Retrospective Recursion

  • Robert Thacker
    Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013. University of Calgary Press (purchase at
  • Robert Thacker (Editor)
    Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Runaway, Dear Life. Bloomsbury (purchase at
  • David Staines (Editor)
    The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro. Cambridge University Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Lorraine York

These three volumes, all appearing in 2016, form part of the first generation of post-Nobel Prize Alice Munro criticism. Though some of the essays contained therein predate her Nobel win (the earlier essays by Robert Thacker collected in his Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013 being the most obvious examples), the volumes containing them are all framed by her Nobel win. Positioning that win as the culmination of a growing fund of cultural capital, all three volumes draw upon a triumphal recognition narrative.

The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro, edited by David Staines, is certainly a canon-confirming exercise; Munro is only the second Canadian writer to be “Cambridged,” after Margaret Atwood, whose volume, edited by Coral Ann Howells (who has an absorbing essay in this Munro volume), appeared in 2006. Scanning the list of the titles of Cambridge Companions discloses an Anglo-American emphasis and, more specifically, an emphasis on white writers. As a volume, Staines’ is distinguished by a mixture of contributors both academic and writerly; essays by noted Munro scholars Robert McGill and Howells, for instance, rub shoulders with writers’ perspectives on Munro by Elizabeth Hay, Merilyn Simonds, Douglas Glover, and fellow Cambridge subject Atwood. I wondered why Staines did not make more of this intriguing combination in his introduction. His own contribution, “From Wingham to Clinton: Alice Munro in Her Canadian Context,” is somewhat anecdotal and descriptive (presumably for readers unfamiliar with Munro), leaning more on the early development of her career than on her late works, which are briefly telescoped into one paragraph (though various contributors do draw on them in their individual essays).

What several of the contributors to this collection offer us is a fascinating view of Munro as a recursive writer: a writer whose creative practice is all about obsessive return as both methodology and epistemology. Glover observes that Munro operates by contravention rather than assertion; Atwood agrees, identifying “the forced linkage of radically different adjectives or anecdotes representing mutually exclusive realities, both of which are then affirmed,” as the ineffable “Munro signature.” McGill takes the most pointed approach to what he calls Munro’s “poetics of recursion,” showing how she challenges notions of progressive development both in the human narratives she creates and in her own narrative as a writer whose recursive attachment to the short story challenges the assumption that short-story writers are in temporary apprenticeship to the crowning literary achievement of writing a novel. And in implicit tribute to that mode, W. H. New performs what I would call a recursive reading of The Moons of Jupiter—returning to the volume and seeing the patterns of looping return and echo in that collection. In effect, New takes to heart Munro’s famous description of her way of reading a short story—starting anywhere and reading around the story, because a story is “not like a road to follow . . . It’s more like a house”—and offers readings of The Moons of Jupiter that begin from the beginning, the middle, and the end, in a bravura act of critical homage.

The attention that some of these critics, most notably Howells, direct toward the non-fiction work (from the early “Working for a Living” memoir of her father to the final four stories in Dear Life that Munro calls “the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life”) is responsive to the fragile construction of non-fiction in Munro’s oeuvre. As McGill argues, Munro has always been careful to blur the lines, both in her practice and in her interview comments, between fiction and non-fiction, the better to avoid yet another narrative of “development” that would place fiction on a higher echelon of creative achievement than non-fiction.

If I were to wish for more from this collection, it would be for a bit more edginess of the sort that Howells and McGill demonstrate; the critical perspectives and theories that animate current work in literature seem fairly thin on the ground here (disability studies is a notable absence). For instance, although Munro’s engagement with gender is often invoked, the one essay entirely devoted to her feminism (by Maria Löschnigg) is entitled “‘Oranges and apples’: Alice Munro’s Undogmatic Feminism.” The titular proposition undergirds a somewhat conservative assumption that one must guard against the other type.

Thacker’s edition of essays on three late collections published by Munro between 2001 and 2012—Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Runaway, Dear Life—offers a welcome opportunity to think about the concept of “late style” in relation to Munro, though the volume is not conceptually framed in this way. It is rather surprising that, for example, the influential work of Edward Said in On Late Style (a volume that, fittingly and sadly, was left unfinished at his own death in 2003) is not a stronger presence here, not to mention the work that has emerged in the years since that challenges the very notion of “late style,” such as Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon’s Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen and Britten (2015). Instead, here, late style is assumed to be a crowning, deepening maturation: precisely the characterization of late style that Said sought to question.

Let it be said in all fairness, however, that critics of Munro have ample reason to invoke a notion of maturity; the philosophical depths, the complexities of volumes like Runaway, Dear Life, Too Much Happiness, and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage offer opportunities aplenty for a close examination of a literary sensibility that prizes complexity over superficiality, inconclusiveness over pat conclusions. (Here too, Said’s thought, especially his challenge to the idea that late style was marked by closure and resolution, would be apropos.) And there are significant developments in Munro’s writing over the decades of her career, though the much-vaunted movement toward inconclusiveness is one that I, for one, feel has been overstated. There are, however, shifts over the course of her writing career, like the “deepening geological sensibility” that Thacker draws our attention to in his introduction to this volume.

