All Out of Proportion: Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley”

Charles May’s recent blog post (Part One) comparing Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” and Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” had me trying once again to find something I like about an Alice Munro short story.  I enjoyed “Stone Mattress.”  I have yet to read a short story by Alice Munro that I’ve found enjoyable.  My irritation with her stories seems all out of proportion.  And I’ve never been able to put my finger on the precise reason for that irritation.  It’s very frustrating to read worshipful paeans to Alice Munro’s stories with the feeling that I just can’t participate in the adulation – that maybe I’m just not quite smart enough to “get” what Munro is up to.  May says (apologies if I am not paraphrasing this correctly) that in the details of her stories, Munro compiles patterns of language that, taken together, make thematic and artistic statements.

Could parsing out some patterns in my native language really be that much harder than analyzing patterns of submarine operations?  Couldn’t I “get it” just by working hard enough?  May left the explication of “Leaving Maverley” to Part Two of his post, and the last time I visited Reading the Short Story, that second part was not yet up.  So I thought I’d make a stab at a careful reading of “Leaving Maverley” on my own.  I wanted to know if I could find something – anything – to admire.

The reading method I used was the same one that my younger son learned in fourth grade:  in a first reading, highlight and note down anything that seems significant.  Put it in the left-hand column of a divided page.  Put thoughts & comments about the snippets in the right-hand column.  Then I took it one step further.  I went back and reorganized the snippets, grouping like things together under some general categories, to see if any kind of patterns emerged.  Here’s what I found.

Title.  “Maverley” sounds about as made-up as a name gets.  It sounds an awful lot like “Waverley” – all you have to do is invert the “W.”  Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels were popular and romantic.  Is the story about leaving something popular and romantic – perhaps a form of popular and romantic literature – behind?  Uh-oh.  Sound the alarm:  metafiction alert. 

First sentence:  “In the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town there was one in this town, too, in Maverley, and it was called the Capital, as such theatres often were.”  This sounds almost like the opening to a fairy tale.  Nothing I’ve ever read about Alice Munro suggests that she plays with fairy tales.  But this sentence seems like a pretty clear marker that we’re about to read something fabulous, perhaps with an embedded moral.  Now I’m thinking, “allegorical metafiction.”  This causes me an almost physical pain.  Perhaps the characters aren’t really characters – they’re personified ideas.  Oh, dear.  I hope they at least do something a little interesting.  There are pages and pages of this story to go.

The first character the reader meets is Morgan Holly, the owner of the Capital theater.  He’s a cantankerous fellow who prefers “to sit in his upstairs cubbyhole managing the story on the screen.”  Sounds like a typical writer to me:  hiding out and managing little story-people.  The choice of a theater as the story’s opening setting also suggests that the reader should pay attention to things that are artificial, story-related, popular, and plot-driven.  Answering the questions of the new ticket-taker’s father, Holly “doesn’t hire a ticket-taker to gab with the customers” and “did not hire his ticket-takers to give them a free peek at the show.”  But he lies about her ability to hear the dialogue while the movie is running.  Why dialogue particularly? What’s so special about dialogue?  He also says that he doesn’t know what there was to be scared of in a place like Maverley.  Indeed.  What is there to be scared of in popular, romantic fiction?  (Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe good fiction should scare us.)  Holly drops out of the story about a third of the way in – poof, finito, gone.  He’s no longer necessary to the story, and it’s fine to send him away without much of a farewell.  Good-bye, writer.

The next character up is Leah, a young woman from a very religious family who has hired on as Holly’s new ticket-taker.  The first (and only) thing she tells Holly – who isn’t particularly interested in his employees as real people anyway – is that her name is out of the Bible.  Like Jacob’s unwanted first wife, Leah.  In classical literary tradition (e.g., in Canto XXVII of Dante’s Purgatorio), Leah symbolically represents the active (non-monastic) life.  She is also fruitful and bears Jacob many children.  Because of her father’s religious rules, the Leah of “Leaving Maverley” can’t walk home alone on Saturday nights; the town’s night shift police officer, Ray, is drafted into escorting her home. 

