The Mind of Alice Munro

Alice Munro, photo by Derek Shapton

Alice Munro, photo by Derek Shapton

Alice Munro’s constant concern is to correct the reader, to undercut and complicate her text until all easy answers are exhausted and an unnerving richness of life stands revealed in the particular, secret experiences of her characters.

She does this in two ways. First, she has a sly capacity for filling her stories with sex, thwarted loves, betrayal and violence while self-presenting (somehow, in the prose) as a middle-aged Everywoman with only the faintest hint of a salacious gleam in her eye. And second, she deploys an amazing number of intricately interconnected literary devices that ironize and relativize meanings while conversely revealing (unveiling as in “apocalypse”) an underground current of life that seems all the more true because it is hidden, earthy, frank, and shocking. In her story “Meneseteung,” for example, the truth has something to do with menstruation, bloating, diarrhea and opium. That this truth is called into question at the story’s close is pure Alice Munro whose message may only be that life is never what you think it is.

“Meneseteung” advertises itself as faux amateur biography of a forgotten and forgettable “local” poet, a spinster named Almeda Joynt Roth, who lived at the end of the 19th century in a small Ontario village just inside the advancing frontier. In 1879, Meda is drifting toward middle age when a salt well entrepreneur named Jarvis Poulter moves into town and half-heartedly begins to court her. One night Meda hears a drunken commotion in the street outside her house. Ignoring the ruckus, she manages to fall back asleep, but in the morning she discovers a woman’s body in her backyard and runs to Jarvis’s house, two doors down the street, for help. Jarvis nudges the body with his toe, pronounces the woman drunk and wipes his hand off on a leaf after shaking her roughly by the hair. Then, apparently aroused by Meda’s nightgown (suddenly seeing her in a sexual light), he invites her to walk with him to church later in the morning (a decisive signal of interest in the world of the story). Meda is in a tizzy. She has taken a sleeping drug the evening before, her period is starting, she has diarrhea, she’s making grape jelly; now she doses herself with nerve medicine (probably laudanum). Just before Jarvis shows up she pins a note to her front door; Jarvis retreats in silence. Meda spends the rest of the day in a drug haze, imagining the townspeople as gravestones toddling down the street. Then life returns to normal; only Jarvis is no longer interested in paying court to Meda. In 1903, village louts chase the eccentric old biddy into a nearby swamp. She catches cold and dies, leaving behind a slim volume of poems entitled Offerings.

That’s the story action, the bare bones. But with Alice Munro the difference between the bare bones of the story and the way she organizes the bones and flesh of her text is enormous. Munro’s telling extends to roughly 9,000 words which she splits up into six numbered sections. Each section begins with an epigraph, a four or five-line stanza from one of Meda’s poems. The chronology of the text extends from 1840, the year Meda was born, to the mid-1980s when the story was written (a first-person narrator, someone like Alice Munro herself, tells the story from the notional present). But the crucial events of the story take place over a weekend in August, 1879.

The first section of text deals, essay-like, with Meda’s slim volume of poems; section II describes her little southern Ontario town in 1879; section III introduces the widower Jarvis Poulter and his half-hearted interest in Meda; in the fourth section, Meda wakes to the sound of wailing and fighting in the backyard, summons Jarvis and unmans him, so to speak, with a show of fluttery weakness; in the fifth section, she gets stoned, and leaves the note pinned to her front door, rejecting Poulter’s sudden romantic overture; and section VI is aftermath: Meda’s 1903 obituary and the authorial narrator’s ruminations on rescuing the experience of the past. The main action is concentrated in two of the six sections; the first two sections read like essays; and the last section contains two obituaries and some paragraphs of narrator reflection rooted in the present, the time of writing.

By “main action” I mean plot, a structure of desire and resistance (conflict) in which the same desire and the same resistance meet in a series of actions (events). Because her story organization is heterodox, Alice Munro is almost always precise and transparent in terms of her desire-resistance patterns. The first plot event in “Meneseteung” is a composite of Jarvis’s half-hearted courtship described in the third section. Meda’s concrete desire is enunciated in the following sentences:

[My italics] And she is thinking of him. She doesn’t want to get her hopes up too much, she doesn’t want to make a fool of herself. She would like a signal.

