There was one streetlight, a tin flower; then the amenities gave up and there were dirt roads and boggy places, front-yard dumps and strange-looking houses. What made the houses strange-looking were the attempts to keep them from going completely to ruin. With some the attempt had never been made. They were gray and rotted and leaving over, falling into a landscape of scrub hollows, frog ponds, cattails, and nettles. Most houses, however, had been patched up with tarpaper, a few fresh shingles, sheets of tin, hammered-out stovepipes, even cardboard. This was, of course, in the days before the war, days of what would later be legendary poverty, from which Rose would remember mostly low-down things–serious-looking anthills and wooden steps, and a cloudy, interesting, problematical light on the world.
From “Royal Beatings,” by Alice Munro
The air is dusty, the rooms are filled with sensible cartons of canned goods, or empty of them. Inside, we have 2013 Nobel Prize Laureate Alice Munro‘s familiar narrator, Rose, and her stepmother, Flo, a woman of thirty, who might be a fine-boned, dark-haired brand of pretty if she belonged to a different social class, but instead is “monkeyish” and wears the bibbed aprons and loose calico dresses of a woman of seventy. In “Royal Beatings,” Flo and Rose are “poor, though not absolutely poverty-striken.” But Flo is hardened, immutable through time, a bolt of derision. “Ignoramuses,” Flo mutters, punishing the hubris of an airship for floating in the sky, and the foolishness of some old men for believing it to be manmade, not a celestial body. Flo scorns these kinds of haughty aspirations, and is especially scornful of Rose, in whom she senses a quiet strain of aspiration. Scorn lives in her Flo’s monkeyish face and drawn in the lines of her veins, which Munro describes as shaded along her legs as if with a pencil.
In Munro’s telling, the passage of time explains certain things, for example, creating the story of “legendary poverty in mid-century North America,” where before were simply the daily rooms and habits of youth, permitting questions like “The Royal Beatings. What got them started?” to arise as if from the linoleum presently being scrubbed. The rest is cobbled together: as for her mother, pair of egg cups and a secondhand story about her mother’s death, are all that Rose has to go on.
As in life, the shapes of Munro’s stories are unwieldy; the materials we have “to go on” aren’t always presented in a linear fashion. Rather, useful objects accrete. Stories overlap and remind us of how a person works, why something failed, what we keep forgetting. But we’re rarely certain. I imagine Munro’s layers of time as written on translucent sheets and stacked vertically, temporally sometimes, but more often, one sheet touches the face of the next according to the vertiginous logic of memory. The narrative moves, buoyant, over this clouded surface, dipping into many visible pasts, experienced or imagined.
While speaking to Flo about the local crime central to the story’s narrative occasion, Rose imagines her monkeyish stepmother’s life before she could have known her, before Rose was likely born. “All the outrages and sorrows jumbled up together in it,” Munro writes of this long life, thick, and cluttered, even at thirty.
Munro also makes tremendous leaps into the future, one of the reasons, perhaps, that Cynthia Ozick and others have compared Munro to Chekhov. And, like Gurov, like the Prózorov sisters, Rose, and the women like her of Munro’s oeuvre, jump into, and speak from, a wiser, grayer age beyond the narrative’s apparent frame. How does she move? Urgently, from the habitual to a precise moment, to a place of age, if not of understanding: “Years later, many years later,” Munro writes. Or: “One night after a scene like this…”
Sometimes, the habitual cracks:
And just as there is a moment, when you are drugged, in which you feel perfectly safe, sure, unreachable, and then without warning and right next to it a moment in which you know the whole protection has fatally cracked, though it is still preestnding to hold soundly together, so there is a moment now–the moment, in fact, when Rose hears Flo step on the stairs–that contains for her both present peace and freedom and a sure knowledge of the whole down-spiralling course of events from now on.
Munro’s moments of understanding aren’t so much epiphanies as they are recordings of our false starts and stops, our brief moments of clarity, our dreamy, hypothetical decisions. Life continues as it must, and her characters don’t usually find solutions to their pasts, but puzzle over what’s happened. Rose doesn’t kill herself or run away after this royal beating. Instead, she (retrospective narrator speaking in present tense, looking into a resigned future) “will understand that life has stared up again, that they will all sit around the table eating again, listening to the radio news.” But she’ll remember what happened, even if this story gathers dust with others like it, and is eventually retold in habitual language.
