The New Yorker

Story Playlist 32: Signs and Symbols

Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols” (1948) It’s a little depressing when arguably the best modern prose writer in the English language is a Russian. Perhaps there’s something to be said for writing in a foreign language, for the language feels fresh and new to the writer, a series of signs and symbols to be deployed without the weight of over-familiarity dragging the words down or making them feel recycled? Whatever you think about Nabokov, the dude can write.

“Signs and Symbols” is as good an example of his mastery as any, not only of prose, turning ordinary words into inky butterflies, but also of his ability to sketch character with a few strokes of his typewriter/brush, and his injection of dread into normal-seeming situations. I’ve already written of how much I enjoy the feeling of dread—the way it propels stories, no matter their genre. A tale needn’t be a thriller to use a sense of foreboding to the writer’s advantage. Nabokov does not write thrillers, but his literary character studies thrill with a certain general menace.

This story, first published in The New Yorker in 1948, follows an elderly immigrant couple in New York who plan to visit their son on his birthday. The son has been confined in a sanitarium for years, as he suffers from a mental disorder in which he thinks that all of the natural world is speaking to him, and about him, in a coded language that he must decipher. It’s a lot like paranoid schizophrenia, as described, but it also seems a great literary disease because it immediately prompts the reader to understand that everything happening in the story, the grace notes of details that we might easily pass over, may have a hidden symbolic meaning for us to discover: that everything in the story might be “signs and symbols.”

Nabokov stories regularly feature ex-pat characters, exiles much as Nabokov was himself. An elderly Belarussian couple, who were important back home, must now rely on the largesse of a more-established uncle. Without extensive details, Nabokov is able to paint the back story of his characters, the little rituals of their life together, a life that has passed through astonishing changes. We feel just how worn down the couple is, not sure how to deal with their beloved son, whose condition was indulged as artistic up to a point it passed long ago. When they arrive at the sanitarium, carrying a basket of fruit jams as a gift, they learn that the son has, again, tried to kill himself, and that it might be better if they did not visit him that day.

The couple returns home, but the father cannot sleep. That night he bursts into the living room in his bathrobe and announces to the mother that their son must not remain at the sanitarium, that they should bring him home. The mother acquiesces, and they make plans to bring him home the next morning. But then the phone rings, though the hour is late. When the mother picks up, though her English is not strong, she understands that the caller is asking for Charlie, and must therefore have the wrong number. There is a kick of dread in the late-night phone call, for such calls are rarely the bearers of good news. We are relieved when it was a wrong number. But then the phone rings again. It is the same woman, asking for Charlie. Again, she is told that it is the wrong number. Then the phone rings a third time…

By that time we fear that it is the right number, that perhaps the mother has misunderstood, and that news has come that their son has killed himself—just before he would have come home. But none of this is made explicit, and it is the stronger for it. If an author can plant just what he wants to plant in the minds of his reader, essentially trick them into thinking what he wants them to think, without having to write it out explicitly, then he wields a powerful tool. Like the best teachers, who do not tell students the answer and expect them to memorize it, but help lead students to the answer themselves, the best writers likewise set up the situation and allow the reader to complete it for them. Of course, with an author as slippery as Nabokov, the actual intention might be quite different, for if he wanted us to understand only one possible interpretation, he would have written it that way. We are told what the caller says, seemingly without distortion.  Do we assume the unanswered third call is the same caller? Why?

The point of the story could be said to be the recreation in the reader of something like the “referential mania” the unnamed son suffers from. Then again, knowing Nabokov, there is likely a story behind the story that only someone who knows the code can read. Nabokov told New Yorker editor Katharine White, in a letter: “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.” In that second story, the phone call might simply be the random wrong number it seems to be, and some other detail in the story, easily overlooked, is more essential to the story's meaning.

When reading Nabokov, one feels in the hands of a great master, much like listening to a virtuoso violinist in concert. Knowing that we are in skillful hands, all we need do is remain attentive. All the “signs and symbols” are there in the beautiful riddle Nabokov has painted for us are there. It’s up to us to finish the puzzle.

Story Playlist 16: Graven Image

John O’Hara: “Graven Image” (1943) It takes a man’s man to admit that he doesn’t understand something, especially when the man in question—me—is a professor. But I don’t understand as much as I’d like to about the stories of the scandalously under-sung John O’Hara, but I love them, admire them, and want desperately to know more.

O’Hara is all too little-known, but was a stalwart of New Yorker fiction, beginning in the 1920s and into the 1960s; in fact it’s been claimed he “invented the New Yorker story.” Of his longer fiction, he is best known for his novel, Appointment in Samarra, which sounds exotic (I read it expecting some sort of international spy novel), but is actually about the intrigues among patrician socialite couples in suburban American—also an exotic locale, but not quite what I had in mind. O’Hara’s fiction balances on a tightrope, telling you just enough to figure out what he means (most of the time), offering up a puzzle with about 80% of the pieces filled in, and leaving it to the reader to imagine how the rest of it should look. As I read his stories I understand their subtlety, their nuance, the layers of information conveyed (if you know how to read them), but I’m also aware that I have to work to understand them, and I rarely feel that I “get” them 100%. This is the opposite of beach-reading. It’s more of a hike, but one with spectacular views during your ascent.

There is little razzle-dazzle in O’Hara’s worlds. Nothing supernatural or macabre, no murders, no heists. He paints chessboards of social interaction, specifically, social interaction in the post-war-to-Mad Men era of New York and its environs. His characters are defined by the schools they attended and their social milieu. They duel with words and jockey for power, cut each other down, and hunt in packs.

“Graven Image” is an exemplary O’Hara story, bullet-sized (a slender three pages). The setting is during FDR’s wartime cabinet. An unnamed Under-Secretary, described simply as a “little man,” meets with Browning, a former Harvard classmate, who lunches with him in hopes of asking him for a job with the administration, even though Browning is a Republican. Over the course of lunch, we realize that the Under-Secretary comes from a lower social class than does Browning, who was a member of the elitist Porcellian Club at Harvard. Club members carry a gilded pig, the “graven image” of the title, as a symbol of their past membership, and it is said to open doors. The Under-Secretary would have liked to have been a member, but was never invited, and is still sore about it.