The notion of what this signal might be is refined a few lines later.

Nor does he call for her, and walk with her to church on Sunday mornings. That would be a declaration.

In section IV, at the climax of the Sunday morning scene with the drunk woman behind Meda’s house, in a burst of (comic) Canadian machismo, Jarvis gives her the signal she has been waiting for.

He is sufficiently stirred by her loosened hair – prematurely gray but thick and soft – her flushed face, her light clothing, which nobody but a husband should see. And by her indiscretion, her agitation, her foolishness, her need?
“I will call on you later,” he says to her. “I will walk with you to church.

However at this stage even Meda’s body is telling her that this is no longer the signal that she wants; in section V, she rushes away from Jarvis to the privy, then leaves a note on the door politely rejecting his offer. The accent on the word “signal” has shifted; Meda still wants a signal but of a different kind. When it comes, the sign is inside her own heart. Thus the plot sequence is completed when, in a drugged dream-state, she looks into the “river of her mind” and imagines the crotched roses in her table cloth floating.

They look bunchy and foolish, her mother’s crotched roses – they don’t look much like real flowers. But their effort, their floating independence, their pleasure in their silly selves, does seem to her so admirable.
A hopeful sign.

How does Munro make this heterodox structure work? So much preamble and aftermath, the plot condensed into a narrow band of text? The answer lies in the way she deploys, develops, elaborates, and ramifies basic structural devices and the way she uses this elaboration to create rhythms, rhymes, reminders, echoes, antagonisms, under-meanings, and semantic loops – action and drama at the level of text and syntax. She uses resonating structures so that various parts of the text echo off each other. She uses a complex point of view structure to create variety and contrast in the types of text threaded through the narrative (and thus a variety of perspectives). She dances with time. She creates action, conflict, and emotion even in those parts of the story that are not directly relating plot. In other words, the setup, backfill, and aftermath are more than setup, backfill, and aftermath; the essays are not just essays; they are written into the text as what I call ancillary devices, devices for elaborating, extending, complicating, and repeating aspects of the main plot structure of the story. While they do add information and explanation, I suspect their real function is to create complex rhythmic and aesthetic effects which make the story grander and yet far more ironic than any mere summary can intimate.

Take that elusive point of view, for instance. Unstudied readers tend to think of point of view as consistent and monolithic. They barely give it a second thought. Munro explodes the notion of consistent point of view. The whole story is told by a first person narrator who comes into the text three times. The first mention occurs glancingly in the second paragraph (“. . . that makes me see . . .”), the second occurs more emphatically in a one-sentence paragraph in section II (“I read about that life in the Vidette.”) and the third, most insistently, through the final paragraphs of section VI, each beginning with “I.” The notional setup here is that the authorial narrator, someone like Alice Munro, has researched Meda’s life, read the local newspaper, read Meda’s poems, visited the family graves, and is writing the story.

However most of the story is written in a fluid third person, that first person authorial narrator transforming into the objective observer describing Meda’s book of poems and the wry interpreter of the village newspaper the Vidette (“This kind of thing pops up in the Vidette all the time. May they surmise, and is this courting?”) while here and there modulating into a third person plural corporate point of view (the townspeople) and finally into a close third person single character point of view focused very tightly on Meda (and once or twice, even in Jarvis Poulter’s mind). But even the third person plural structure has gradations of attack. It shifts from strict synopses of the Vidette to third person plural (“People talk about . . .” “All he has told them . . .”) and finally to a group interior monologue, a variation of free indirect discourse (“Anyway, it’s five years since her book was published, so perhaps she has got over that. Perhaps it was the proud, bookish father encouraging her?”). It’s lovely to watch Munro’s structural segues. Here’s an example of a shift from third plural to third singular in three sentences:

Everyone takes it for granted that Almeda Roth is thinking of Jarvis Poulter as a husband and would say yes if he asked her. And she is thinking of him. She doesn’t want to get her hopes up too much . . .