The essays on Dear Life, gathered together at the end of Thacker’s collection, are particularly strong; Munro’s finale has brought forth a richness of insight on the part of critics who are aware that they are, in all probability, witnessing a writer’s farewell to the page and to her “dear life.” Ailsa Cox brings a very welcome focus on disability studies and on comedy (a topic arguably underanalyzed in Munro’s work) to this volume in her essay “‘Rage and Admiration’: Grotesque Humor in Dear Life.” Invoking Munro’s late collections’ “increasing engagement with encroaching mortality,” she shows how those volumes’ concerns with “chronic illness, disability, and disfigurement” allow for a “grotesque realism” that “reinstates the materiality of the human body.” Keeping the Staines volume’s concern with recursivity in mind here, one can question the extent to which this concern is a product of Munro’s late work (think: Milton Homer), but it’s undeniably the case that the aging body has increasingly become the grounds upon which Munro has focused her study of the “grotesque” as cause for both “rage” and “admiration.”

Linda M. Morra’s contribution to this section on Dear Life also introduces a focus not as often directed toward Munro’s stories as one might wish: theories of intimacy and affect. Building from Sara Ahmed’s notion of the sociality of emotions and Lisa Lowe’s reframing of intimacy as a force of social production that inducts subjects into (or out of) communities and their predominant ethical codes, Morra reads Dear Life’s “Finale,” those final four stories, as exploring the “‘conditions of possibility’ generated by various levels of intimacy and the processes by which she expresses herself against or within those values.” Morra shows us how belonging in Munro is contingent and shifting, and how, as a result, we may become complicit with behaviours or feelings that we may recognize as suspect or “morally questionable.” This is a perceptive and wise way of reading that most poignant conclusion of “Finale”: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.”

Retrospection and recursion are the dominant modes and moods of Thacker’s other book under review here: Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013. It is a collection of Thacker’s writings on Munro from his earliest essays and reviews in the 1980s to a 2013 review of critical insights into Munro’s writing. But as the start date of Thacker’s subtitle suggests, we have here a retrospective not only of a critical writer but also of a reader—perhaps Munro’s most abiding public reader. Nineteen seventy-three marks the date the recently graduated Thacker, contemplating graduate school in Canada, opened the first issue of his Tamarack Review subscription to discover Munro’s brilliant metafictional story “Material.” Throughout those forty years and more, Thacker has devoted the greater share of his career to the study of Munro’s writing. The pieces collected here attest to the various venues in which that attachment played out, from reviews of her work, to reviews (often demanding and occasionally sharp-tongued) of other Munro critics’ work, to full-length essays on Munro’s stories, to large-scale assessments of the Munro critical industry—for such it is—in formation. Such a volume cannot, of course, capture the other, major dimension of Thacker’s devotion to Munro’s career: his definitive biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (2005). But even so, what we have here is, in effect, a reassessment of a scholarly life—a professional autobiography in critical essays and reviews—devoted to a writer whose persistent concern was the act of reassessment.

What does this rich retrospective tell us? First of all, it tells us that Thacker knew from the beginning that Munro was a writer of extraordinary talents. He also had an early sense of those threads in her work that would turn out to absorb her critics decades later; his influential essay “‘So Shocking a Verdict in Real Life’: Autobiography in Alice Munro’s Stories” is a case in point, as critics like Morra and Cox now ponder Munro’s presumably final autobiographical gestures in Dear Life. It also tells us that a richly recursive writer like Munro has, in this instance, inspired a critic whose methods and concerns (he frankly says “something of an obsession”) are also arguably recursive in nature. A close reader, not drawn to contemporary theory’s explicit musings on critical assumptions, Thacker is focused on the text in a way that one might loosely call New Critical, but his is a textuality that is informed by community, history, autobiography, and always, always, the archive. A critic who has chided other critics for not making use of the extensive Munro archives at the University of Calgary, Thacker has made ample use of those textual layers, seeing in Munro’s stories a palimpsest of creative ideas, experiments, and designs, so it is fitting that this retrospective volume should be published by the University of Calgary Press.

These three volumes, all published in the aftermath of Munro’s Nobel Prize, do not simplistically or univocally represent the criticism of her stories. It is true that they tend, for the most part, not to represent work that is informed by explicitly theoretical frameworks, and that tendency may be suggestive of a body of criticism that has always featured a certain amount of relatively conservative critical practice. But they also tell us about a community of scholarly readers and writers who have been drawn, and drawn again, recursively, to the multi-layered and epistemologically elegant writings of Alice Munro.

This review “Retrospective Recursion” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 164-167.

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