In Munro’s world of “legendary poverty,” Vancouver is a town very far away. Here, in West Hanratty, or another small town, is quiet, habitual, language that is precise, not lustrous, not ornate, but richly, generously committed to populating this world with words that take ordinary, square shapes on the page and read gently muted, but startle for their specific, imagistic, sharpness: “working with crayons on brown paper too torn or irregular to be used for wrapping.” Each object has a purpose, a history. The paper the child draws on is reused, and only permitted to be used for coloring if not suitable for wrapping the more necessary articles of the adult world. The rusted cans of varnish, the “intimate, babyish, humiliating smell” of cold cream, the showy, aspirational status of a Tin Roof sundae, faces that strip dignity with scorn, these objects, figure the early rooms of Rose’s life.
Rose finds pleasure in the textures of words unfamiliar to her : “It was not just the words snot and arsehole that gave her pleasure, though of course they did. It was the pickling and tying and the unimaginable Vancouvers. She saw them in her mind shaped rather like octopuses, twitching in the pan.” Certain words are brighter and less symmetrical than others, and these are the ones she wants. The twitching red octopuses scare and delight her. They might deliver punishment, a royal beating, or at least scorn. They’re from another world; they don’t belong to her. When Rose hears her father speaking strange poetry to himself in the work shed (“Macaroni, pepperoni, Botticelli, beans,” “the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces”) she’s drawn, moth-like, to the glow of these astonishing words. But she’s also ashamed. If her father should hear her, he’d be humiliated, and Rose would never be forgiven.
This shame and wonder is worn like a lens before the eye, a way of seeing the world. In Munro’s story “The Beggar Maid,” another, older, Rose, a scholarship student in her first semester at the university, watches a group of other scholarship students among whom she fears herself implicated.
It seemed to Rose that she saw four or five girls of the same stooped and matronly type as the girl who was beside her, and several bright-eyed, self-satisfied babyish-looking boys. It seemed to be the rule that girl scholarship winners looked about forty and boys about twelve. It was not possible, of course, that they all looked like this. It was not possible that in one glance through the windows of the door Rose could detect traces of eczema, stained underarms, dandruff, moldy deposits on the teeth and crusty flakes in the corners of the eyes. That was only what she thought. But there was a pall over them, she was not mistaken, there was a true terrible pall of eagerness and docility.
Hedging Rose’s perception with words phrases like “it seemed,” “it could not possibly be true,” Munro gives a sense not only of what Rose sees in the room, but how Rose see the world because of who she is. The world of the university, like so many other things, does not belong to Rose.
Michael Byers writes about the beauty of Munro’s imbedded “eye,” the literalization of a pall in this passage. He writes: “It’s true, these physical complaints are not what Rose has seen, not exactly. What she has seen is something else, something further, an impression of something, that she cannot really point to.” According to Byers, what Munro describes is, “Nothing less than the sense of how things are, a sudden, almost mystical understanding of the truth about these people.”
Many years later, in the same story, Rose considers the pantheon of her imperfect selves, past shames, old fears and hungers, a collection of bad habits learned from unwise adults, the memories held by objects–how does anyone approach decisions with any kind of clarity? After Rose has married and divorced her upper-class university boyfriend, Patrick, she spends years sorting over the reasons she got married in the first place:
What she never said to anybody, never confided, was that she sometimes thought it had not been pity or greed or cowardice or vanity but something quite different, like a vision of happiness. In view of everything else she had told she could hardly tell that. It seems very odd; she can’t justify it. She doesn’t mean that they had perfectly ordinary, bearable times in their marriage…but that sometimes, without reason or warning, happiness, the possibility of happiness, would surprise them. Then it was as if they were in different though identical-seeming skins, as if there existed a radiantly kind and innocent Rose and Patrick, hardly ever visible, in the shadow of their usual selves.
But of course, when they meet years later in the airport, the imagined kindness flees their skins, Patrick punishes Rose with a face of hateful scorn–a face like Flo used to make–and Rose is drawn back through time and space, to the dusty rooms she grew up in, when she was kind and innocent, but mostly, hungry, curious, and afraid.
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