After learning that Leah has no idea what the plot of a story is, Ray begins explaining movie concepts to her (more on this below).  He tells his wife that Leah has “…something in her…that made her want to absorb whatever you said to her, instead of just being thrilled or mystified by it.  Some way in which he thought she had already shut herself off from her family…She was just rock-bottom thoughtful.” He thinks that Leah is moving on, and sure enough, she’s the first character in the story to leave Maverley – to break with tradition.  She runs off to marry the United Church minister’s sax-playing son, whom she met while ironing for the minister’s wife (hardly, Ray thinks, much of a foray into the world compared to the theater). This surprises the gossip circuit, because it seems that she only ever met the fellow once (though Isabel remembers that he was flirtatious and forward). In fact, he writes “Surprise Surprise” at the bottom of her letter to his parents.  The whole elopement seems like a kind of cliché to me, no real surprise at all; and perhaps it is only the citizens of traditional, romantic Maverley who are truly surprised by the wedding.

Leah pops in and out of Maverley like the mole in a whack-a-mole game.  She comes back with his kids, but flirts with Ray at the post office…has an adulterous affair with the new minister himself…and loses the kids to her mother-in-law.  She leaves town again and goes to work at the hospital in the city, where Ray encounters her again.  The reader might be forgiven for mistaking this for plot.  Ray’s comment on the scandal suggests that what lies behind Leah’s comings and goings – her vacillation between tradition and scandalous modern conduct – is more important than whether she wants to start something with Ray, has had an adulterous with the new UC minister, or has done the nasty with an entire regiment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  He characterizes the scandalous gossip as  “…revolting chatter. Adulteries and drunks and scandals – who was right and who was wrong?  Who could care?  That girl had grown up to preen and bargain like the rest of them.  The waste of time, the waste of life, by people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered.”  Is this what Munro thinks we’re doing if we’re reading traditional fiction?  Is that too much of a stretch?

Ray’s character begins in a kind of literary cliché as well.  He had joined the Air Force to go to war, because it promised “the most adventure and the quickest death.” (Pretty good description of how I choose my genre-fiction beach reading every summer.)  He survives the war when his old crew does not, and he develops survivor’s guilt – “a vague idea that he had to do something meaningful with the life that had so inexplicably been left to him, but he didn’t know what.” This seems like another traditional convention – something that has been said and done before, and that smacks of plot, especially because he doesn’t seem to do anything meaningful with the life – at least the part of his life that the reader sees. 

Ray enrolls in school after the war and falls in love with Isabel, his married English teacher; she breaks tradition, divorces her bemused husband, and marries Ray.  Like Leah’s sister and nemesis Rachel, Isabel is barren.  And she and Ray can talk about everything – except whether or not they are disappointed that she can’t have children. 

Other than that, Isabel and Ray can talk “anytime about anything” – at least, until Leah disappears.  Isabel’s reading tastes are described in some detail.  She forms a women’s group to read Great Books: “A few had not understood what this would really be like and dropped out, but aside from them it was a startling success.  Isabel laughed about the fuss there would be in Heaven as they tackled poor old Dante.”  She also reads magazines – described by Munro in a way that is clearly a big sloppy wet kiss for The New Yorker, which has published many of her stories:  “…serious and thought-provoking but with witty cartoons that she laughed at.”  Isabel laughs at cartoons, news of the town, magazine ads for furs and jewels.  Isabel has a heart condition that forces her to quit teaching: “She could never teach again.  Any infection would be dangerous, and where is infection more rampant than in a schoolroom?”  In traditional literature, Rachel symbolizes the contemplative or monastic life (which might include academia these days); but the comment about schoolroom infections certainly sounds to me like a poke in the eye of academia. Hmm.

One important function that Isabel seems to have is that of providing a kind of lit-crit commentary on the story of Leah.  When Leah runs off with the minister’s son, Isabel finds that to be “a great story.”  Later, upon being told of the scandalous affair between Leah and the new minister, she says that Leah’s story “sounds pretty commonplace, after all.”

Isabel and Ray’s conversations are brought to a temporary halt first by Leah’s disappearance, and then more permanently by Isabel’s illness.  In the first instance, the fault is Ray’s:  his conversation circles back to his visit with the (first) United Church minister.  Isabel’s only response is a cynical comment on the futility of prayer. 

In the second instance, Isabel has also left Maverley.  She is in the hospital in the city, and has become too ill to enjoy her former pastimes.  He tries to distract her “with lively talk of the past, or observations about the hospital and other patients he got glimpses of.  He took walks almost every day, in spite of the weather, and he told her all about those as well.  He brought a newspaper with him and read her the news.”  He hopes that these stories will somehow revive her.  She says that it’s good of him, but she seems to be “past it.”

Two final things – themes? – that I noticed in patterns in the story are religion and the craft of stories. 

