Sunday, December 16, 2007

Alice Munroe's "The View From Castle Rock"

Alice Munroe is a genius, I think. I only know her most recent books, so I should read some of her earlier stories before I spout off, but for me she symbolizes the kind of writer who achieves terrific literary expertise late in life. Runaway, which I read earlier this year just before I started working on my own book, communicates so much maturity--finely honed expertise, wisdom based on experience, patience and confidence.

And those stories are packed. They do tons and tons of work in so little space. They remind me of the physical sensation of science experiments as a child when the teacher would have me pick up two objects that looked similar in shape and color. One would be made of lead and the other of cast aluminum. If you pick up the aluminum first, misjudging its weight your arm jerks into the air suddenly. Accustomed to the weight of the piece of cast aluminum, the lead wold feel surprisingly heavy. The point was to distinguish between volume and mass, each of them having equal volume but a different mass. The sense of anticipating helped drive the point home. Alice Munroe's stories are like that--you start out reading them anticipating the cast aluminum and discover they have a lot more mass to them than that.

I just got done reading her most recent book, The View From Castle Rock. What's interesting to me about this book is the form. It's so unusual a form that I think the people who wrote the book jacket didn't really get it and ended up misleading. Again I was anticipating something a lot different.

For one thing, the jacket describes it as stories, and since she's known a short story writer, I figured it was another collection of short stories. Not at all--it's a single complete narrative in two parts.

What's interesting about the form is that it is a mixture of documentary/history, invented history and personal memoir, and which parts are invented and which parts are true don't follow any traditional compact between writer and reader. It all adds up to the a kind of family history. It starts with Scots so many generations back that they are at the transition from folklore with fairies and haunted woods to the kind of written records where the names of relatives can be found. Where no record exists, Munroe fills in the gaps with vivid narrative speculations. At the generations pass and her ancestors immigrate to "America"--eastern Canada, Illinois and Ontario--the surviving written record begins to accumulate, but the reader can't tell if these are actual or if they are also Munroe's inventions. Effectively warned not to take any direct report for granted, by the time the action moves into the narrator's lifetime and what she witnesses it's impossible to tell in what sense this is memoir or still "stories" in the usual sense of the word.

One of the points, I assume, is that they are all stories regardless of their accuracy or regardless of how much they are based on invention versus memory.

So, for purely technical reasons, the book is interesting for that experiment in form.

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