison bus seem older than she is, and only look young from a distance.
The next section slips back seven years when Doree is sixteen years. We are at another institution, a hospital, not a prison. Doree’s mother is dying, and Lloyd is an ‘orderly’ – a quiet wordplay here: Munro’s prose offers a smooth surface but there are games and tricks at work beneath it. Lloyd is popular and assured. He kisses her in an elevator – a confined place – and tells her that she is a flower in the desert – a compliment, but also a foretelling that he will cut her off from others, and then, in the space of paragraph, she is pregnant, married, they have moved to the country and a child is born.
Munro then returns us to Mrs Sands – after Doree’s third prison visit and their conversation – and we are circling around a trauma that has occurred but without ever mentioning it directly, and we are given Doree’s memory of her visit with Lloyd.
We then fall back, this time to five years ago. A third child is born and the slow slide into abuse suddenly accelerates in seven sentences and then it is immediately ‘resolved’ in the eighth:
She told him that her milk had dried up, and she’d had to start supplementing. Lloyd squeezed one breast after the other with frantic determination and succeeded in getting a couple of drops of miserable-looking milk out. He called her a liar. They fought. He said that she was a whore like her mother.
All those hippies were whores, he said.
Soon they made up.
             In the next section, Munro returns us to the present – although it’s a year from the story’s opening – and her first visit with Mrs Sands. These leaps in time can sometimes, as here, seem like leaps to safety. Munro could have continued with the slow disintegration of the marriage and the horror tale of abuse and finally the murders that result from it, but theses rushes forward (and away) also act like breathing spaces, times to pull back from what is becoming a sensational narrative. Here, Doree and Mrs Sands touch on God, redemption, and Hell. Doree can’t conceive  of an afterlife because the thought of her murdered children – what Munro here glosses as a ‘familiar impediment’ - is like ‘a hammer hitting her belly.’
But we must circle back to those familiar impediments, and the next section throws us back to the time when the children reach school age and it introduces Maggie – yet another adult who befriends Doree, this child-mother. Maggie provides a perspective on the story – on Lloyd – as  do the meetings with Mrs Sands  – and, through her, Doree begins to realise slowly and with shame:
…that there were things that she were used to that another person might not understand…The truth of things between them, the bond, was not something that anybody else could understand and it was not anybody else’s business. If Doree could watch her own loyalty it would be all right.
In the next four sections Munro foregoes the established rhythm, the counterpointing of Doree’s past and her present condition. Look at the opening sentences of these four sections and how their opening phrases meet the terrible actions they will record with significant bluntness, crashing through the 'familiar' impediments.
             It got worse gradually...
            And in fact it turned out as he had said…
            In the morning, Maggie drove her home…
            The verdict was that he was insane…
Yet even here, the narrative pace accelerates, Munro circles the violent events, writes with a seeming bluntness but then a respectful discretion, almost withdrawing from them even as she records them.
Doree is either driven from the house by Lloyd’s behaviour – it is made to seem like her decision, but we are not told what has triggered this exactly - and she spends the night with Maggie. It is another breathing space akin to those with Mrs Sands, but it is in this lull that the horror happens – off stage or off page, as it were.
Note the quietness with which Munro delivers this moment – and not once but thrice. A crasser writer would detail it and insist on the horror, but, look, there is no need: it is horror enough, isn’t it?
We get:
Dimitri still in his crib, lying sideways. Barbara Ann on the floor beside her bed, as if she’d got out or been pulled out. Sasha by the kitchen door—he had tried to get away. He was the only one with bruises on his throat. The pillow had done for the others.
“When I phoned last night?” Lloyd said. “When I phoned, it had already happened.
“You brought it all on yourself,” he said.
And then a section break that leap forward to give us Lloyd’s fate:
The verdict was that he was insane, he couldn’t be tried. He was criminally insane—he had to be put in a secure institution.
And an immediate switchback to the moment of horror, not seen by Doree, but by Maggie who, we are told bluntly, finds what she ‘expected to find’.
And then the next paragraph goes to Doree, and the paragraph acts like a special effects shot in a movie: a vivid close up that zooms out, then up and away in both time and place.
For some time Doree kept stuffing whatever she could grab into her mouth. After the dirt and grass it was sheets or towels or her own clothing. As if she were trying to stifle not just the howls that rose up but also the scene in her head. She was given a shot of something, regularly, to quiet her down, and this worked. In fact she became very quiet, though not catatonic. She was said to be stabilized. When she got out of the hospital and the social worker brought her to this new place, Mrs. Sands took over, found her somewhere to live, found her a job, established the routine of talking with her once a week. Maggie would have come to see her, but she was the one person Doree could not stand to see. Mrs. Sands said that that feeling was natural—it was the association. She said that Maggie would understand
Munro does not linger on the scene because Doree cannot. Munro circles it, as Doree will do, unable to face it directly, as who, involved in such a trauma, could.