Browning manages to charm the Under-Secretary during lunch, playing to the “little man’s” ego, to the point where the Under-Secretary is prepared to call in a few favors and get Browning the job he seeks. Browning is thrilled and they toast to celebrate, the Under-Secretary sipping a cordial, Browning downing half his Scotch. Loosened by the drink and the good news, Browning admits that he had been nervous about asking the Under-Secretary for help because of the Porcellian issue. Then he lets slip: “I don’t know why fellows like you—you never would have made it in a thousand years, but …” And without looking up from his drink, Browning realizes he’s put his foot in his mouth, and says the now-famous line, “but I’ve said exactly the wrong thing, haven’t I?” Indeed he has, as the Under-Secretary replies, before leaving. Browning has lost the chance at the job, and the Under-Secretary leaves, “all dignity.”

Along the way, O’Hara treats us to a series of hidden codes, hidden in plain sight. The doorman at the restaurant where Browning and the Under-Secretary dine is the victim of a version of special privilege on the part of the Under-Secretary, and gets a passive-aggressive revenge, mirroring the later incident over lunch. The doorman asks the Under-Secretary how long he will be, stating that if he won’t be long then he’d allow his driver to keep the car in the crescent driveway, rather than obliging him to park it. The Under-Secretary, rather pretentiously, replies “Leave it there anyway.” The doorman later mumbles to himself, “It was a long time coming. It took him longer than most, but sooner or later all of them …” And then O’Hara cuts him off.

We must infer what he is talking about. My best guess is that the doorman refers to people in positions of power who start out nice and humble, but eventually grow into their big britches. Perhaps the Under-Secretary was kind and deferential to staff in the past, but has since become just as haughty as those Porcellian members the Under-Secretary felt alienated from. There is also the suggestion that the alienation from an elitist club forced a reaction in the Under-Secretary to batten down his own hatches and alienate others in retaliation. These subtle tugs-of-war are the arrows in O’Hara’s quiver, and the puzzles he lays out. His narrative voice never explains away what’s going on. He always shows, rather than tells, and expects the patient and thoughtful reader to figure out the rest.

The outstanding puzzle is just what about the Under-Secretary made it impossible for him ever to be admitted to the Porcellian. I first thought that the Under-Secretary must be Jewish, as Harvard only occasionally accepted Jews before they, like other Ivy League schools, turned over a new leaf and focused on diversifying their student body. The Porcellian very occasionally accepted Jews, and it was not until 1983 that the first black student was accepted, and that was only because he had studied at the elite prep school, St. Paul’s. The Porcellian, founded in 1791, lost much of its Boston Brahmin influence around the turn of the last century, but it was still a bastion of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, like Browning. Whether the Under-Secretary could “never in a thousand years” have been accepted at the club because he was Jewish, possibly because he was Catholic, or simply because he came from a working-class background, is not clear.

Which non-WASP social group does Browning mean, when he says “fellows like you?” The answer is probably buried in the text of “Graven Image,” but it is a buried treasure I was unable to unearth. But with O’Hara’s stories, the process of digging in the ground is such intelligent fun that the occasional gold coin that remains buried beyond our reach is par for the course—it means we have something to dig for, to read for.

I'm Taking My Sharpie and I'm Drawing a Line: Tessa Hadley and Deborah Eisenberg

Yesterday I had a tiny epiphany when I finally got around to looking at a recent issue of The New Yorker: that after years and years of basically ignoring the fiction in this fine magazine -- to which I have have subscribed religiously since I was 18 years old -- there is, finally, a writer of short stories whose work I actively look for in the table of contents. I can remember the first writer whose work made me pay attention to The New Yorker at all: Deborah Eisenberg. My mother was the person who brought her to my attention. It was the story, “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris.” My mother handed me the magazine one day, after school, and said, “I bet you’d like this.” She was right. The story about Laurel losing her sight, and her weird interactions with this older guy, Chris, who was sort of awful yet kind at the same time, was the most amazing thing I’d read since, I don’t know, the novels of Norma Klein. It was like reading Norma Klein, actually, but more subtle, and compressed, and more realistic, to me. Grittier. I became a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg’s and when her first collection of stories came out I bought it immediately; I read it so many times the edges of the pages have grown soft.

While I fell in love with other writers after that, and to be honest, fell sort of out of love with Eisenberg’s work (I should just revisit it, though -- I am positive that the fault lies not with her but with me), the fiction in The New Yorker, over time, became something I just had no feeling for. I wish I could put my finger on exactly why. It’s true that my tastes in fiction are extremely limited -- I am the most provincial of readers, only interested in a certain type of writing, set in a certain kind of place -- but it’s also true that the magazine seemed to deliberately become a haven for the exact opposite of what I was looking for. So it was easy for me to glance at the author’s name and dismiss it: Not my kind of thing. I’m not looking to be depressed, or enlightened, or educated, when I read fiction (that’s what non-fiction is for, I guess, is my feeling). The multiculturalism that The New Yorker embraced left me cold -- though I think that, in a larger sense, it was a beneficial shift for the magazine and for readers in general. That it didn’t appeal to me personally wasn’t a problem for me; much of the rest of the magazine still did, after all.

So: All well and good: I was still someone who’d read The New Yorker every week and inevitably think some essay or other was great but completely zip past the fiction.

Until Tessa Hadley.

I remember reading “An Abduction” while sitting at the playground, keeping one eye on my daughter, praying I wouldn’t have to get up and help her so I could finish the story. I finished it and immediately re-read it. I cannot remember the last time I did that.

