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Munro's "Might Haves"

Last weeks New Yorker contains a typically wonderful short story by Alice Munro. (Here it is; subscription required.) Haven tells the story of a young girl who is forced to live with her aunt and uncle for a year during the 1970s after her parents go off to teach in Ghana. The move from one household to another is a culture shock. The narrators parents, who lived in Vancouver before leaving for Africa, are liberal both in religion (they are Unitarians and believe, the girl says, that every person has his own idea of God) and in lifestyle: they encourage religious discussion, afford the women of the house a real voice, and generally maintain an environment of intellectual seriousness and physical disorder.Things are altogether different with Aunt Dawn and Uncle Jasper. There, grace is said before every meal, without fail. There, the house is clean and crisp, with bright sterling spoons and forks, polished dark floors, comforting linen sheets. There, gender roles are defined quite clearly. Jasper is a doctor, and Dawn is a housewife; he talks, and she listens; the house was his, the choice of menus his, the radio and television programs his, while the cleaning and the cooking are hers (with help from a maid named Bernice). At one point, the girl tries to sum up the feel of the household: Haven was the word. A womans most important job is making a haven for her man. Did Aunt Dawn actually say that? I dont think so. She shied away from statements. I probably read it in one of the housekeeping magazines I found in the house. Such as would have made my mother puke.In an essay trumpeting Munros brilliance, Jonathan Franzen praised the writers rhetorical restraint and her almost pathological empathy for her characters. Given these gifts, it should come as no surprise that Munro challenges the easy binariesliberal versus conservative, lively versus stultifiedlaid out above. We come to see that an orderly house could be quite agreeable, even if this agreeableness comes at a cost, and that charitable intentions can unwittingly hurt others. (As the narrator says, I had not approved of my parents going to Africa. I had objected to being dumpedmy word for itwith my aunt and uncle. I may even have told them, my long-suffering parents, that their good works were a load of crap.)Munro even succeeds in humanizing the bullying Jasper. At one point, after being served a dissatisfying meal, Jasper quietly expresses his disapproval and then makes himself a peanut butter sandwich: he had eaten [all of the meal] before pronouncing his verdict. So he was propelled not by hunger but by the need to make a statement of pure and mighty disapproval. This is Jasper at his worst, domineering and uncaring.But even here, Munro forces us to reconsider the situation: It occurs to me now that something might have gone wrong at the hospital that day, somebody might have died who wasnt supposed toperhaps the problem wasnt the food at all. But I dont think that occurred to Aunt Dawnor, if it did, she didnt let her suspicion show. She was all contrition. The conditionalmight haveis a distinctively Munrovian tense, and Haven is shot through with maybes and perhapses. Munros fiction is obsessed with what might have happened, both in the sense of lost opportunity (characters constantly think of how their lives might have turned out differently) and in the sense of the ultimate mystery of other people: we can never know what other people are thinking or feeling, a fact that should lead to sympathy and forgiveness.This isnt to say that Munro explains away all wrongdoing. Regardless of why Jasper reacted in the way he did, his actions hurt Dawn, and this is a fact that cant be ignored. Rather, Munro reminds us that people are more complexboth more culpable and more deserving of forgivenessthan we normally imagine. This is something that Munro's stories have been teaching us for a long time. "Haven" is further proof that Alice Munro is one of our best best living writers.

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Oh, my. Fiction is worthy if and only if it makes solemn social pronouncements, preferably looking down on an entire class of people.

Goodness gracious, David, your sarcasm is unbecoming. The whole point is that she's *not* looking down upon an entire class of people, that she's saying individuals are far more complex and interesting than we think. Munro writes with sympathy about urban people and rural people, liberals and conservatives, religious and non-religious. Munro isn't in the business of making social pronouncements, and she's less interested in making them than almost any writer I know.

Hmm. Guess I'd better read the piece, then. So far, I've managed to avoid her. Don't remember why, exactly. She's one of those writers into whose prose I've dipped far enough to know I'd find the rest unpleasant. But it's Lent - time to do penance, bit the bullet, drink bitter water.

Munro reminds us that people are more complexboth more culpable and more deserving of forgivenessthan we normally imagine. This is something that Munros stories have been teaching us for a long time.

To each his own, Anthony. But thanks for that introduction to Munro. I liked her writing a little better than I expected - it's workmanlike and fluid - but not enough to want to read any more. The empathy Franzen remarked on felt partial and forced, as though life for the narrator is a series of awkward lessons learned out of necessity and constraint, rather than easily and generously. It's a clinical empathy - maybe that's what Franzen means by "pathological". Also, there's no humanity in the story - everyone - even the absent parents - is a caricature.

You didn't read the piece? Come on. Look, David, if you can't be bothered to read the stuff you're commenting on, do us all a favor and keep quiet.

Yes, Grant, I read the piece. What the hell?

"Hmm. Guess Id better read the piece, then."Could this be the comment in contention between David and Grant? I would like to read the story--it has Unitarians!--but I have no subscription, so I have to wait until it's available through my college library's e-resources. Of tangential interest, one of my students is doing a term paper looking at attitudes about marriage as seen in movies about the 1950s ("Mona Lisa Smile," a couple of decades later than Munro's story) compared to ideas about "good wives" promulgated in contemporary ladies' magazines. The notion of the "haven" was certainly rampant among women in my mother's generation, though she and other Unitarian women felt that providing intellectual stimulation for their husbands by being well read, arranging to go to concerts, making crewel embroidery pillows and samplers, arranging flowers, and learning French or Japanese cooking was part of the package. My father's notion of a "haven" was coming home from the factory, getting in his beat-up International pick-up, installing fences or lawn sprinklers for fun and profit until it was too dark to see, eating fried baloney with horseradish sandwiches in front of "The Beverly Hillbillies," and watching Jonathan Winters on Jack Paar.Lesson learned: Women expend needless energy on man-havens. Maintain a nice assortment of lunchmeat, keep the TV in working order, don't talk during the news, provide large nightly quantities of goulash type skillet or casserole dishes, and maintain a reasonable level of cleanliness. Change things as little as possible, including your hairstyle. If you feel the need to be thanked, bake a bundt cake three or four times a year for no reason in particular (though a 12-pack of Ding-dongs with whipped cream in a can has about the same effect).

Lesson learned: Women expend needless energy on man-havens. Maintain a nice assortment of lunchmeat, keep the TV in working order, dont talk during the news, provide large nightly quantities of goulash type skillet or casserole dishes, and maintain a reasonable level of cleanliness. Change things as little as possible, including your hairstyle. If you feel the need to be thanked, bake a bundt cake three or four times a year for no reason in particular (though a 12-pack of Ding-dongs with whipped cream in a can has about the same effect).

None of that where I grew up. Maybe it was a Unitarian thing. We were Methodists.

Oh.

Sounds great, could that be a woman-haven, too? (My husband's the one home with the kids). I'm going to ask him to bake me a bundt.

Irene, I think it's high time for man-created woman-havens (different from the "feminized" churches where women have made their own havens that evangelical leaders like Chuck Colson like to complain about). Demand your bundt! And lemme know how that works out.