The Anatomy of Destiny
Alice Munro, spinner of fates.
Underneath the calm ease of Alice Munro's prose, its accommodating glide along the contours of the world preserved in her stories—the towns and farms of rural Canada—there has always been a surprising steeliness. "It feels light as silk, but it wears like iron," as a boutique owner says of a fine women's suit in the story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," from the collection by that name. To discover how stern Munro can be, you have to contemplate her characters' fates. These, ironic or tragic or implausibly happy, befall the characters like judgments from on high, even when—especially when—the unforeseeable occurs, when their destinies do not appear to be their own doing.
It's not that Munro lacks compassion. As she has shown in 10 story collections and one novel so far, she can be the gentlest possible dissector of souls. More often than not, her protagonists seem grounded in her own experience: Country girls with aspirations and a sharp eye for human folly, they marry men to escape home; they leave those men; they struggle to use their talents; they come to miss the pungent textures they have abandoned. But having sympathy for her creations doesn't stop Munro from disposing of them with an implacable finality. Toward the end of one of her most powerful works, three stories in Runawaythat effectively comprise a novella, Juliet, a small-town girl turned classics scholar, then hippie, then television personality—an incisive if at times unforgiving woman—loses her only child, perhaps to a cult, perhaps to something else. The girl never says. She never speaks to her mother again, and Juliet retreats into a devastatingly solitary old age.
Critics have often marveled at the novellike density and sweep of Munro's short stories, at how she manages to create the impression that actions have ripened into consequences in the fullness of time. This, I think, is how she does it: by ending her tales in ways that could not have been anticipated yet feel so right we're forced to read each story again, scouring the text for hints. Munro doesn't drop many. Her style is classical, her presence remote. If we're going to find the solutions to her puzzles, we'll have to find them in the depths of what has happened, not in her rare moments of commentary.
Given this austerity and reserve, it is hard to imagine Munro undertaking anything as showoffy and open-ended as a memoir. And, sure enough, in The View From Castle Rock,a series of stories that takes us through seven generations of Munro's family's history and culminates in her own, she hasn't written one. These tales, she tells us in the foreword, should not be taken as a memoir, even if in writing them "I was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring a life, my own life." She put herself in the center, she continues, "and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could." But to "the figures around this self"—her ancestors, relatives, friends, and lovers—she granted a freer existence, basing them on fact to some degree (it is not clear how much) but allowing them "their own life and color" and letting them do things "they had not done in reality."
This may sound trickily postmodern, but the effect is the opposite, perhaps because her confession feels scrupulous rather than playful. This is Munro's most Puritanical book yet. Every story has the force of parable. The View From Castle Rock is, in fact, her family bible, its record of births and deaths. It is also, like the Bible, an effort to reimagine the origins of a family—to figure out how a random handful of patriarchs came to be a nation, this nation, universal in its particularity. After all, families are nations of sorts, united by covenant as well as by blood, with their own peculiar laws, their agreed-upon slant on the world, their method of excluding those who don't share their outlook. Munro's fiction is peopled by characters so distinctively hers, so much a product of her own mythologized backwoods Canada, they might as well be a family. In tracing the evolution of the sensibility of her real family, she seems to be offering insights into her imaginary one, too.
Munro, I should say, isn't trying to do anything as ponderous as emulate holy writ, though she does scatter allusions to the Bible throughout the book in a way that makes us aware of the residual power of the old faith. The Bible serves her as a literary prototype—as a means of giving shape to history. The Bible itself, it turns out, played a crucial role in Munro's family story. It was, not so indirectly, the Scottish Reformation that gave her ancestors the resources to reckon with their past and dream of another future. "Scotland was the country, remember, where John Knox had decided that every child should learn to read and write, in some sort of village school, so everybody could read the Bible," writes Munro. James Hogg emerged from the silence of Ettrick Valley, a Godforsaken place whose insularity would mark the clan long after they had left it, to become a poet. He wrote up the exploits and tall tales of a colorful grandfather in Blackwood's Magazine. Hogg's cousin James Laidlaw dragged his children to America.