And yesterday, as I was reading “Valentine,”  it hit me forcefully that what Deborah Eisenberg was doing in the mid-1980s, Tessa Hadley is doing now. And I want to say -- forcefully -- that I do not mean that to sound insulting, or to pooh-pooh what Hadley’s work is about or how it’s done. What I mean is the best possible thing: which is that where Eisenberg left off, or left me off, anyhow, Hadley has picked up, and continued to write about these people with the same kind of eye. There’s a precision about it, capturing the sense of emotional wandering, the “I’m trying to figure this shit out, leave me alone while I figure this shit out, ok?” that every young person has. (Maybe not every young person, but a lot of them, certainly. The ones I liked, anyhow, when I was one of them myself.) Hadley, like Eisenberg, isn’t patronizing toward her young protagonists. She’s not writing pat little stories about teenagers to capture a lost innocence; she’s capturing those precise moments when things are teetering one way or another, and she’s doing it without moralizing -- almost wryly -- and she has a certain economy in her sentences that does so much with so little. The stories about older people, too, have this same quality of precision. To make a fast sloppy comparison: Where T.C. Boyle -- who also often has stories in the magazine -- is an entertaining if pedantic guest at the cocktail party (bombastic and full of pyrotechnics -- the showmanship is completely unavoidable, and it can be fun but it can also be overwhelming), Eisenberg and Hadley are shyer guests. They share this quality, this sense of smart people who’re maybe more shy than is good for them, sitting quietly in the corner, taking notes in shorthand that they expand ever so slightly to build the stories later, after they’ve gotten home from the dreaded cocktail party. And the stories are just as crafted and tight as Boyle’s, but without the baroque flourishes -- more Russel Wright, perhaps, in tone. And it’s easy to overlook Wright, because he’s not gaudy, but the stuff is beautiful nonetheless.

A tiny bit of internet research indicates that both Eisenberg and Hadley are felt to be “unfairly neglected” or underrated writers, and that may be true, but I, for one, esteem them very highly, and the way I once drew lines in my head between the works of one writer to another -- in college, I drew lines from Jane Austen to Edith Wharton to Dorothy Parker, which was very tedious, but that’s college for you -- I am now drawing a big, fat, black line, with a Sharpie, between Deborah Eisenberg and Tessa Hadley. Hadley’s “Valentine” is apparently a portion of a novel she’s planning to publish soon, and let me tell you, I will probably buy that one the moment I see it, in hardcover, just as I did Eisenberg’s Transactions in a Foreign Currency. I cannot wait.

Kindling The Creative Fire: Alice Munro's Two Versions of "Wood"

Awano: You sometimes write stories about the act of writing itself.  Could “Wood” be read as a story about writing? Munro: That’s very interesting, and I don’t mind the idea at all.  I don’t write that way, but…

Awano: But you read that way.

Munro: And I do write as if clearly ordinary events are tremendously important, because that’s the way they seem to me.

From “The Tremendous Importance of Ordinary Events: An Interview with Alice Munro about two versions of ‘Wood,’” by Lisa Dickler Awano, New Haven Review


[T]he triumph of my life is that none of the environments I found myself in prevailed over me.

-- Alice Munro, from Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro, by Sheila Munro


Alice Munro writes about the ordinary outsider—the unhappy housewife, the child born with a large purple birthmark on his face, the Alzheimer’s patient, the small town protagonist who can’t or won’t fit into the community’s narrow perceptions of normalcy—and examines how that character—who may never stop longing for societal approval—does and doesn’t challenge convention, does and doesn’t risk rejection by peers, does and doesn’t act on desires to live a larger life than the one society offers.  Intriguingly, Munro's theme also applies to the lives of writers and the workings of the creative process, as an “outsider” mental experience that illuminates, deludes, cooperates and confounds, but which will never be reined in by the confines of practical, rational, repressive thought.

As a writer, Munro is known to be a tireless self-editor who will often continue to rewrite and revise her stories, even after they have been accepted for publication. “Wood,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1980, is a good example.  After nearly thirty years, Munro returned to this story.  The second version of “Wood” has been published in Too Much Happiness, Munro’s most recent collection of stories.

When the two versions are placed side by side, readers can see with what poetic precision Munro revised both large details, such as characterizations, themes and perspectives, and small ones—a rhythmic syllable here, a conjunction or punctuation mark there—as she shifted the point-of-view of the characters from middle-age to older, and heightened the story’s lyricism.  Like many of Munro’s stories, “Wood” is set in “Munro Country,” the Huron County farmlands of southwestern Ontario—“Sowesto,” as the Canadian locale is popularly known—where the author came of age and has lived much of her life.  While growing up in this practical-minded community, she played down her creative ambition so she would appear to fit in better with her peers.  Even as an adult, the author has said, she has lived a double life—that of a writer on the one hand, and a working-for-a-living wife, mother and community member on the other.  Similarly, she often writes a “double story” of sorts; shaping her universal literature from the overlooked lives of seemingly ordinary people, while all the while, directly or obliquely, writing about the process of writing fiction and the issues faced by writers as individuals and as members of society.

Munro’s literary protagonists don’t always appear to be engaged in literary work. They may be, for example, craftsmen like Roy, the protagonist of both versions of “Wood,” who is a happily married sign painter in the first version of the story, and an upholsterer and re-finisher of furniture in the second.  Some of the protagonists in these stories are akin to her real-life father, Robert Laidlaw, who began writing when he was around seventy years old, after a lifetime of supporting his family through physical labor.  Doppelgängers abound in Munro’s work, tying characters together across stories and collections, and when father and daughter characters appear together, they often appear to be doubles.

Laidlaw’s historical novel, The McGregors, which included descriptions of tree cutting, was published in 1979, three years after his death at age seventy-four.  Although a lifelong reader, he suffered from “natural Laidlaw timidity,” (Munro, S., 105), and was torn between his creative individuality and his desire for acceptance from his rural community.  He, like his daughter, described himself as having lived a double life.  At fourteen, he dropped out of high school, and became a trapper and fisher in the bush, thereby avoiding his father’s more locally sanctioned path of farming.