This is not to mention the point of view shifts involved in the inter-textual play of narrative and quotation that is one of Munro’s hallmark devices. In “Meneseteung” she provides Meda’s first person narrative in the form of a quotation from the preface to her book, also quotations from the village paper, the Vidette, including the obituaries of both main characters, and stanzas from Meda’s poems along with a sprinkling of poem titles (the title of the story is a reference to the title of one of the poems). Quotation is a device for varying point of view within a text, not to be overlooked just because, on one level, it is so obvious.

Nor does it take into account another favourite Munro device, something I call the device of imaginative reconstruction: this refers to a moment in the text when the point of view shifts into a purely hypothetical or imagined mode and relates events that may or may not have happened at all.

Instead of calling for her and walking her to church, Jarvis Poulter might make another, more venturesome declaration. He could hire a horse and take her for a drive out to the country. If he did this, she would be both glad and sorry . . .

These sentences introduce a long paragraph of narrative summary of an event between Meda and Jarvis that never takes place. The subjunctive verbs “might” and “could” provide the syntactic frame.

Another example occurs when the authorial narrator describes Jarvis Poulter for the first time. Lacking photographs, she imagines what he looks like in a series of rhetorical questions (the syntactic frame device), the question marks indicating the purely speculative quality of the details which nevertheless enter the reader’s mind as story-fact.

This is a decent citizen, prosperous: a tall – slightly paunchy? – man in a dark suit with polished boots. A beard? Black hair streaked with gray. A severe and self-possessed air, and a large pale wart among the bushy hairs of one eyebrow?

The author uses the device of imaginative reconstruction to insert pictures (fictions within fiction) in the reader’s mind, modulating in and out of strong narrative authority using grammar (framing hypothetical text syntactically; syntactic framing is a device you often see in Munro stories).

The effect of these point of view shifts, the constant fluidity of structure, is to create a relativity machine within the text, the beat of authority skipping from sentence to sentence, more or less subverting what has gone before. This is action at the level of point of view, conflict at the level of discourse; no one is giving the conclusive picture; the work of art is not a reality but a domain of shifting and competing relations. Vladimir Nabokov says somewhere that we read with our spines; like him, I am a straight materialist when it comes to the effect of reading on the reader. Being forced to play the scales, to shift from point of view to point of view, causes fizz in the networks, causes the brain, suddenly, to be more alive in ways that are at once disconcerting, pleasurable, and illuminating.

The same goes for the way Munro manipulates and elaborates her time structure. In every story, there is an objective time scale that is chronological and runs from the very first event indicated within the text to the very last, and, in contrast, there is the way the author actually deploys time in the narrative (what I think of as the time flow). In “Meneseteung” Munro controls time with surgical precision. The objective chronology runs from 1840, when Meda is born, to the mid-1980s when the story was written. Munro carefully dates the major events in between. 1865, Meda’s photograph taken. 1873, Meda’s book published. August, 1879, the incident with Jarvis and the drunk woman. 1903, Meda dies. By calculations based on internal evidence (e.g. “My sister was eleven and my brother nine.”) we obtain more dates. 1854, Meda’s family moves from Kingston to the frontier village. 1857, her two younger siblings die of a prevalent fever. 1860, her mother dies. 1872, her father dies. These dates, in themselves, begin to tell a story.

But time in a story never flows in a straight line; it loops and eddies and suddenly compresses in a spasm of action then stretches out again. “Meneseteung,” for example, begins in the authorial present with a description of Meda’s book of poems as if held in the narrator’s hands (“Gold lettering on a dull-blue cover.”), then swoops back to the 1870s with a quote from the Vidette and then, more precisely, dates when the book was written and when the author’s photograph was taken. In this first paragraph, Munro is teaching us to read the time shifts that characterize much of the text that follows.