We return to Mrs Sands. It is after the third prison trip. And only now do we get the reason for this last argument – the trigger for the terrible event: a dispute over a dented tin of spaghetti.
Two thirds of the way through, the story’s big event done with – at last in terms of covering it in the narrative – and the story’s progress through time begins to straighten like an arrow, but not quite, not yet.
There is a fourth and a fifth trip to the prison and then a letter from Lloyd.
The letter is a shift in the narrative point of view: we have had Lloyd as Doree has imperfectly seen him, Maggie's guess at his true nature, and how Mrs Sands encourages Doree to think of him, but this is our first direct contact.
His letter is less about loss and more about possession – the theme Munro so quietly establishes in the story’s third paragraph: he writes of other people’s materialism while he is intent on things of the  spirit,  on the good he has made out of grief, which is, he claims, self-knowledge, and he offers this to Doree who has so lacked knowledge of both herself and others, of him most crucially: this child woman dependent on and alone among adults.
The letter ends:
Doree, if you have read this far, there is one special thing I want to tell you about but cannot write it down. If you ever think of coming back here then maybe I can tell you.
What do you as a storyteller when your stories climactic events seem to have been delivered? You let your reader know that there is more.
Doree’s sixth visit to the prison has him withholding the story’s next twist – the unexpected ratchet, the turn of the screw we could not have anticipated, but it is delivered in the second letter
I will just say then: I have seen the children.
I have seen them and talked to them.
I say they exist, not they are alive, because alive means in our particular Dimension, and I am not saying that is where they are. In fact I think they are not. But they do exist and it must be that there is another Dimension or maybe innumerable Dimensions.
…Now I wish that you could be granted this chance as well because if it is a matter of deserving then you are way ahead of me. It may be harder for you to do because you live in the world so much more than I do but at least I can give you this information—the Truth—and in telling you I have seen them hope that it will make your heart lighter.
And Doree’s response:
Doree did think that he was crazy. And in what he had written there seemed to be some trace of the old bragging. She didn’t write back. Days went by. Weeks. She didn’t alter her opinion but she still held on to what he’d written, like a secret. And from time to time, when she was in the middle of spraying a bathroom mirror or tightening a sheet, a feeling came over her. For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers in bloom or the smell of a bakery. She still did not have that spontaneous sense of happiness, exactly, but she had a reminder of what it was like. It had nothing to do with the weather or flowers. It was the idea of the children in what he had called their Dimension that came sneaking up on her in this way, and for the first time brought a light feeling to her, not pain.
            It is in the final section that the arrow of time flies without swerving. We take it that Doree might now return to her husband – to become his again:
Who but Lloyd would remember the children’s names now, or the color of their eyes? Mrs. Sands, when she had to mention them, did not even call them children, but “your family,” putting them in one clump together.
Going to meet Lloyd in those days, lying to Laurie, she had felt no guilt, only a sense of destiny, submission.
And then she witnesses the accident. In the scale of things,  this is  a far lesser trauma that Doree witnesses but she does witness it – unlike the murder of the children – and so do we:
She was sitting on the front seat across from the driver. She had a clear view through the windshield. And that was why she was the only passenger on the bus, the only person other than the driver, to see a pickup truck pull out from a side road without even slowing down, to see it rock across the empty Sunday-morning highway in front of them and plunge into the ditch. And to see something even stranger: the driver of the truck flying through the air in a manner that seemed both swift and slow, absurd and graceful. He landed in the gravel at the edge of the pavement, on the opposite side of the highway...
How did he fly out of the truck and launch himself so elegantly into the air?...
A trickle of pink foam came out from under the boy’s head, near the ear. It did not look like blood at all, but like the stuff you skim off the strawberries when you’re making jam.
Doree crouched down beside him. She laid a hand on his chest. It was still. She bent her ear close. Somebody had ironed his shirt recently—it had that smell.
She is the one who saves the boy – and he is a boy, younger than she is - not the ‘adult bus driver’, not the passer by. She saves him with her knowledge given her by Lloyd: how to give CPR, how the tongue can block the breathing, how not to move the victim so you don’t injure the spinal cord, and -  the phrase is not given, is not needed – how to give the kiss of life.
           The story reaches it conclusion when Doree decides for herself at last her own direction. The bus moves on – to prison, to Lloyd - and Doree stays where she is. At last, she is moving on.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/interviews/int2001-12-14.htm