To put Laidlaw’s choice in context, one might read Munro’s memoirish story, “Working for a Living,” in which she describes the trees in the bush as community outsiders, so to speak, relegated to fringes of farmland:

There was no more wild country in Huron County then (in the first quarter of the 20th century) than there is now. Perhaps there was less.  The farms had been cleared in the period between 1830 and 1860, when the Huron Tract was being opened up, and they were cleared thoroughly.  Many creeks had been dredged—the progressive thing to do was to straighten them out and make them run like tame canals between the fields.  The early farmers hated the very sight of a tree and admired the look of open land.  And the masculine approach to the land was managerial, dictatorial.  Only women were allowed to care about landscape and not to think always of its subjugation and productivity. (“Working for a Living,” 130 )

Laidlaw later supported his wife and three children through fox and mink farming, and raised the animals in an intricate system of pens he designed and built behind the family home.  Similarly, in “Wood:”

Roy’s workshop is in a shed behind the house.  It is heated by a woodstove, and getting the fuel for the stove has led him to another interest, which is private but not secret.  That is, everybody knows about it but nobody knows how much he thinks about it or how much it means to him. (Too Much Happiness, 226; slightly different in New Yorker, 46)

The trees Roy seeks out for cutting are those that logging firms have rejected as not being useful or beautiful.  Roy looks for treetops left behind after logging, or trees targeted by the “forest management people” for removal, because they are “diseased or crooked or no good for lumber.” (TMH, 229; New Yorker, 46)

The physical setting in “Wood,” as in all of Munro's fiction, is psychologically revealing.  Descriptions in her stories serve a narrative purpose; what may appear to be a gratuitous diversion in fact propels a complex plot in ways that readers may not at first consciously detect.  Early in both versions of  “Wood,” a long passage describes trees in the Sowesto bush: ironwood, cherry, apple, ash, maple, beech, and oak.  At first glance, this cataloging may seem to contribute only atmosphere to the story.  But as Roy reflects on the trees’ appearances—the maple trees, for example, “always look like the common necessary tree in the backyard,” and the oak trees, “always look like trees in storybooks,” with “intricate surface(s), and the devilish curling and curving of the branches” (TMH, 230; slightly different in New Yorker, 47)—and as he contemplates how they grow and behave and make him feel, they become stand-ins for members of his community.  They remind us of characters we have met in Munro’s oeuvre who reappear in different manifestations from story to story, linking Munro’s works across the span of her sixty-year career.  And the trees as characters demonstrate Munro’s structural use of metamorphosis to achieve narrative compression; how she may use a symbol to convey a variety of meanings in the space of one story; or—as exemplified by Munro’s depiction of Lea, in the second version of “Wood,”—how her characters turn sharp narrative corners that cause them to react and change, more than once in a story, to the point of personal transformation.  Through such devices, Munro achieves, in short fiction, a range of events and a degree of character evolution that is novelistic in scope.

The creative protagonist in Munro’s stories, like the author herself and her father before her, leads a double life.  Publicly, Munro’s protagonist tries to satisfy the expectations of his community, influenced by a Scots-Presbyterian ethos that prizes highly controlled—or “useful”—pursuits like farming, so as not to be ostracized for challenging cultural “rules” of his small town.  This society scorns “fanciful” isolated interests, like wandering in the woods and harvesting wildlife or, by metaphoric extension, investigating the unrestrained, unconscious thoughts and feelings of human beings through the writing of fiction.  And it frowns upon those who draw attention to their own achievements: “Who Do You Think You Are?” is the title of Munro’s story in which a teacher punishes a student for “showing off” her academic skills to her class and mildly challenging the instructor’s authority. Accordingly, the artist must be discreet about her pursuit of the solitary, self-centered goal of discovering a unique voice or an aesthetic sensibility to fulfill a personal potential that serves no one and nothing other than the artist’s own vision.

The relationship between creativity and solitude is a recurring Munrovian theme.

[I]n a way [Roy’s] thoughts about wood are too private—they are covetous and nearly obsessive.  He has never been a greedy man in any other way …. Even what is worthless for his purposes will interest him …. He would like to get a map in his mind of every bush he sees, and though he might justify this by citing practical purposes, that wouldn’t be the whole truth. (TMH, 232; somewhat different in New Yorker, 48)

Munro’s daughter Sheila remembers that in the latter 1950’s, when the family moved into a home that reflected their upward mobility in West Vancouver, “[t]ucked away in the darkest corner of my parent’s dark bedroom [was] a small table with a typewriter on it.  That is where my mother [wrote]” (Munro, S., 47).

In the second version of “Wood,” Roy and his wife Lea manifest seemingly opposite impulses toward independence and togetherness that suggest conflicting desires coexisting within many of us.  Roy’s wife, who is initially a more outgoing person than he is in both versions, (in the second version she changes once she becomes ill), enjoys large family gatherings and working in a dentist’s office, where, in the second rendering of “Wood,” she is a “receptionist and bookkeeper” (TMH, 226). Munro loves word play, and as a “receptionist”—perhaps by metaphoric extension—Lea can be seen as a “receiver” of Roy’s and her community-members’ anecdotes or stories, as many members of Munro’s paternal family have been for generations.  For example, Scottish ancestor, Margaret Hogg, (mother of James Hogg, who wrote Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and was an acquaintance of both Wordsworth and Byron), recited ballads she had learned from her father and others to Sir Walter Scott for inclusion in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Munro, S., 176).

Alice Munro herself has been a “bookkeeper” in various ways: always a writer, she has also been a librarian, and during her married-with-children years in Vancouver, she and her husband founded the still thriving “Munro’s” bookstore, where, her daughter Sheila tells us, “for the first time in her life, [Munro] could encounter the outside world with confidence...listen to people’s stories and then conveniently go home.”  At the bookstore, Munro developed social ease, as her father had done in his mid-thirties, among fellow workers at a foundry, and Sheila says of them both: “It was a huge relief, a liberation, to find oneself socially acceptable after all, after years of seeking to avoid some imagined humiliation” (Munro, S., 189-190).

In both versions of “Wood,” the “quiet” Roy works alone (TMH, 225, 227; New Yorker, 46). In the later take on the story, he once thought he might teach his trade to his wife’s niece—and this is implied in the first version as well, in which Roy and his wife helped to raise the girl.  But the niece has made different choices—and other choices have been made for her—and Roy enjoys solitude in his shed and in the forest.  In the 1980 version he is a painter of signs – or perhaps metaphorically speaking, of symbols, or mysteries; “the only one in this part of the country, and he gets more business than he can handle” (New Yorker, 46). The signs that farmers ask him to paint for their gates represent fictionalized views of modern farm life—such as animals set against backdrops of rolling hills—when in fact the livestock are raised in tight enclosures devoid of sunlight.