In the second paragraph, through the photo, we see Meda in 1865. In the third paragraph, Munro’s narrator quotes from Meda’s preface (written prior to 1873) which loops dizzyingly through the whole of Meda’s life from 1840 to 1873. The last few paragraphs of this first section summarize individual poems that limn events in Meda’s life and, though undated, clearly loop back over the life again (Meda playing games with her brother and sister, the children making snow angels, Meda visiting the family graves). Each time these poems or events are referenced in the text (including those stanzas used as epigraphs), they send the reader’s mind (remind the reader) back to an earlier time. This reminding creates a sort of temporal jazz; the reader’s mind is constantly dashing from context to some other moment and simultaneously referring to that objective chronology so the reader can gauge the relationship between the two.

In terms of time flow, Munro often uses a lovely little device I call the then/now construction, a grammatical structure that juxtaposes two moments in such a way as to imply change (story) over time. Sometimes authors use the words “then” and “now,” and sometimes the words are only implied. Here is a masterful example of a then/now with intervening moments deftly added (as technique, it’s breathtaking).

[my italics and bracket notes] In 1879 [then], Almeda Roth was still living in the house at the corner of Pearl and Dufferin streets, the house her father had built for his family [ca. 1854]. The house is there today [now, ca. 1985]: the manager of the liquor store lives in it. It’s covered with aluminum siding; a closed-in porch has replaced the veranda [then, 1879]. The woodshed, the fence, the gates, the privy, the barn – all these are gone [now, 1985]. A photograph taken in the eighteen-eighties [then, 1880s] shows them all in place. The house and fence look a little shabby, in need of paint . . . No big shade tree is in sight, and, in fact, the tall elms that overshadowed the town until the nineteen-fifties [1950s], as well as the maples that shade it now [now obviously, 1985] are skinny young trees [then, 1880s] . . .

Note especially the final arabesque flurry which swoops the reader from 1885 to 1955 to 1985 and back to 1885 in less than one sentence. As with those bravura point of view shifts, I am not sure the general reader notices this kind of authorial stick-handling, though, again, I suspect it has the same neural effect on the brain as doing loop-de-loops in a biplane without a seatbelt (today, I like the word “fizz”). But Munro’s precise and adamantine control assures the reader that the story’s temporal matrix is as consistent and reliable as a ticking clock.

The time structures I’ve mentioned so far have little to do with the hoary ideas of scene and summary in which time is conceived of as being either slowed and drawn out (scene) or speeded up as in fast-forwarding (summary). If you think of summary as nothing but a plodding rehearsal of time past, you miss the point of the phantasmagoric loops and eddies in a narrative like “Meneseteung.” Munro does speed up time, covering over a hundred and forty years in a few pages. But the techniques she deploys do more than just fill in the blanks; she forces the reader to experience the passage of time, to become conscious of change, of mutability, and to taste the ironic aspect of Death that dogs all history.

Munro does, of course, slow the moment; in fact, the first four sections of the story create the effect of a step-by-step deceleration (somewhat paralleling the progressive tightening of the point of view) until we reach the fourth section which begins with Meda shocked awake on a hot August Saturday night by the drunken rumpus in the back street behind her house. She sleeps, then wakes on Sunday morning and discovers the body and runs for help. The dialogue scene that follows, between Jarvis, Meda and the resuscitated drunk, is the longest in the story, a climax of imagined horror – sordid, shocking, surprising (and somehow more real because it’s sordid, shocking, and surprising), and hilarious. The drunken woman is awful, an image of filth, poverty, and drunken animal sexuality (somehow this phrase gives animals a bad name). Jarvis is upright, bourgeois, masculine, and despicable. Meda is in shock; she has to use the outhouse. Then suddenly Jarvis is aroused. He finally sees Meda as a possible sex object and marriage option. He announces that he will walk her to church. (The fact that Alice Munro comprehends and can convey the complex and deeply comic conditions of male arousal in Jarvis’s case alone justifies calling her a genius in my books.)

This scene is the notional climax of the story, but Munro is a master of syncopation, and, besides, the story isn’t about Jarvis Poulter’s arousal. In this scene, Meda gets what the text has told us she wants (“She would like a signal.”), but by this stage she realizes she doesn’t want it (a man and a man’s reality), and so in the fifth section of the story she must escape from the ogre of her author’s creation. In the fifth section, time speeds up slightly; a whole day passes in a series of small dreamy scenes and snippets, mostly Meda’s actions and thoughts as she gets more and more stoned on nerve medicine, skillfully punctuated by a stream of minute domestic acts, external impressions, and time markers.