The title story of the collection recounts this crossing, and it is a masterpiece. The view from Castle Rock is of America, except that it isn't. It's a mirage, or rather, a joke, the object of a prank. Late one night, as the story begins, James Laidlaw leads some men and his 10-year-old son, Andrew, out of a pub to Edinburgh Castle, where they stumble up a winding staircase. Dawn breaks as they arrive at the top, a piece of rock from which they look west over a width of water and beyond it to "a pale green and grayish-blue land, part in sunlight and part in shadow, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky." Andrew's father gestures grandly: "America." We are not told what James' drunken companions must have thought, but it will take years for Andrew to understand that what they saw was the Kingdom of Fife, a peninsula just off the coast of Edinburgh. And it will take generations for members of the Laidlaw family to see past Fife, as it were—to see all the way to the new land, with its inconceivable geography, its possibilities, rather than to allow the old one to limit their vision, as immigrants often do.
The journey itself is Shakespearean, a Tempest-like encounter between people not yet free of feudalism and a world whose largeness they can hardly grasp. James has aged into an oppressive superfluity, lamenting the loss of his native land with the same bitter passion he once brought to overpraising America. Andrew has hardened into a grim, incurious patriarch-in-training. His handsome wife, Agnes, who gives birth onboard ship, filters experience through her sexual superiority and a country girl's suspicion of all things new. Walter, the youngest son, is the writer. He transcribes in the bluntest English the wondrous details of the crossing, sneaking into the first-class section of the ship so as to be able to write without being ridiculed. He comes closer than anyone else in the family to grasping the enormity of his new reality. Throughout the book, Munro has incorporated passages from actual Laidlaw documents, of which Walter's journal is one. With typical artistry, Munro transforms this journal into a poignant artifact of Laidlaw self-suppression by positing a poet's depth of vision straining against the plain Protestant prose. Recording how the body of a child (not Agnes') who died at sea was thrown overboard in a canvas shroud with a lump of coal, Walter pauses to think, though not to write:
of the weighted sack falling down through the water. Darker and darker grows the water with the surface high overhead gleaming faintly like the night sky. Would the piece of coal do its job, would the sack fall straight down to the very bottom of the sea? Or would the current of the sea be strong enough to keep lifting it up and letting it fall, pushing it sideways, taking it as far as Greenland or south to the tropical water full of rank weeds, the Sargasso Sea? Or some ferocious fish might come along and rip the sack and make a meal of the body before it had even left the upper waters and the region of light.
The fate of babies is of primary concern to Munro, for it goes to the heart of the question posed by the genealogical narrative, which is, how does it happen that these ones died and these ones lived, so that I who write this book came to be born? Children are dangled over the abyss then rescued or not, just as opportunities may be perceived or lost. Agnes' elder son, an inquisitive 2-year-old whom the family calls Young James, keeps darting away from his minder, and each time he does, she—and we—catches her breath, imagining him tumbling off the side of the boat. In another story, a Laidlaw infant simply vanishes. The babies will be found, they will be fine, except that Young James, as Munro remarks casually in the last line of that story, will die within a month of landing in Quebec, "of some mishap in the busy streets of York, or of a fever, or of dysentery—of any of the ailments, the accidents, that were the common destroyers of little children in his time." The New World can be as arbitrary and harsh as the old one, and the Laidlaw clan responds to that realization not with renewed resilience but by channeling their energies into a dour subsistence. In a later generation, several Laidlaw siblings and cousins become taciturn pioneers, so fearful of social contact they almost never leave home, never marry. "To think what their ancestors did," Munro's father will comment. "The nerve it took, to pick up and cross the ocean. What was it squashed their spirits?" Munro's father, Robert Laidlaw, excels at school and seems poised to move up in the world but drops out to become a trapper, then a breeder of silver foxes whose wife sells their furs to American tourists, then, after the Depression, a janitor in a foundry.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.