Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Information, Please

Here's your assignment. Write a story based on the following facts: a young woman marries an older man and they have three children. One night, after an argument, the woman walks out and spends the night at a neighbor's house. When she returns the next day, the husband has murdered the children.

Too melodramatic? Too gruesome? Too plot-driven? In the hands of many writers, yes; in the hands of a master like Alice Munro, not at all, as we see in this week's New Yorker fiction, "Dimension."

How would you write such a story? What questions would it need to answer?

Some obvious questions:

  • Why did the husband kill the children?

  • How did the husband kill the children? (Admit it, you're curious)

  • Who was this husband? Who was this wife?

  • What was their argument about?

  • What is the aftermath of this event?

  • Munro answers the first four of these questions in fairly predictable ways. The husband is extremely paranoid and controlling; when his wife leaves, he smothers two of the children and chokes the third "to save them the misery... of knowing that their mother had walked out on them." Munro gives us an unsurprising, yet satisfying, backstory: the wife was sixteen when she met her husband, who was a hospital orderly tending to the wife's dying mother. He was an authority figure, an angel of mercy, and this vulnerable young girl was taken in. Thereafter, he mentally abuses her, controlling every aspect of her life. He forbids her to wear makeup. She may only laugh at something if he laughs first. She rationalizes his abusive behavior and hides it from others, telling herself that this behavior is simply his way, yet knowing how outrageous it would seem to an outsider.

    The heart of the story is in the aftermath, as Munro explores how the wife attempts to deal with her grief and her guilt. Of course she feels guilt, irrational as it may be; if she hadn't walked out, the children would be alive. Munro wraps her remorse in an image: early in the story, we are told that "she had cut her hair short and bleached and spiked it...." Later, just before the story's climactic scene, when she is on the verge of forgiving her husband for what he has done and accepting that her only purpose in life is to be with him, she thinks
    Aren’t I just as cut off by what happened as he is? Nobody who knew about it would want me around. All I can do is remind people of what nobody can stand to be reminded of.

    Disguise wasn’t possible, not really. That crown of yellow spikes was pathetic.
    A neat return to the spiky hair, her crown of thorns, her attempt to bear the burden of her husband's sin.

    From a craft perspective this story could be analyzed in several ways, but the point of my title ("Information, Please") is to draw attention to the way Munro builds and sustains tension by parceling out the facts. How and when to reveal information is always critical, and Munro knows how to string us along better than anyone. In "Dimension," the story begins at a time well after the crime has been committed, but Munro gives us not information, but a succession of clues. In the first paragraph, we see that the wife is making a laborious bus trip to a "facility." In the second paragraph, we learn that she likes her job as a motel maid because it means she doesn't have to talk to people. In the third paragraph, we are told
    None of the people she worked with knew what had happened.
    Come on, Alice, we shout, what happened? But no, no; oh, no. We have to earn that information.

    These and other clues lead us to suspect, eventually, that the husband has murdered the children, but our suspicions aren't confirmed until the halfway point, when we are given the scene in which the wife returns home and finds the children dead.

    That Munro gives us this scene almost exactly at the halfway point is significant. It gives the story the shape of a pyramid, with the most significant event placed at the peak. If the story had been written in a strictly chronological form, the murder of the children would have occurred much earlier, perhaps a quarter of the way through the narrative. Munro begins the story with a scene from the aftermath, and then weaves more aftermath scenes with backstory to enhance the tension, but also to delay the murder scene. Once we see our fears realized (i.e., that the father murdered the children), the rest of the story, all aftermath, is a downhill ride.