There are three religious perspectives mentioned in the story.  There is the traditional fundamentalism of Leah’s father, who seems to believe that stories like the ones shown in the theater will corrupt his daughter and whose religion seems to be based on rules.  (The second time Ray meets Leah, he thinks that her traditional religious upbringing hasn’t completely been eradicated from her psyche.)  By contrast, Isabel is an atheist:  she jokes that her pericarditis is God’s punishment for her amorous adventure, which is a waste of time since she doesn’t believe in God anyway.  Finally there are the two United Church ministers – the “old” one, whom Isabel characterizes as “a very up to date minister who went in more for the symbolic,” and his replacement, who doesn’t wear his clerical collar and who seems uncomfortable ministering in public.  When caught out with Leah, he makes a public declaration: 

 “Everything had been a sham, he said.  His mouthing of the Gospels and the commandments he didn’t fully believe in, and most of all his preachings about love and sex, his conventional, timid, and evasive recommendations:  a sham.  He was now a man set free, free to tell them what a relief it was to celebrate the life of the body along with the life of the spirit.”

This UC minister, Carl, never marries Leah.  He eventually marries another (female) minister, and now serves as minister’s wife. 

I could be dead wrong here, but I don’t think these contrasts have much to do with actual religious beliefs.  I think they’re a stand-in for various critical positions on literature.  This is where I regret not taking a graduate level class in literary theory.  (No, really, I don’t regret that.  But.)  I don’t know enough about lit crit to understand fully what Munro means.  If she were one of my Russians, the story would come with a lengthy footnote excerpting the author’s letters to her contemporaries, in which she took grand positions on matters of critical philosophy.  I could use that kind of help here!

Finally, in “Leaving Maverley” Munro stacks up what I read as a kind of indictment of artifice in literary craft.  First, Ray has to tell Leah what a plot is – that it means that a story is being told.  He prefaces his explanation by telling her that “he didn’t get too involved in the movies, seeing them as he did, in bits and pieces.  He seldom followed the plots.” 

Then there’s a wonderful passage in which Ray is explaining movies to Leah:

“He was called upon not to tell any specific story – which he could hardly have done anyway – but to explain that the stories were often about crooks and innocent people [the antagonists and protagonists!] and that the crooks generally managed well enough at first by committing their crimes and hoodwinking [action!] people singing in night clubs (which were like dance halls) or sometimes, God knows why, singing on mountaintops or in some other unlikely outdoor scenery, holding up the action [setting and pacing!].  Sometimes the movies were in color [sensory detail!].  With magnificent costumes if the story was set in the past.  Dressed-up actors making a big show of killing one another.  Glycerin tears running down ladies’ cheeks.  Jungle animals brought in from zoos, probably, and teased to act ferocious [artifice! Verisimilitude!].  People getting up from being murdered in various ways the moment the camera was off them.  Alive and well, though you had just seen them shot or on the executioner’s block with their heads rolling in a basket.”  [This, perhaps, is the ultimate crime of popular fiction:  it lies about the reality and finality of death.]

There are a few more jabs at literary craft.  On point of view & language: “She could almost have been one of Isabel’s new friends, who were mostly either younger or recently arrived in this town, though there were a few older, once more cautious residents, who had been swept up in this bright new era, their former viewpoints dismissed and their language altered, straining to be crisp and crude.” On voice:Leah greeted him with a new voice and pretended to be amazed that he had recognized her, since she had grown – as she put it – into practically an old lady.”  The new voice is a seductive one, and she uses it to talk to the new UC minister, with whom she eventually has an affair.  Finally, on naming:  Ray notes that the names of Leah’s children, David and Shelley, are “fashionable.”

The final section of  “Leaving Waverley” takes place after Isabel dies (while Ray is fending off a last scandalous hit from Leah in the hospital basement fitness room).  This section struck me as being noticeably different from the rest of the piece in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Ray ties up some logistical details after Isabel’s death, much as Munro is tying up the end of the story;  “Leaving Maverley” ends on an odd note of loss.  Ray has lost Isabel, of course, but that’s just a kind of plot point.  He thinks about Leah’s loss of her children, and how she is an expert at losing compared to him.  One of the things he has lost is Leah’s name; when he remembers it, his relief is “out of all proportion.”  That phrase seems too significant to mean “out of all proportion for what Ray felt about Leah;” it seemed to be about something else altogether.  Perhaps he has lost some connection to or memory of the active life because he has left Maverley? 

At that point, I was lost too.  I can’t for the life of me see how the idea of what is lost and what remains ties back to any of the other thematic ideas I thought had been developing over the course of the story.  That makes me wonder if I was barking up the wrong tree all along.