As soon as Jarvis Poulter has gone . . . She closes . . . she writes [and leaves a note for Jarvis on the door] . . . She sticks . . . She locks . . . she builds a fire . . . She boils water . . . several dark drops of nerve medicine . . . She is still sitting there when the horses start to go by on the way to church, stirring up clouds of dust. The roads will be getting hot as ashes [Jarvis comes and goes from the veranda] . . . Then the clock in the hall strikes twelve and an hour has passed . . . . The house is getting hot. She drinks more tea and adds more medicine . . . She doesn’t leave the room until dusk, when she goes out to the privy again . . .

The climax of this fifth section, the true climax of the story, is what takes place in Meda’s mind as she sits in her dining room sipping laudanum and tea after Jarvis has retreated from the veranda. The relevant text begins with Meda looking out (“Her surroundings – some of her surroundings – in the dining room are these . . .”), but then she peers inward and she is stoned and what floods the page is an intense and surreal confluence (the story is named for a river, after all, and the thoughts are motivated by emotional shock, hormones, opium, and poetry) of physical detail, image, memory, and theme that is at once the secret, hidden life of Almeda Roth and a bravura meditation on life, poetry, the self, language, and metaphysics.

It’s fascinating to realize that this climactic confluence is not so much an action on a plot line as an eruption of Meda’s inner experience provoked by the plot. And what it amounts to in terms of story construction is an intersection of various images, motifs, and patterns already precisely adumbrated in the text. Munro seems to realize that the inner life of a man or a woman is also a text, that in our secret hearts we are talking to ourselves, muttering, declaiming; at its deepest point this is our experience of experience. In this case, she constructs her story so that the inner text of Meda’s heart cunningly reflects and pulls together the outer text of the story. Here we re-discover the old truth that repetition is the heart of art.

Take Meda’s poems. They are not part of the surface drama of the story. They were written long before she meets Jarvis Poulter. They are contained in a book which we glimpse (“Gold lettering on a dull-blue cover.”) in the first line of the story (“Offerings, the book is called.”) The first section of the story further contains three paragraphs of quotation from Meda’s preface to the book and then a list of poems: “Children at Their Games,” “The Gypsy Fair,” “A Visit to My Family,” “Angels in the Snow,” “Champlain at the Mouth of the Meneseteung,” etc. The poem titles pick up family background motifs just mentioned in the prefatory material (brother and sister, their deaths, etc.). The river name Meneseteung repeats the title of the story. In the next seven paragraphs, Munro glosses each of the listed poems, nailing the content to an experience from Meda’s life (again, brother and sister, their deaths). The title of the Meneseteung poem is repeated and glossed: “This poem celebrates the popular, untrue belief that the explorer sailed down the eastern shore of Lake Huron and landed at the mouth of the major river.” And, of course, we remember that each of these poems is again referenced in the epigraphs that begin the story sections (it’s not difficult to puzzle out which stanza comes from which poem). At this stage, the astute reader realizes that he is witnessing the construction of a major image pattern, part of the organization of the story as a whole, a vehicle for meaning and aesthetic effect (rhythm, cohesion), that is also somehow separate from the dramatic action of the story.

Image (or word) patterns begin with mere repetition, accumulate meaning by association and juxtaposition, splinter or ramify, sending out subsidiary branch patterns, and, finally, discover occasions for recombination or intersection of the various branches in what I call tie-in lines. Often, as in this case, the primary image pattern is tipped in the story title, a further sign that the image pattern controls development and meaning within the text (in a sense, the title tells us the story is more about the image than the plot). In “Meneseteung,” we have something faintly reminiscent of the rhetorical device of ekphrasis, though here the work of art being decoded as an element of the meaning of the whole is not a painting or a statue but a book of poems. The words “Meneseteung,” “river,” “book,” “poem,” and “poet” appear as a branched constellation at the center of the story “Meneseteung.”

