Monday, November 28, 2005

Alice Munro Gets Jiggy in "Wenlock Edge"

This week's New Yorker has a story from Alice Munro, "Wenlock Edge," that I won't be surprised to see in next year's BASS. Not that I like the story that much (I'm not a huge Munro fan), but she almost always gets one selected for BASS, and this one's funky enough to get more than the usual attention.

I've only read it once, and it deserves a more careful read. On the surface, it's the story of a college girl, something of a bookworm, who is forced to room with a young woman (Nina) who, at the age of twenty-two, has already lived a fairly riotous life. She has had three children (one died, the other two live with their grandmother) and is kept by a wealthy old man. She wears a kimono, and only audits college classes, playing the part of a student while the old man's matronly spy keeps an eye on her.

In the story's central scene, the narrator agrees to fill in for an ailing Nina and have dinner alone with Nina's elderly benefactor. When the narrator arrives for dinner, she is required to strip naked, which she does to prove that she is not "just a bookworm". Then she eats dinner with the old man (who is fully clothed) and later reads to him the A.E. Housman poem, "Wenlock Edge," in which the narrator muses about the impermanent but recurring nature of life and its troubles (to reduce the poem to a bland abstraction).

Ultimately, Nina runs away with the narrator's older male cousin for a week before apparently returning to the sugar daddy. At the end, the narrator reveals that she anonymously informed the old man of Nina's whereabouts.

I'll come back to this after another reading. But from a craft perspective, my first impression is that this is a useful example of counterpointing: using two characters who are opposites (at least on the surface) to highlight the characterization of one or both. Also, in contrast to some other stories I've discussed recently, there is no built-in narrative arc. It takes quite a while and quite a bit of patience to determine where Munro is headed, how long the story will last, and what is the purpose in reading it. This is typical of Munro, and probably why I don't tend to enjoy her work. However, I enjoyed this story, even if I had to force myself to read past the first thousand words.