Taking a leap of faith, I’m going to ask:  what is lost and what remains when we “leave Maverley” – when literature (its writers? its critics?) depart from traditional, romantic, plot-driven stories?  From the artifice that is at the heart of fiction?  I don’t have an answer to that, unless it’s that one gets an Alice Munro story that must be absorbed, because it neither thrills nor mystifies in a traditional way.

For whatever reason, I thought I was hearing Munro’s voice the loudest in the character of Isabel.  I picture her answering my question about “Leaving Maverley” in the same way that Ray imagines Isabel responding to the “revolting chatter” about Leah’s affair:  “Not that Isabel would have been looking for answers – rather, that she would have made him feel as if there were more to the subject than he had taken account of.  Then she’d have ended up laughing.”

And that, my friends, is the bottom line on why I don’t enjoy Alice Munro’s stories.  She makes me feel as if there’s more to the story than I’ve taken account of.  Then she ends up laughing.

Posted in Literary Criticism, Reading, Stories | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

January 5 Walk and Philip Levine

Thursday, January 5, 2012.  Reading:  Philip Levine, “Ask for Nothing.”  Not having been a literature major, I had to look up Philip Levine.  Was a little embarrassed to learn that he is the 2011-2012 U.S. Poet Laureate and I’d never even heard of him. Poetry really deserves more respect in this country!  Selection of the next poet laureate should have been front-page news; I’d much rather hear about a good poet than about any of the Republican candidates for President!  In “Ask for Nothing,” the narrator of the poem addresses the reader, as if we are walking together and he is pointing out things I might not have noticed on my own.  I don’t need to ask for anything, he seems to say, because in the moonlight there is only one road and it leads everywhere.  I wonder about the choice of the last word.  If the road led anywhere, instead of everywhere, would I have greater control over my ultimate destination?

Today’s walk was about two miles through a neighborhood on a bluff above the Chesapeake Bay.  A friend who lives there invited me – although not gated, the neighborhood is open only to residents and their guests.  Forty years ago, it was one of several enclaves of vacation homes on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  The houses are either ranchers or rambling seaside cottages.  Some two-story colonials with vinyl siding appeared there, interlopers, in the last decade or two; but the neighborhood still has a vacation-home feel.  Today the air was warmer, and the wind finally died down.  Only a tiny bit of last night’s snow remained after sunup – a light frosting on the northern sides of trees, grayish rime in the dark cracks of the asphalt.  We took our dogs along this morning.  Pippi, a Jack Russell terrier, kept jumping up at something in the air invisible to the human eye.  She dug her toes into the earth, rocked back on her haunches, and paused the parade to investigate every interesting smell along the way.  Skye, a somewhat overweight miniature schnauzer, trotted along amiably with her tail up.  She pulled against her harness when she wanted to join Pippi’s sniff-fest, or when she needed a bathroom break.  If I could write poetry, I would find meaning in and write about the unique, wintry blue of the Bay below us and the crunchy tan weeds between the dormant lawns.  I would write about the way that a golden harrier eyed us (or perhaps our tasty little dogs) from a telephone wire fifteen feet overhead, and then sailed away into the woods in search of easier prey.  If our dogs could write poetry about today’s walk, I think they would have different things to say altogether.

Posted in Journey, Quest, Reading, Walking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Walk, January 3, 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012.  Reading:  Dorothy Wordsworth, excerpt from The Alfoxden Journal (January 20 – February 3, 1798). Journal entries about walks in the countryside and along the seashore in Somerset, near Alfoxden House. Jammed with metaphor, simile, personification of nature.  Sentence fragments.  I can’t imitate Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing, but did try to imitate her powers of observation.  What I saw was less on the ground than in my own mind.