Once you begin to tease apart the branching patterns and spot the relevant associations, some fascinating story elements begin to appear. Given the title (and the way things work out in the fifth section), “Meneseteung” is the root pattern; “Meneseteung” is a river, a poem in a book, a reference to a popular but mistaken historical belief, the title of a story. “Book” is mentioned in the first line of the story and leads along a wonderful line of “bookishness,” paternal influence and popular prejudice:

[my italics] . . . preface to her book, “my father . . . My father was a harness-maker by trade, but a cultivated man who could quote by heart from the Bible, Shakespeare, and the writings of Edmund Burke . . .”

But why was she passed over in her earlier, more marriageable years . . . All that reading and poetry – it seemed more of a drawback, a barrier, an obsession, in the young girl than in the middle-aged woman, who needed something, after all, to fill her time. Anyway, it’s five years since her book was published, so perhaps she has got over that. Perhaps it was the proud, bookish father, encouraging her?

Note how the image accumulates a precise list of associations (linked words) and also, how, depending on point of view, the list varies: what Meda sees as “cultivated” the town sees as “proud” and “bookish.” Word lists like this are a very common structure in Alice Munro stories, and, as in this instance, she often develops contrasting words lists (Meda’s list of associations with books and poetry v. the town’s list; Meda’s list of geographical associations v. Jarvis’s list; words associated with the proper part of town along Dufferin Street v. words associated with the poor part of town along Pearl Street – of course, Meda’s house sits at the corner of Dufferin and Pearl). And the effect of these branching image patterns and their associated (conflict-driven) word lists is an extremely complicated and dense cris-cross matrix of interconnected references that echo in the reader’s mind and construct a disciplined and precise semblance of experience.

This matrix of cross-reference is all the more alive, as it were, because it is inscribed with conflict; the competing points of view strive for interpretive primacy – at the end of the story which list of associations will own the image? This conflict plays out in the reader’s mind, but, more significantly, it plays out in Meda’s mind and is embodied, through story action, in her near acceptance of Jarvis Poulter as a suitor. This is Alice Munro’s version of Mikhail Bakhtin’s vision of the novel as a battle of discourses, which is also a battle to subvert some old or conventional or authoritative discourse. In “Meneseteung,” Meda Roth battles for the meaning of the book, of poetry, of her father, of the land, and of her self against the popular, conventional discourse of the townspeople and the Vidette and against the bourgeois male, commercial discourse of Jarvis Poulter.

[my italics] He could hire a horse and take her for a drive out to the country. If he did this, she would be both glad and sorry. Glad to be beside him, driven by him, receiving this attention from him in front of the world. And sorry to have the countryside removed from her – filmed over, in a way, by his talk and his preoccupations. The countryside that she has written about in her poems actually takes diligence and determination to see.

In this passage, Meda and Jarvis compete over who will get to describe the “countryside.” Consciousness is a text; the words you use colour your experience. It takes diligence, determination, and poetry to recover experience from the conventional. And the word “countryside” here is not an isolate; Munro has carefully threaded landscape and countryside through the story as a branch of the poem-book-Meneseteung pattern. It begins in the first section with that poem “The Passing of the Old Forest” glossed as “a list of all the trees – their names, appearance, and uses – that were cut down in the original forest . . .” which later becomes (reflecting Jarvis’s values) “[a] raw countryside just wrenched from the forest . . .”

[my italics] The meandering creeks have been straightened, turned into ditches . . . The trees have all been cleared back to woodlots. And the woodlots are all second growth . . . the grand barns that are to dominate the countryside for the next hundred years are just beginning to be built –

In truth, everywhere you look in an Alice Munro story there is conflict and change. No word sits by itself; instead, each word vibrates in a dozen relationships with other words, repeating, competing, dominating, wrenching, transforming, shading, and subverting.

