This Friday, as part of the New Yorker Festival, Alice Munro will be reading. For me, this event ranks right up there with another I attended last October–Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden. I’ll bet that, unless you know me very well, you’ve never heard these two artists mentioned in the same breath before. So let me tell you why I admire each of them, and why the comparison makes so much sense.
Although I am from New Jersey, my love of Alice Munro long predates my discovery of Bruce Springsteen. She writes short stories—no novels. Some consider Lives of Girls and Women or The Beggar Maid to be novels, but they are actually collections of linked short stories—each story works separately, but comprises a part of the whole. I believe in the integrity of short fiction as a literary form and Ms. Munro is one of the few writers who has made a career writing only that. Her protagonists are primarily, if not always, girls or women. She writes with complete honesty—these women are always flawed—they aren’t perfectly beautiful or good or strong. They always make mistakes. She allows them to be real. She writes using very simple, yet impeccably constructed, language and sentences.
Because she writes so solidly and so simply, she is able to get away with what most writers cannot. In “Wild Swans,” she puts a young girl who has been warned of molesters on trains next to a molester on a train. The reader knows immediately what will happen, but when it does, the situation becomes disconcertingly ambiguous. Ms. Munro doesn’t let herself, her characters or the reader off easy. While the language may be simple, no situation is ever clear.
Take this example from her story “Dimension”:
In the morning, early, Maggie drove her home. Maggie’s husband hadn’t left for work yet, and he stayed with the boys.
Maggie was in a hurry to get back, so she just said, “Bye-bye. Phone me if you need to talk,” as she turned the minivan around in the yard.
It was a cold morning in early spring, snow still on the ground, but there was Lloyd sitting on the steps without a jacket on.
“Good morning,” he said, in a loud sarcastically polite voice. And she said good morning, in a voice that pretended not to notice his.
He did not move aside to let her up the steps.
“You can’t go in there,” he said.
She decided to take this lightly.
“Not even if I say please? Please.”
He looked at her but did not answer. He smiled with his lips held together.
“Lloyd?” she said. “Lloyd?”
“You better not go in.”
“I didn’t tell her anything, Lloyd. I’m sorry I walked out. I just needed a breathing space, I guess.”
“Better not go in.”
“What’s the matter with you? Where are the kids?”
He shook his head, as he did when she said something he didn’t like to hear. Something mildly rude, like “holy shit.”
“Lloyd. Where are the kids?”
He shifted a little, so that she could pass if she liked.
Dimitri still in his crib, lying sideways. Barbara Ann on the floor beside her bed, as if she’d got out or been pulled out. Sasha by the kitchen door—he had tried to get away. He was the only one with bruises on this throat. The pillow had done for the others.
“When I phoned last night?” Lloyd said. “When I phoned, it had already happened.
“You brought it all on yourself,” he said.
Most writers wouldn’t attempt writing about something so sensationalistic outside of a genre piece. Munro manages it for a few reasons. One, the sentences are simple; there is no shock value being employed here. She chills the reader in tiny increments: “He shook his head” and “He shifted a little” here become as terrifying as the most gruesome details another writer might deliver. This—the murder of the narrator’s children by her husband—is also not the climax of the story. That comes later and centers on something that the narrator does, not something that has been done to her. The narrator, though flawed, has agency by the end of the story.
Alice Munro also uses her home landscape—Ontario—as the setting for the vast majority of her work. Similarly, Bruce Springsteen’s narrative world is centered in his home state of New Jersey. Growing up, I was always waiting to escape, as I wrote in a story, “the interminable lameness of Jersey.” In the last few years, though, I’ve come to appreciate not only the state itself, but writing about it, particularly Bruce Springsteen songs. He legitimates creating art about such a maligned place; he takes what people make fun of and finds the beauty, and tragedy, in it.
While Alice Munro can bring absolutely sensational events down to earth with her writing, Bruce Springsteen can elevate the most mundane moments. He focuses, as she does, on character, place, word choice and simplicity.
Take this excerpt from “Thunder Road”:
The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside
Darling you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me
Like Munro, Springsteen offers concrete details, bits of dialogue and real, flawed characters. She writes about a woman discovering her murdered children and manages to make it subtle; he writes about watching a girl walk out onto a porch—what a small moment!—and gives it echoes of something larger.
After reading the news this morning, I can’t help but append this argument to my original idea.
With the election coming up, I think it is especially important to cherish those people who can truly inspire. Reading Ms. Munro’s work, the reader is asked to experience violence against women, the economic burdens placed on mothers and how very difficult an unprivileged life can be. I am struck time and again by the lack of empathy and understanding expressed by so many main players on our political stage. If Sarah Palin read The Beggar Maid, before she likely would try to ban it, would she think twice about some of her positions? She considers herself a feminist because she can shoot a gun like a man. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Ms. Munro’s politics, but I know the characters in her stories at least would have plenty to say about that.
Bruce Springsteen brings his political views, in songs and speeches, to people who would probably not be open to hearing them otherwise. He isn’t afraid to lay it out there, even at the risk of making himself less popular with some of his fans. At his concert last year, the family sitting in front of me booed when he spoke about his fears for the country. But, when he launched into one of his most political new songs, they joined the rest of the audience and sang along with the chorus. Its message, first articulated by someone that family probably didn’t vote for, boomed more than five thousand voices strong:
Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?