            Today I walked a route taken almost daily when I was a child: from my parents’ front door to that of my best friend.  The sky was low, overcast, pearlescent gray, spitting showers of snow at me sideways.  Twenty degrees Fahrenheit; gusts of wind in the 15-20 knot range.  Black spikes of grass sticking up through half an inch of powder.  Snow hats on the shrubberies.  The walk can be understood in terms of geographical fact:  I thought the distance to be about a half-mile, but Google Maps says that it is less than half of that.  From the house where I grew up to the corner of Walnut Street:  305 feet.  From this corner down the hill to Poplar Street:  285 feet.  Turn left, and pancake-flat Poplar Street runs 325 feet to an imaginary boundary at the foot of a wickedly steep hill and becomes Pinewood Drive.  My best friend’s house was 62 feet up this hill, near the ridge, on the left.  The neighborhood is set at the edge of a mile-wide valley that was once the bed of the prehistoric river that drained most of the Ohio River basin.  The eroded river bank rises to the south; the houses are either built on foothills of sediment and rock deposited in the riverbed, or along the edge of the valley floor that was once the river bottom.  There is an old joke that in suburban America, developers cut down all the trees and then name the streets after them.  This isn’t exactly true of our development.  Until the late 1950s, it was a farm belonging to the Thompson family, and the houses were built in what was most likely the Thompsons’ nearly-treeless pasture.  The developers curled Pinewood Drive in a U around a stand of tall, skinny longleaf pines, and they left two old walnut trees that may have marked a house or the corner of a field at the intersection of my street and Walnut. I was standing under one of those walnut trees in August of 1977, when a friend told me the unthinkable news that Elvis Presley was dead.  The other walnut tree soon went to join Elvis; a replacement was planted immediately.  In 1973, where the street will always live most vividly for me, I knew the name of every family living along the route – who had children, who were empty-nesters; whose job paid enough for a brick rancher, a cedar-shake bungalow, a cottage with a cinderblock foundation and a telltale shape that betrayed its origin as a double-wide mobile home.  I knew all the children personally: the late-life, unexpected baby girl; the handsome teenage boy and his two brothers; the two beautiful girls who babysat us; the talented majorette with a wild mass of honey-colored hair and a flashing baton, and the jolly girl beside her who was too old to play with us and too young to babysit us.  The boys at the end of the street who had a nasty German shepherd named Captain and a garage band –they played Beatles tunes all day in the summer until about 1975.  Studious, moody Karen. Debbie, who played with Barbie dolls until she was nearly sixteen, and who made them have sex in the Barbie Camper until Barbie caught Ken cheating on her with Malibu PJ.  I knew the crazy dad who photographed rainbows over our houses and tried to sell us the prints, and the single working mom – a rara avis in that time and place.  I knew the empty lot that was best for building ramps and practicing wheelies on my bike, and the one where my babysitter had broken her collarbone when she was playing tackle football with the neighborhood boys.  I knew that septic tanks drained gray water into the ditches along the streets, and I didn’t play in them – especially on Poplar Street, where the level grade and clay soil caused the water to stagnate, to turn the grass a bright psychedelic shade of green, and to exhale methane-breath on us at the end of a hot day.  Today, there is city sewer service and the ditches are empty.  I notice that several of the lots were subdivided long ago and parts were sold to pay for a new car or a semester of college.  I now know only two of the neighbors along the way.  I mince along the asphalt on a fine layer of snow, because my center of gravity has shifted somewhat with age; all around me, flowing translucent and shining through the winter landscape, are the long slow summers of the 1970s; the green and giving pasture, divided and sold before I was born; and the deep waters of the ancient, mighty, and vanished River Teays.

Posted in Journey, Quest, Reading, Uncategorized, Walking | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

New Year, Fresh Start

I’d like to take a couple of minutes out of the last hours of 2011 to thank everybody who stopped by for a look at my first attempt at a blog. 

Because I wandered off the road in September, I’ll be revising my reading plan next week for a fresh start in 2012.  (More on that another day; I can’t think seriously about important things like lists and literature after a glass of spiked eggnog.)

One new thing I want to try in 2012 is to post one paragraph every fourth day based on a book I found in our local used book store earlier this week.  I wasn’t looking for reading material; two of the blogs I follow had posted about purses made out of used hardback books, infecting me with a hideous green case of purse envy.  I wasn’t about to spend upwards of $50 on myself after Christmas for something I was pretty sure I could make myself, though.  Instead I spent $13.99 on the .pdf pattern at A Spoonful of Chocolate Hope on Etsy and set off to use some of my store credit at Second Looks Books.

It’s not easy to find a used hardback with an attractive cover – especially one that, morphed into a purse, will hold even a fraction of the junk I usually lug around with me.  (Reading material! Writing material!  Survival gear!)  The reference section and the shelf of anthologies seemed the most promising.   

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Knickerbocker Tales holds my (thin) wallet, phone, four pens in pen loops, my reading glasses, and a small notebook. Cutting out the pages was as painful as amputating one of my own body parts! But, considering my grades in high school Home Ec, I think it turned out pretty well.

I ended up not only decimating but exceeding my remaining store credit by $11.  I found two books to “repurpose,” and of course one to read:  The Walker’s Literary Companion, an anthology of poetry, fiction excerpts, and essays about the joys of walking.

