Monday, January 2, 2012

Alice Munro Disorients Me

Happy Monday and Happy New Year, everyone! (2012...2012...2012--I have to practice typing that.) I've spent much of the last week trying to get my dog used to his new home. He gets a 45 minute walk/run every morning, which is really getting me into shape!

I've also been reading some Alice Munro stories--and I'm finally figuring out some of her techniques!

One thing Munro does often is leave the reader disoriented for several paragraphs here and there throughout the story. She often jumps back and forth in time and leaves out information so that we don't know exactly what happened. It can be very unclear.

To give you an example, here are some descriptions of different sections of her beautiful short story "Floating Bridge" from her collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Slight spoiler alert.

The story begins by giving the reader a brief description of a marriage relationship using the pronouns "she" and "he." We don't get the main character's name until the third paragraph.

In the second section, we are with the main character in an oncologist's office, where the doctor says something cryptic and doesn't let us know if the diagnosis is good or bad.

In the third section, we follow the main character out of "the air-conditioned building," where she's picked up by her husband, who is talking about some young woman. We don't really get a sense of who this girl is until the fifth paragraph of that section.

End spoiler alert.

Philosophically, I would have assumed that I would be annoyed by this technique. I usually don't like it when the author leaves these things--especially the oncologist's diagnosis--vague. It feels too manipulative to me.

But somehow I like it when Munro does it. I actually take delight in using what little clues she provides to make a best guess at what's happening. And, as I reach the end of her stories, I like reflecting on how the different pieces come together.

I think, and of course this is just a guess, that the reason Munro does it is to pull the reader deeper into the story. To understand any of it, one has to be hyper-aware of all the details and constantly work to piece them all together. We become detectives thrown into new situations again and again and again.

At the same time, there's a certain casualness to it. The non-linear timeline makes her stories feel whimsical. Munro--for me--hits that perfect tone of being a brilliant writer without having a big ego.

P.S. Thank you to everyone who entered our Variations on a Theme contest! I finished my own story on Dec. 31 in the afternoon, so now I'm ready to read all the entries. I'm excited!

P.P.S. The fantastic Donna Hole interviewed me here today, and Fictionaut interviewed me here. And, hey, get my book!


  1. Happy New Year!

    I usually don't like writing where a pronoun is used before its proper noun has been introduced. It's very hard to do that to great effect, and I think many writers do it inadvertently trying to create tension or suspense but can easily end up just being confusing.

    Of course, if used properly, the effect can be...well, effective I guess ;-)

    I do like little teases like the oncologist scene you describe, especially if the author has done a good job at following it up with other hints that could easily be taken as either good or bad, adding to the tension / suspense before the ultimate reveal.

  2. Rick, regarding the oncologist scene, the one thing I will say is that it was written in a way that was odd enough to make me wonder and guess at what had happened. I ended up guessing correctly, so maybe Munro put in more there than I realize.

  3. I don't mind a complex story, but I'm not sure I'd like being confused. I have a hard time reading mystery novels b/c I feel I need a notepad and several page flippings to keep up.

    The book sounds a little easier to read than that. Glad you enjoyed it so much.

    Thanks for guest interviewing with me today Davin. It was truly my pleasure.

    I'll go read you other interview too.

    Good luck with Peanut :)


  4. I have to check Munro out. I I find it actually impossible to write a story linearly, and I love reading writers than can move back and forth in time.

  5. Donna, I'd be curious to see what you thought of Alice Munro. She publishes in the New Yorker often, so you could probably find several online for free if you want to try it out.

    mmshaunakelley, you should definitely check Munro out then. You should also try to find one of her discussions about how she reads. She doesn't move through a book from one end to the other. She reads randomly throughout the book until everything fits. It really opened up the world to me.

  6. I don't mind and even appreciate complexity in a novel, but I don't like it when I have to reread nearly every chapter to try to figure out what's going on. If that's happening, I tend to stop reading altogether.

    I don't mean the political thrillers that sometimes, you have to read through to the end to figure everything out.

    I mean stuff like you pointed out in your post. I don't think I could read Alice Munro if that's how she writes, but I'm glad you're enjoying and learning from her writing.

  7. Happy New Year.

    I guess the trick with something like this would be walking the fine line between just confusing enough and confusing as all freaking heck. Knowing myself as I do, I'd probably fall face first into way too confusing, but that makes sense too. This kind of technique is the sort of thing that comes with practice. How to release information just slowly enough to maintain the reader's interest and curiosity but not so slowly as to actually leave the reader behind.

  8. Alice Munro is certainly one of our greatest short story writers. I recently caught up on some of my New Yorkers and read one of hers and one of Margaret Atwood's in quick succession. Atwood's stories are more like novels in their storytelling technique, and Munro's are more like poems. That detached "he/she" is something that we're used to in poetry. (Or maybe a New Yorker story.) I think you're right that the ambiguity adds to the tension. Great analysis.

  9. "Philosophically, I would have assumed that I would be annoyed by this technique."

    I love it when authors break out techniques I think I'll find annoying. (Ya know, when I stop being annoyed by it...) Often those stories wind up being my favorites. Munro is a challenging writer, but definitely rewarding.

  10. I loved your interview, Davin! And I love Munroe's work. She is truly brilliant. Her techniques remind me of a few of Scott's techniques, especially the one about leaving stuff out and jumping around. Scott does that really well.

    I have one of her collections. I'm going to put it on my list of books to read this year, especially with my new goal that has to do with short stories this year. :)

  11. Isn't Alice Munro the woman who doesn't read novels from front-to-back, but instead opens them up at random spots here and there and reads around in them until she gets a sense of the story? She writes in the same sort of way, doesn't she?

    I have a Munro collection on my shelf that I swear I'll read this year. I've read a couple of her stories here and there, but I haven't spent any real time with her work.

    Michelle: Do I leave stuff out and jump around? I have often interrupted action scenes to do long flashbacks, but I've worn the grooves off of that trick and I'm not doing it in my WIP. My current book avoids Modernist mannerisms, I think.

  12. April, I hope I didn't turn you off to Munro because, really, she's an exquisite writer. Exquisite, I say!

    Dominique, Happy New Year to you too! I totally agree with you. I'd probably fall on my face too. Not to say that would keep me from trying.

    Anne, I agree with you that she's one of our greatest short story writers. She's probably my favorite short story writer living at the moment. That's really interesting that you'd compare Munro's stories to poems. That makes a lot of sense to me, but I've never thought of it that way before.

    Jenny, yeah, that's a really good point. I'm always impressed by a writer who can make me see a technique in a new light.

    Michelle, I wouldn't have thought to compare Munro's work to Scott's. I'll have to think about that! I think one thing I do see write away is that both rely heavily on scenes, and that's part of the reason there's some disorientation. A reader has to pick up clues instead of being told things, and that automatically means they'll come out of sequence. I wonder if that's what you're talking about too?

    Scott, Indeed that is how she reads, and I'm sure that informs how she organizes her stories. It's really fascinating to me that she does that. And it's changed the way I look at books and read myself. Do you know which of Munro's collections you have?

  13. Yes, Write In Scenes!

    I believe I have Too Much Happiness.

  14. The first story in Too Much Happiness is written beautifully with an odd ending that I have gotten into arguments over. I do hope you read it.


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