The moment of climax for all this comes, as I say, not with Jarvis’s priapic epiphany (I use the word ironically) and sudden access of ardour, nor when the poetess rejects him, but when Meda locks herself in her house and gets stoned. At this point she shuts out the discourse of the conventional Others (Jarvis, the town) and attends first to her surroundings which seem “charged with life, ready to move and flow and alter.” Note the word “flow” because presently the “glowing and swelling” of things begin to “suggest words,” and the words begin to suggest “Poems, even. Yes, again, poems. Or one poem.” And that one poem will contain all the poems Meda has written and all the events of the story.

Here Munro inserts a classic rehearsal device, a piece of text in which previous events are recapitulated, the story rehearsed (a repetitive structure that has the effect of reminding the reader of the salient points and also giving a kind of rhythmic kick that announces the approaching end of the narrative):

[my italics and bracket notes] . . . one very great poem that will contain everything . . . Stars and flowers and birds and trees and angels in the snow and dead children at twilight – that is not the half of it. You have to get in the obscene racket on Pearl Street and the polished toe of Jarvis Poulter’s boot and the plucked chicken haunch and its blue-black flower. Almeda is a long way now from human sympathies . . . [here Munro inserts some lines on Meda’s problematic conventional alternatives for dramatic effect, also a reference to grape jelly, another image pattern that has some sly connection with menstruation – there is no end to this] . . . She has to think of so many things at once – Champlain and the naked Indians and the salt deep in the earth . . .

Munro follows the rehearsal of events with a new twist on the things-to- words-to-poems-to-everything-in-one- poem pattern. It’s an amazing passage, the climax of the story’s linguistic acceleration, the electrical charge, transferred along the image lines (networks) from the very beginning of the story, from the title, in fact, to this point. Technically, it’s a simple modulation of the image pattern that starts with the word “channel” used as a double figure; first, as a conventional metaphor (as in “channeling my energy”), and, second, as a pun. “Channel” has the magical effect of turning the poem into a river, the Meneseteung, a mighty poem-river, an image of all things, as it were, even the story itself (it is the title, after all). And then the “river” turns figurative and becomes “the river of her mind.”

[my italics] All this can be borne only if it is channeled into a poem, and the word “channeled” is appropriate, because the name of the poem will be – “The Meneseteung.” The name of the poem is the name of the river. No, in fact, it is the river, the Meneseteung, that is the poem – with its deep holes and rapids and blissful pools under the summer trees . . . Almeda looks deep, deep into the river of her mind . . .

This is the confluence of image patterns, the point at which the battle of discourses ceases and Meda performs the mythic rite of the naming of experience; she reclaims forever her self, her poems, and her countryside.

What Alice Munro reads, I have no idea. But the philosophy, the theory, behind her plots and patterns is clear, complex, and very contemporary. As you might expect from a writer so at home in language, the mind is a text, experience a flow of words. The struggle within every story, the struggle for identity, is always a battle for the word, the authority to give names. Perhaps all writers think this way in their hearts. And whatever is real beyond the words is problematic. In fact, it doesn’t matter. All the devices I have discussed so far in relation to this story – fluid point of view, time flow, and image patterning as deployed by Munro – serve only to relativize the object, make the object a moment of contest, never at rest. Every word in “Meneseteung” is restless and alive. And even at the point of confluence, when Meda lets herself sink into the river of her mind – Meneseteung – Alice Munro is there with her spade, ready to turn the earth of the story one more time.

In the last section of the story, Munro jumps ahead twenty-four years to 1903; the battle of discourses cranks up again; she quotes Meda’s obituary in the Vidette:

[my italics] . . . the mind of this fine person had become somewhat clouded and her behaviour, in consequence, somewhat rash and unusual. Her attention to decorum and to the care and adornment of her person had suffered, to the degree that she had become, in the eyes of those mindful of her former pride and daintiness, a familiar eccentric, or even, sadly, a figure of fun.

Meda is dead and the townspeople get the final word as to her “mind.” There are two things to notice here. First, Munro is extending the competing patterns already figured into the text beyond the climax; this is an example of her style of syncopation – she always adds a beat at the end of the phrase, always undercuts the conclusion. In 1879, subjectively, Meda may have won the war, but from a different point of view (in Munro stories, there is always another point of view), she merely becomes an eccentric figure of fun. In terms of the story, the state of her “mind” remains in play.