In the 2009 version Roy is an upholsterer and re-finisher of “furniture”—the outlooks, artifacts, and memories that furnish the cultural history of his society.   “He will also take on the job of rebuilding chairs and tables that have lost some rungs or a leg, or are otherwise in a dilapidated condition.  There aren’t many people doing that kind of work anymore…” the intimate third-person narrator notes (TMH, 225), perhaps commenting on the current decline in fiction writing in our society, as well as our cultural propensity to worship youth and perfection, and reject or replace what is broken or imperfect.

Munro, the constant re-writer, reinterprets, as does Roy, the signs and mysteries of the first version of “Wood” from her later-life perspective, and she literally “refinishes” the first take on the story by writing a new ending.   The author’s interest in re-imagining stories appears in various ways throughout her work.  Across stories and story collections, there exist many connections between Munro’s characters.  Situational templates, such as that of the protagonist who works alone in a shed behind the house, or that of a character who develops an all-consuming illness, reappear in ever-changing guises.  In each variant, the protagonist makes different and surprising choices that lead to the twists and turns of plot that uniquely drive the narrative toward its equivocal ending.

This manner of “refinishing” stories also illustrates Munro’s fascination with questions of memory, and her observation that we constantly rewrite the stories of our lives, at different times and from different perspectives, whether retelling them to ourselves or others.

Home furnishings are a recurring motif in Munro’s work—she often describes the contents of a room by way of revealing character and furthering narrative while setting the scene—and one of the questions she examines in her story “Family Furnishings” is the moral price of writing fiction.  This symbolism may have its source in Munro’s early years, during which her mother expressed her longing for beautiful things in part by trading fox furs for elegant furniture and fittings that the family couldn’t afford and didn’t value (Munro, S., 155).  Often Munro will describe characters’ possessions in specific detail to illustrate their psychological and social pretensions, contrasting these social fronts with the complex, ungovernable issues and emotions that lie beneath the surface.

Munro has said that she aims to “get as close as [she] can” in her writing to “what [she] see[s] as reality—the shifting complex reality of human experience” (Thacker, 334). Whenever the protagonist or reader lands on what seems a conclusive point-of-view in a Munro story, it is soon challenged by an equal and opposite perspective.  Characters confound their own, each other’s and the readers’ expectations, setting up psychological complications and narrative tensions that feel authentic.

Particularly in the 2009 version of the story, Roy and Lea’s marriage seems a close one, even though, in both versions of the story, Roy’s wife’s family has “limited interest” in him, for he’s a seemingly useless outsider: he isn’t a blood relative, he and his wife haven’t “contributed” birth children to the clan, and he “[isn’t] like themselves” (TMH, 227, New Yorker, 46). Yet in the second version, Roy and Lea “both [feel] that they [mean] more to each other, somehow, than couples who [are] overrun with children.” (TMH, 227).

Even so, in both versions of the story, Roy needs solitude, whether he works in his shed or in the wood.  In the earlier version, when he finds himself in trouble in the bush—alone, injured and fighting for his life—his anxious, fragmented thoughts turn to his wife’s niece and to his wife herself, and he seems simultaneously struck by both his worry and love for his family, and by the general incomprehensibility and inexplicability of human relationships.  He tells himself that “[n]obody knows what anybody else is thinking about or how anybody else is feeling …. Nobody knows how others see themselves,” and it seems unclear whether this is a wholeheartedly dismayed conviction about the limited ability of human beings to connect, or whether it is partly a rationalization that he uses to ease his fear and guilt about the possibility that he may not make it out of the wood and back home to continue to contribute to his family’s well being (New Yorker, 54).

In the second take on the story, in which Roy’s wife Lea develops depression, her illness seems to make it impossible for husband and wife to connect even when they are physically together.  Before Roy has his life-endangering accident, he turns to the depressed Lea and tries to communicate his fears to her, but feels she isn’t “paying any real attention.”  He thinks to himself that she’s “[m]issing the point.  But isn’t that what wives do—and husbands probably the same—around fifty percent of the time?” (TMH, 237).

And yet, at the end of the second version, we discover that Lea—even under the lid of her depression—has understood Roy’s needs better than either he or she consciously realized.  She surprises them both when she shows up in the wood to help save him when he needs her most.  Roy, in turn, is then surprised once more—this time by his own uncomfortable mixture of emotions as he allows his wife to assist him.

In Munro’s stories, the trouble that characters get into is partly self-inflicted.  In “Wood,” Roy’s first mistake is that he “thinks that there is very little danger in going tree cutting alone if you know what you are doing” (TMH, 230; New Yorker, 47). Roy’s view of nature as a predictable, humanly subduable force has no place in Munro’s Ontarian-Gothic world, in which 19th-century homesteaders were battered and scarred—physically and psychologically—by snowstorms and disease, and where “people can take a fit like the earth takes a fit” (“Fits,” 126 ). Roy’s underestimation—or denial—of the dangers of the earthly and the psychological wildernesses will threaten his life.

The expectations that protagonists and their fellow community members have for themselves and force upon one another loom large in Munro’s fiction, and the author charts her characters’ reactions when, for better or worse, an outcome takes them by surprise.  One day, after the first snow, Roy is in the forest looking over some girdled trees that he has verbally agreed, with the farmer who owns them, to cut down.  While there, he runs into Percy, a squatter, who has heard talk that this job has been promised to someone else, and that the lumber will go to the nearby River Inn, a hotel that caters to tourists and burns a “cord [of wood] a day…for show” (TMH, 234, 236; New Yorker, 49, 51). Roy and Percy imagine the dehumanizing, wasteful “big outfit” (TMH, 235) that may put Roy out of business.  As ever, in both versions of “Wood,” Munro explores the impact of contemporary commerce on rural communities, and touches on her mystical, Wordsworth-influenced feeling about the natural countryside in which she grew up, which, she has told me in interviews, replaced religion for her in her girlhood.  Also at a young age, Munro was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, with its unreliable narrator.  Untrustworthy characters such as Percy, and folklorish characters, such as fairies, appear in various guises in Munro’s work, simultaneously attracting and repelling, or even horrifying the protagonist, leading him through delusion—or self-delusion—to sudden insight and revelation.

