Friday, May 18, 2012


Someone once said that an Alice Munro short story is as complicated as any novel.  This 2009 story is proof positive.  O. Henry could have learned a lot from her (see 

 “Fiction” can be read  as the tragic story of a woman on a constant quest for ego-enhancement, for whom relationships are a means to the end of her own fulfillment, or it can be read as a comic story of a woman who repeatedly makes herself look ridiculous by her own self-importance.

 It can be read as a realistic representation of human experience as a maze of coincidences and intersections, a tangle of relationships, of memories, of forgetting, of recognition and non-recognition, of curiosity of story-telling, of manipulation, of complex motives, of self-creation and re-creation.

 It can be read as an ironic statement on the complexity of human experience, the mixed messages, the missed messages, the strange combination of false successes and real failures, of the reality of unreality and the unreality of reality.

 It can be read as a social commentary on the modern state of relationship roulette, of marriage, adultery, divorce, blended families, same-sex relationships; of individualism, the serial making, breaking and remaking of social ties; of the fragmentation in our social fabric and the fragility of social bonds; of the strange web of interconnectedness with its brokenness, and its mendedness.

 It can be read as the carefully crafted juxtaposition of a story within a story and the asymmetry of two different memories of the same episode from two different perspectives, in which what is marginal in one memory is central in the other.

 It can be read as the universal story of a failed quest for redemption, in which we humans are doomed to a cycle of continual compensation for our imperfections, like Sisyphus forever rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down once we get it to the top.

 But the story is called “Fiction,” and in the last line the main character imagines turning her disappointing experience into a “funny story.”  Thus the story “Fiction” is framed by references to story-telling, and at the center of the story is another “fictional” story.  Our attention is thus drawn to the relationship between fiction and truth, unreality and reality, to the significance of writing, reading, and the experience of textuality.

 The poet Donald Murray has said that “All writing is autobiography,” and there is a school of literary criticism that seems to say, by turns, that all reading is autobiography and/or that all writing is about writing and/or about reading.  This self-reflexive approach to fiction can begin to feel like a hall of mirrors, which is somewhat how the story “Fiction” feels.

 Alice Munro, who was divorced and remarried, became a writer and book-seller (a somewhat self-reflexive situation in its own right).  Her story “Fiction” is about Joyce, a music teacher, whose husband rejects her for the mother of one of her students.  Later, after Joyce has become the third wife of a college professor and left teaching to become a professional cellist, she crosses paths again with that former student, Christie, who has married the friend of Joyce’s second husband’s son by his first wife.

 As if this tangled maze of relationships were not enough, Christie has just published a book of short stories, one of which, “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”), recounts the story of a child whose mother moves in with her music teacher’s husband.  (The title suggests a coming of age story.)

 To the extent that Christie’s story is based on her own experience, her memory of it is very different from Joyce’s memory of the same episode.  Joyce barely remembers the details of Christie’s account (if they actually happened) and certainly had no knowledge, much less memory, of the events from Christie’s perspective.  She had no idea that Christie had been so lovingly attached to her as her music teacher and she has no awareness of having manipulated Christie in order to gain access to details of the relationship between her husband and Christie’s mother, at least as Christie tells it.  The layers of complexity continue to mount.  The hall of mirrors makes it ever more difficult to distinguish between the flesh and blood of reality and the reflections distorted in the mirrors of memory and of fiction.

 We read Alice Munro’s story about Joyce, who reads Christie’s story about the memory of her relationship with Joyce, which Joyce compares with her own memory of Christie.  If all reading (and writing) is autobiography, then all writing (and reading) is memory, and all memory is a distorted mirror image of the reality that actually took place.  Thus all fiction is memory and all memory is fiction.

 In Joyce’s memory Christie is a minor character, whose name Joyce can barely recall.  In Christie’s memory Joyce is a central character, the adored teacher.  Even when, as an adult, Christie realizes how Joyce had “used” her, she is able to forgive because of the beauty of the music and the “love” of the teacher, however false.  “It almost seemed as if there must be some random and of course unfair thrift in the emotional housekeeping of the world, if the great happiness—however temporary, however flimsy—of one person could come of the great unhappiness of another.”

 Joyce is so moved by the story and its conveniently self-justifying (for Joyce) moral that she takes her copy of Christie’s book back to the bookstore (Alice Munro was a book-seller) to have it signed by the author (Alice Munro was a published author).  Despite Joyce’s attempt to draw attention to herself, Christie is utterly oblivious as to who she is.  Memory, it seems, is one thing; recognition is another.

 In the end Joyce is as unimportant to Christie as Christie once was to Joyce.  Just as Christie salvaged her disappointment through fiction, so Joyce attempts to salvage hers by imagining that “This might even turn into a funny story that she would tell someday.”

 Just as Joyce has used Christie to construct a mental “story” of the life her husband was living with Christie’s mother, so Christie uses the memory of Joyce to create her work of fiction, and perhaps Joyce will again use Christie, this time to create her own “funny story.”

 Not only are we all figments of our own imaginations, but we are figments of others’ imaginations, as they are figments of ours.  Thus does the real become unreal and the unreal become real, the truth become fiction and fiction, the story we tell ourselves and others, become truth.