To my eye and ear (treating the story as stand-alone) the
whole is slightly "bitty" (especially the first third.) For example,
the story would probably improve without the boy who seems (to me at least to
be superfluous or peripheral.)
It's tough looking at the very early work of someone who I
was championing for years "Should get a Nobel" but this story doesn't
blow me away like some of Munro's later works.
I recognise, too, that AM writes one huge novel and that
characters come and go in her stories, but it would be unfair of me to judge this short story
(the first in her first
book, in that way. I simply would not have know that would become Alice Munro's
"way". I judge this story as I would any one-off arriving at my desk.
I may well have over-marked because I know who the author is.
There's a phrase I picked up years ago from the
screen-writer Stephen May at Bath Spa University. He talked about stories and
scripts being Too Much About What It's About (TMAWIA). Sometimes I feel AM's
work is not quite enough about what it's about. I could do with a tiny bit more
"direction" I love subtle, but I don't want waste, and if I have to
work hard to "get" a story that should be because the digging makes it worth it
. I don't like subtlety
(or obtuseness) for its own sake
Solid, direct, clean, "feels like a real writer"
and I'm tempted to go 14 which is the classic "professional" mark.
Interestingly, the top, top writers rarely
blow the reader away with a stunning opener. They tend to start low-key
with extreme confidence and it's unusual to read and go OMG in a few lines.
But this particular story (maybe it's more a woman's story?)
doesn't make me sit up and take a breath and expect
greatness, not even (at this point) "special". I
just know or presume I'm in the company of a good, solid writer. When I check
and see the collection was copyrighted 1968, a mere 45 years ago, well, yeah,
maybe Alice M has improved over the last 4-5 DECADES, and perhaps my mark isn't
too far out.
Tricky this. Mother is barely sketched, younger brother is
fairly stock. In some ways the father could, arguably, also be called stock,
but the avoidance of the direct adds something to him, and especially the
There was the classic "lives of quiet desperation"
thing "throughout" and that was finely done (but the early pages felt
more like warm-up to me.) Perhaps a visiting professor of literature could
(retrospectively) "prove" to me that the early pages were
"vital" but I think they seem relatively unimportant and could be
cut. I am still working out what purpose the younger brother serves.
I stumbled occasionally with a turn of phrase and the
overall voice is "unassuming". That is it just is
and doesn't in itself add to the story's pleasure-giving
(unlike, say Bellow's "A Silver Dish" which is plain delicious.)
And there's a problem, too, in delivering the everyday and
ordinary without being too flat and ordinary on the page, but I liked the dad,
who grew through the story, and liked very much the other woman (if that's what
she was.) There was some subtlety in the dialogue and actions (eg T-O-W changes
into nicer shoes and dress when he turns up unexpectedly)...
An aside.. So she's an ex? Probably, but is the story advantaged
by being deliberately
"loose" or obscure?
Don't read on if you're going to read this.
Ma is "always tired" and maybe they don't have a
sex life. They are certainly "just surviving." The going to town
stuff, while done well and "works", is almost off-theme. Yes, I know
AM messes around with standard expectations, but my reading of all these shorts
is not about praising or nay-saying over the great and the good, but arguing
how beginners, intermediates, advanced writers (but NOT Nobel Winners) might
avoid errors and produce, clearer, better fiction.
I have no doubt in my head that either the mother's
promenading should be dropped
organically inter-connected with the rest (treating the story as singular),
ditto the boy. The father-daughter-"other-woman" as a single organism
would IMO have produced, or could have produced a story scoring 175 rather than
I'm not here going to explain what I mean by Theme or how we
treat theme in Boot Camp. But "War" is not a theme.
"Adultery" is not a theme.
Theme, for me, is the story's MEANING, what is left when the
plot fades, what the story says about the world.
The story is a statement and its own
"proof" at least in anecdotal-evidence terms.
If the theme is working well we are left with a lingering
feeling. The story resonates with us and refuses to disappear.
In this story, a daughter meets someone (vague) who is
probably the other woman, or once was the other woman, or may become (again)
the other woman, enough so the daughter intuitively knows not to mention it to
the mother (but, then, what about the superfluous boy?) so there's a
but, for me
it's good but not great, makes me think, but not for long. It flickers with
promise rather than swells and resonates. So for me not great
Throughout this story is highly competent, or
"professional" but at no point do I gasp in awe or ache that "I
could never write that".
The seduction therefore works well throughout but I'm never
"lost in the story" like with A Silver Dish or The Short Happy Life of
Francis Macomber (Hemingway) or Englander's The 27th Man, or the absolutely devastating
"The Ledge" by Lawrence Sargeant Hall
Solid and competent. A few brief extras, but again, there is
nothing here language-wise that makes me ooze with pleasure for the language
A note on that. We have (in BC) the idea of "invisible
excellence". A story doesn't "have to" be obviously lyrical,
beautiful on the page, poetic, euphonic, to be good, and it's also true to say
that sometimes the language can get in the way.
But sometimes sentences just feel wonderful, you want to
re-read them. They are just so nice
You want to quote lines, and you never feel that the language interferes
. Instead it enhances the
read, it interacts. Language and meaning feed off each other. I didn't get that
here. It was more solid professional "invisible excellence".
Could hardly fault the pace. I would cut some of the first
third but that's already been penalised.
Tricky. The story builds very well and the second half is,
IMO twice as good as the first half. I loved the stoicism, the sadness, the
quiet desperation, the characters just getting on with living, but I was left
with a faint dissatisfaction of unfinished business.
Perhaps I should rewrite that and say the closure was just
not quite there. That may be subjective, of course, and I know it's partly a
style thing, but I honestly feel that the story could be cleaner, crisper and
with a closure that resonated.