Major problems in Munro’s stories often result when a minor incident blows up into a serious matter.  Vacillating between believing Percy and dismissing his story as embroidered rumor, Roy returns home, and over the course of the day he makes the second mistake that will put his life at risk: he underestimates his own value. A victim of his own lack of confidence, he allows his conversation with this gossip to overtake his imagination.  Perhaps “Wood” here can be read as “Would”—as if Roy’s own self-doubt were holding him back from achieving his desired goal.  Convinced, without any outside confirmation, that he isn’t the chosen one, that he has lost the job to some company with which he can’t compete, he rushes to the bush the next day to beat his competitor to the take.

A Munrovian character’s life can change suddenly in a geographical setting that mirrors the psychological action taking place.  After parking his truck on the trail leading into the forest, Roy walks hurriedly toward the trees, muttering aloud to himself, imagining he is confronting his rival, and paying no heed to the lightly falling snow and the slippery leaves on the complex terrain underfoot.  In his distracted condition, he contemplates the untamed bush.   He remembers having recently read that the roughness of the wood’s floor dates back to just after the Ice Age, when “ice formed between layers of earth and pushed it up into odd humps….Where the land has not been cleared and worked the humps remain.”  But emotionally unbalanced as he is, he makes no connection between this memory and his present danger; he can’t hear his own subconscious voice warning him about the uncanny, Gothic wilds that surround him physically and psychologically (TMH, 238-9; slightly different in New Yorker, 52).

What happens to Roy now is the most ordinary and yet the most unbelievable thing, something that might happen to a “daydreamer” or a tourist, but hardly to one so experienced in the bush: he “steps carelessly,” then skids in the snow, plunges through brush, and falls, breaking his ankle (TMH, 239; New Yorker, 52-3). He manages to hold his saw at a distance from his body as he goes down, but he hurts himself when he flings his ax away; its handle hits the knee of his twisted leg.  Finding that he can’t walk or even stand up, “[h]e lets himself down as easily as he can and hauls himself around into the track of his bootprints, which are now filling with snow” (TMH, 240; slightly different in New Yorker, 53).

Roy has been crippling himself throughout the story; through his low self-image; through his insistence that nature is a controllable universe; through his deafness to his own intuition.  Munro’s protagonists often have to feel their way through their difficulties before they can understand them rationally.  Paradoxically, Roy’s shortcomings provide him with the complication that leads him to opportunity: forced to abandon his tools, and with heightened awareness of the dangers and mysteries of the bush, he begins to trust his wits, his instincts, and his imagination as he crawls through thickening snow, across the freezing forest floor and up a steep bank toward his truck (TMH, 240-1; New Yorker, 53-54). If he survives his humbling journey, perhaps reflecting on it later will guide him to a more complex, less self-deceptive appreciation of reality.  In his metaphoric dimension as an artist, perhaps his experience will lead him to find his voice.

The tension between loyalty to family members and the desire to pursue individual fulfillment tugs at Munro’s protagonists as surely it has at the author herself in the course of her life.  During her teenage years, Munro, already writing seriously, helped care for her mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease.  Her ticket to college came in the form of a two-year scholarship, and when that ran out, she promptly married, and had children in the 1950’s, when she felt societal pressure to put aside her writing and focus exclusively on her domestic roles.  Sheila Munro, the author’s eldest daughter, tells of her mother’s approach to writing while raising a young family in North Vancouver:

I think housework and writing have always coexisted for her in a kind of uneasy alliance, the one balancing the other….The room in which she wrote Lives of Girls and Women was a laundry room, and her typewriter was surrounded by a washer, a dryer, and an ironing board….I might find her reclining on the couch writing in one of her spiral notebooks when I came home from school, or scribbling away at the kitchen table when I came downstairs for breakfast.  She’d always put the notebook away without skipping a beat, in the same way that Jane Austen put her embroidery frame over her writing whenever someone came into the room. You’d think she wasn’t doing anything more important than making up a grocery list. (Munro, S., 28-9)

Although her characters often seem burdened by their domestic responsibilities to others throughout Munro's fiction, at the same time, particularly in her collection Too Much Happiness, protagonists may find personal salvation through the chance to be useful to others in practical ways—especially if they can somehow save another human being’s life.

In “Working for a Living,” a character reminiscent of Munro’s father tells his daughter of a life-endangering experience he had while heading home in a blizzard from his night job.  Caught in a snowdrift, unable at first to move his legs, he saved himself by recalling his family members—the young, the old, the sick—as well as the financial debt he would leave behind if he died; and these thoughts gave him strength to survive:

…[H]e pulled one leg out of the snow, and then the other: he got out of that drift and then there were no more drifts quite so deep, and before long he was in the shelter of the windbreak of pine trees that he himself had planted the year that [his daughter] was born.  He got home.

His daughter muses, “[D]idn’t he think of himself…didn’t he struggle for his own self?.... Was his life now something only other people had a use for?” (“Working for a Living,” 165-166).

In the first version of “Wood,” Roy worries about and financially assists his wife’s niece, whom the couple raised for nine years.  Now grown, she has five children and an unsteadily employed husband, a truck driver, whom Roy and his wife “didn’t even know she knew,” until she “quit” school to marry him (New Yorker, 48). In the second rendering of the story, when his wife slips into depression, Roy is “patient with this grave, listless woman who sometimes waves her hand in front of her face as if she is bothered by cobwebs or has got stuck in a nest of brambles” (TMH, 228).

Later, in both takes on the story, following his initial shock after falling and injuring himself in the bush, Roy turns to thoughts of his family members and his concern for their welfare seems to fortify him.  In the second version of “Wood:”

For some reason he thinks of [his wife’s niece], in her unbecoming red ski jacket and decides that her life is her life, there is not much use worrying about it.  And he thinks of his wife, pretending to laugh at the television.  Her quietness.  At least she’s fed and warm, she isn’t some refugee shuffling along the roads.  Worse things happen, he thinks.  Worse things.

He starts up the bank….He keeps going; he grits his teeth as if that will keep him from sliding back; he grabs at any exposed root or halfway-sturdy stem that he can see. (TMH, 241-2)

Also in the second version of “Wood,” it is Lea’s desire to find and protect Roy at the story’s end that lifts her out of her debilitating depression and enables her to drive into the bush in a truck, which, to the best of Roy’s knowledge, she has never before driven.  In fact, she stopped driving entirely after her illness began—but now she feels “driven” to support her husband physically and emotionally (TMH, 243).