Second, this is also an example of a different sort of repetition, what I call book-ending (as in book-ends or brackets), which is also a sort of structural epanalepsis. The words of the obituary echo, with emphasis, sentiments expressed in the opening paragraph of the story:

The local paper, the Vidette, referred to her as “our poetess.” There seems to be a mixture of respect and contempt, both for her calling and for her sex – or for their predictable conjuncture.

The smug condescension dripping from those quotation marks encode the story from beginning to end with an attitude of amused dismissiveness. Being a “poetess” and unmarried, Meda never achieves a position of significance within her community; her experience never recognized as a legitimate experience.

At this point the battle for Meda’s mind and the soul of the story seems lost. Note that we have gone far beyond the plot interest here; Meda has escaped Jarvis’s attentions; both characters are dead; but the conflict of patterns and discourses continues. This is a fascinating moment: our concern is no longer with the characters; at this point we are more interested in the battle of discourses than we are in how the plot action turned out. We want to know what conclusion the story comes to – about Meda, Meda’s mind and, ultimately, about itself.

Munro nails Meda’s descent on the social scale of significance with another repetition – so pretty a thing I can’t bear not mentioning it. In the second section of the story, that description of Meda’s town, Munro tells the story of Queen Aggie, “an old woman, a drunk” whom the village boys would harass, riding her around in a wheelbarrow (oh, the wheelbarrow pattern!) and dumping her into a ditch to sober up. Queen Aggie prefigures the drunken woman in Meda’s backyard in the fourth section, but she also prefigures Meda’s death as described in the Vidette – chased by village louts, the old biddy tumbles into a swamp (the swamp pattern!), catches cold and dies.

The last paragraphs of the story fall to the authorial narrator, Alice Munro’s first-person stand-in, in a sense, the umpire. She looks at the microfilm, hefts the book, visits the cemetery and, with some difficulty, finds Meda’s gravestone.

. . . I began pulling grass and scrabbling in the dirt with my bare hands. Soon I felt the stone and knew that I was right.

We are reminded here that it “takes diligence and determination to see.” As she angles towards her ending, Munro, as her alter ago, muses on what she thinks she knows about Meda Roth, whether anyone else could figure it out, whether it’s even true. But then she thinks:

[my italics] People are curious. A few people are. They will be driven to find things out, even trivial things. They will put things together, knowing all along they may be mistaken. You see them going around with notebooks, scraping the dirt off the gravestones, reading microfilm, just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish.

The phrase “this trickle in time” is gorgeous, the sort of authorial nudge that sets up the hair on the back of your neck. It extends the river-poem-Meneseteung-mind pattern one last step. Nearly the final words of the story, the phrase washes back over the text as a whole, the little repetitive points of contact flashing like streetlights. The passage invites readers to make connections, put things together, and rescue Meda’s experience from the rubbish of conventional judgement. There is this allegorical element in everything Alice Munro writes; she is always teaching readers how to read her stories as she writes them; there are always connections to be made.

The trickle in time is the Meneseteung, the great poem-river of Meda’s mind, rescued from forgetfulness and conventional opinion by the curious narrator (much as Meda has to rescue her own experience from conventional expectation and judgement). The allegory is gentle; the mind is the hero and poet laureate of its own experience. Experience is not a passive act; it takes diligence and determination to identify, name and own the facts of one’s existence. The enemy is conventional language; the antidote is poetry and mild intoxicants. The result may not be authentic in an objective sense. Munro, true to the flux and flow of her own narrative, is careful to suggest experience thus earned may be faulty. (“I may have got it wrong.”) In a final act of subversion, she seems to say that reality itself is a fiction, that what we rescue with poetry is, well, poetry. As Meda, stoned, watches trippy, animated roses and tombstones, the narrator opines:

She doesn’t mistake that for reality, and neither does she mistake anything else for reality, and that is how she knows that she is sane.


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