It was only a few years after her father’s death, at forty-nine, that Alice Munro published her first version of “Wood” in The New Yorker.  The second version appeared, in Too Much Happiness, two years before her eightieth birthday.  The writer of the first is well into middle age; the writer of the second is old—and the protagonist’s thoughts about his own mortality have changed accordingly.

Near the end of the first version of the story, once he believes he will survive his ordeal, Roy realizes that Percy has been mistaken about the identity of the winner of the contract, whom he had vaguely remembered as being a carpenter, or a painter, or a paperhanger (New Yorker, 49). “The truth is that the paperhanger, the decorator, the housepainter doesn’t exist….It is Roy himself.  Not a housepainter—a sign painter” (New Yorker, 54). With this, it seems that Roy is able to acknowledge to himself that in addition to being a practical man, he is an artist.  As it turns out, the rumor that undermined Roy’s confidence was just a story within the larger story of “Wood”—and an example of how Munro uses both shifting points-of-view and story structure to explore her questioning of the nature of reality.  Reassured on this point, Roy’s “selective” memory “manages to turn everything to good account;” turning the “foolishness of the accident” into the “triumph” of a “successful crawl” toward the truck (New Yorker, 54). Roy convinces himself that he is finally “safe”—which is the last word in the first version of the story and an ironic promise that evil lurks in the midst of familiar, day-to-day existence.  The story ends with Roy still far from secure, yet, in middle age, perhaps he can still convince himself that he will be able to control his destiny.

In this earlier “Wood,” Roy’s wife, here named Lila, is a supporting character, who comes into her own in the 2009 version of the story, which explores the ways people do or don’t go on with their lives when they have lost the person or the situation they thought they couldn’t live without. Roy’s wife is described as an “easygoing,” capable, sociable woman in both versions of the story (TMH, 226-7; New Yorker, 46). But in the second take on the story, a winter’s “almost steady flu and bronchitis” leave her, now named Lea, exhausted, nervous, apathetic, and asocial (TMH, 228). A doctor gives her pills, her sister takes her for an expensive consultation with a holistic medicine practitioner, and her niece takes her to a reflexologist for treatment.  Yet nothing pulls Lea out of her slump.

Lea’s experience may have a biographical precedent in Munro’s life.  When the author was nearing thirty, at the end of the 1950’s, she felt overwhelmed by trying to juggle her familial roles with her writing.  She was still receiving rejections of her stories and felt commercial pressure to write a novel, which went against her creative instincts. Munro told her daughter, “I didn’t feel anything good was coming from me.  I felt my own gift hadn’t developed and maybe wouldn’t.”  Finding it increasingly hard either to write or do housework, Munro spent much of the day “in a morose state of inactivity,” until she stopped writing altogether, developed an ulcer and panic attacks, and was prescribed tranquilizers (Munro, S., 86-88).

Munro’s daughter Sheila believes her mother was being silenced by the “censoring” expectations of women writers; that she had to learn to resist the pressure to “tell the nice, conventional, moral story and, in its place, how to tell the truth of her experience as a woman” (Munro, S., 90). When, in the early 1960’s, Munro discovered how to use her personal material to achieve this aim, she broke through her writer’s block.

At the climax of both versions of  “Wood,” as Roy wonders whether he will survive or die alone in the wood, a “large bird rises out of the bush.”  The “sign painter” of the first version, and the “upholsterer and refinisher of furniture” of the second, “thinks it’s a hawk, but it could be a buzzard.”  In the 1980 version he thinks, “[i]f it’s a buzzard, it will have its eye on him, but he’ll have it fooled” (New Yorker, 54). Then he becomes distracted, and never returns to this question.  In the 2009 version, Roy manages no such self-delusion.  He wonders:

If it’s a buzzard will it have its eye on him, thinking it’s in luck now, seeing he’s hurt?

He waits to see it circle back, so he can tell what it is by the manner of its flight and its wings….[I]t is a buzzard. (TMH, 243)

Roy knows that loss and even death may be close at hand—but with this truth comes compensation and solace.  When, in the later version, he finally reaches level ground and can see his truck ahead, he sees Lea at the wheel.  She seems, when she greets him, restored to her old self.  Or perhaps she has become a new version of herself—unaware that she has gone through a period of depressive change, or that she stopped driving her car during her illness, or that, to Roy’s knowledge, she has never driven the truck.  As she skillfully maneuvers the truck into the turnaround, Roy senses “(s)ome loss fogging up this gain” of his wife’s vitality” (TMH, 245). Feeling somewhat overcome by a “warm wooziness,” (TMH, 246) he looks at the bush with new eyes, as an injured passenger seated next to a fully functioning driver. He notices:

[h]ow tangled up in itself [the wood] is, how dense and secret.  It’s not a matter of one tree after another, it’s all the trees together, aiding and abetting one another and weaving into one thing.  A transformation, behind your back. (TMH, 246)

He tries to remember another name for the  wood, but the precise word eludes him.  Again we see Munro working with an issue of memory: the complex interplay between a biological phenomenon, such as a “senior moment,” and our unconscious desires—some psychological reason that we may wish to forget something.

Finally, the literary-sounding word that Roy has been searching for comes to him at the end of the second version of Munro’s story:

Forest.  That’s the word.  Not a strange word at all but one he has possibly never used.  A formality about it that he would usually back away from.

“The Deserted Forest,” he says, as if that put the cap on something (TMH, 246).

Roy speaks as if he were putting the title on his own story.  Is the “forest” here Roy’s psyche?  If so, what has abandoned Roy’s mind?  His control over his own body, for one thing.  Will his creative inspiration and solitary ambition be diminished in the wake of this desertion?  And if so, is it possible he has “deserted” it and that he may be relieved to put it behind him?

In both versions of “Wood,” Roy is reduced to crawling along the forest floor, unsure about whether he will escape the wood alive. In the first version of the story, we can believe that Roy may make it out of the wood alone.  In the second version, Lea’s rescue of Roy suggests that he needs help now.  Does this reaffirm, in spite of his losses, that the newly significant connection between Roy and Lea is more positive than not?  It seems we are left—as we are so often in Munro’s fiction—on a note of ambivalence and uncertainty.

Ambiguity is a hallmark of Munro’s endings; she has told me in an interview that she writes because “[she wants] to get a feeling of mystery or surprise.  Not a mystery that finishes [the reader] off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder” (VQR 2006). At the end of a Munro story, readers are aware that things could turn out in a variety of ways for the characters.

Munro has often said, after publishing a new collection of stories—especially in recent years—that she won’t write another; that she has used up her material; that she would like to lead a more manageable life.  Fortunately for her readers, her 14th book is due out in the fall of 2012.


Lisa Dickler Awano has interviewed and profiled Alice Munro for The Virginia Quarterly Review and Vancouver Sun and been interviewed about Munro's work on national radio.  Other work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered and appeared in The New York Quarterly and Chicago Review.  Awano also organizes readings at The National Arts Club in New York City.

The 2009 version of "Wood," reprinted in The New Haven Review, and the full texts of Awano's interviews with Munro in NHR and in The Virginia Quarterly Review can be found by clicking the links below.



Awano, Lisa Dickler. “Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness,” Virginia Quarterly Review, October 22, 2010.  Book review

Awano, Lisa Dickler, ed. “Appreciations of Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2006, p. 91-107.  Interviews with certain of Munro's peers, among them Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, Michael Cunningham, and others, presented as first-person essays.

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “An Interview with Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2006.  Interview about The View from Castle Rock and the craft of writing.

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “An Interview with Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, October 22, 2010.  Interview about Too Much Happiness, and the craft of writing.

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “The Tremendous Importance of Ordinary Events: An Interview with Alice Munro about two versions of “Wood,” New Haven Review Issue 009 (Winter 2011), p. 46-67.

Munro, Alice. “Fits,” The Progress of Love. Vintage, 1985-6.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” 2009 version, reprinted in New Haven Review Issue 009 (Winter 2011), 68-89.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” The New Yorker, November 24, 1980, 46-54.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” Too Much Happiness. Knopf, 2009, 225-246.

Munro, Alice. “Working for a Living,” The View from Castle Rock. Knopf, 2006.

Munro, Sheila. Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro. A Douglas Gibson Book. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2001.

Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography. A Douglas Gibson Book. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2005.

All-American Poem

By Matthew Dickman (American Poetry Review, 2008)

I first encountered Matthew Dickman’s “Trouble” in a recent issue of The New Yorker. It’s a litany of the many ways famous people killed themselves. Marilyn Monroe took sleeping pills. Marlon Brando’s daughter hanged herself. Bing Crosby’s sons “shot themselves out of the music industry forever.” The list’s utilitarian feeling only makes the horror more horrible, especially when it includes the suicide of Dickman’s brother: He “opened thirteen patches,” Dickman tells us, “and stuck them on his body until it wasn’t his body anymore.”

But there’s a sense of humor too, even whiffs of whimsy, which make the tenor of , in which “Trouble” appears, feel genuine without being sappy. The poems are lucid and coy, rambling and drunk, playful and gregarious, a tapestry of emotion with a notable thread missing: There’s little in the way of satire or irony, by which I mean meanness of spirit. Written amid the anxieties and neuroses of the Bush era, Dickman’s poems are conspicuous for their lack of bitterness. After learning about his brother’s fate, we learn: “I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears.” How random. How charming.

And how frightening, too. For “Trouble” also recalls Auden’s in which suffering consumes those experiencing it while the rest of us appear cruel without meaning to. For the tortured, nothing else matters but the torturer, even as his “horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” Life goes on despite that tiny shudder that comes from knowing that as you read this sentence, someone somewhere is in pain.

But where Auden seems intent on forcing on us the aloofness of the cosmos, Dickman’s “Trouble” levels a cool eye while making a little room by the fire. His might be called gallows humor, but somehow it’s never macabre. It’s intimate and warm, friendly and firm. A tragic view of the world, but maybe also optimism in disguise.

In the introduction to All-American Poem, Tony Hoagland rightly calls the book the “epitome of the pleasure principle,” and there are lusty, earthy poems contained within, stuffed with images, metaphors, and jokes that delight more than instruct. But they also affirm an old-fashioned sentiment that right now seems to be much in need in America right now. I’m talking about the human spirit.

There’s a line in Richard Greenberg’s 2003 play, The Violet Hour, in which a flamboyant clerk riffs on the word “gay.” It’s 1919, way before the word took on its present meaning, so “to be gay is not to be frivolous,” he says proudly. “To be gay is to be light-hearted in the face of every kind of darkness.”

Toughness with a smile. But Dickman isn’t afraid of darkness. In “V,” the world’s “been talking sleazy to all of us and there’s nothing about the hydrogen bomb that makes me want to wear a cock ring in the kitchen while a pot of water boils.” The speaker wants to flirt with a girl, but reconsiders. Maybe she wants to be treated as a human being, not an animal at the meat market: “And maybe this is not a giant leap into the science of compassion, but it’s something.”

Happiness can be an act of will as much as an accident of fate. It’d be natural to let the light die behind your eyes in the wake of losing a brother, or your house. But to be “gay”—and in Dickman’s case, to be funny and charming and witty—is almost an act of rebellion. To be “gay” in the world of All-American Poem is be totally punk rock.

Though there’s no sign Dickman sees it that way: He breathes the air of Whitman, Kerouac, O’Hara, and Koch, each of whom pushed against the grain of what poetry and writing was supposed to be in their times. Especially Koch, who saw no reason why poetry couldn’t be fun. The first line of Dickman’s “Chick Corea Is Alive and Well!” is “Which makes the elegy I wrote for him seem a little distasteful.” And the last line isn’t afraid to flirt with sentimentality, because it’s a sensibility rooted in the here and now, and it feels right: The jazz pianist is like “a man whose been raised from the dead, looking down at a woman’s knees after years in the dirt, singing yeaahh! yeaahh! This is what I’m talking about, yeaahh! This good, sweet life!

John Stoehr is the arts editor at the .