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to try to read one of the 89 blessedly short selections from the book every fourth day and write a one-paragraph post about the text, my walk, or both.  The dog, my writing, and I all need more exercise. 

This may be, like many good New Year’s resolutions, doomed to failure; but I promised to take my nephew backpacking some place challenging, like the back country of Dolly Sods, this summer.  Unless I start walking more than once a week it’s really going to hurt.  Maybe a little reading treat now will give me more incentive to exercise than the shadowy prospect of sore muscles six months hence.

May you all be blessed with good friends and good reads in the New Year!

Posted in Journey, Reading | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Femme Fatale on a Cold, Hard Bed: Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress”

I was introduced to Margaret Atwood’s writing a few years ago in a class called “Novel Form, Style and Structure.” Novel survey classes never give one the time to think very deeply about a text; and I’d been completely entranced by The Blind Assassin on a very superficial level.  Only in the last pages did I realize that the book was layered with all kinds of imagery and symbolism that I’d missed altogether the first time around – and that I’d missed a great deal of the meaning as a result. The Blind Assassin went straightaway onto the “Books To Re-read” list.

Last week, when I read “Stone Mattress” in The New Yorker, I enjoyed the story greatly on a superficial level.  Atwood said in an interview that she’d written the story on an Arctic cruise, “after some idle conversation about whether one could murder someone on such a cruise and get away with it.”  It sounded like a superficial sort of thing, tossed off on the spur of the moment.  (Let me be clear:  any story I would write on an Arctic cruise would by definition be superficial.  I’d be too anxious to return to my puffin-watching to think deep thoughts or put them on paper.)  But it’s Margaret Atwood, and I had a feeling I’d missed the layers again.

So I read “Stone Mattress” once more.  Here are five things I found that I really liked.

Stromatolite cross-section. (Source:

1.       Stromatolite imagery. 

What a surprise – a stromatolite has layers!  It was a perfect centering image for the story, and for the character of Verna, both of which also have…layers.

“Here are the best stromatolites, a whole field of them.  There are unbroken ones, like bubbles or boils, small ones, ones as big as half a soccer ball.  Some have lost their tops, like eggs in the process of hatching.  Still others have been ground down, so that all that’s left of them is a series of raised concentric oblongs, like a cinnamon bun or the growth rings on a tree.

“And here’s one shattered into four like a Dutch cheese sliced into wedges.  Verna picks up one of the quarters, examines the layers, each year black, gray, black, gray, black, and at the bottom the featureless core.” 

Because of the Bob Incident, Verna’s life has been fractured.  She never fully hatched; she has been ground down.  Her life has been a series of black and gray years, aged husbands; at the bottom is the featureless core that Verna’s soul has become.

The prehistoric blue-green algae created the oxygen that Bob and Verna are breathing, and Bob and Verna’s shared history has created the conditions of the story’s present. “Stromatolite” is from the Greek words for “mattress” and “stone”; when Verna’s mother says that “Verna had made her bed, and now she would have to lie in it,” we know that it was a hard bed indeed: a veritable stone mattress.  The stromatolite becomes the murder weapon, and when Verna adds it to the rock table afterwards, it will acquire fingerprints and become not just a symbol of the past actions that have made Verna who she is and given her a motive for murder.  The fossil itself will become a mute accomplice to murder.  Folks, that stromatolite is one hard-working rock.

2.      Verna, the Femme Fatale.

At one level, Verna reads a bit like an aged character out of The Diary of Bridget Jones.  She checks out the guys, writes off the attached ones as being too much work, chooses killer clothing and positions her nametag to draw attention to her rack, and assesses her attractions (noting the need to be “fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring”). She rates the candidates by noting that Magnetic Northward attracts “serious punters,” a term meaning both “party animals” and “victims of a con man.”

I enjoyed Verna’s wry observations on aging (“though elderly noses aren’t as keen as they may once have been, it’s best to allow for allergies; a sneezing man is not an attentive man”) and feminine wiles (“a piggy, gobbling woman is not a creature of mysterious allure”).  She says she isn’t extravagant or greedy; she only ever wanted enough layers of money to protect herself from harm.  She shares with readers another woman’s hilarious comparison of a rogue walrus and liposuction.

But her wit masks a sinister layer, a more literal one, to her femme fatale image.  Verna is a Morgan le Fay-type enchantress, a stacked and layered fata morgana mirage whose sexual siren song will lure poor old Bob to his violent end.  (I saw a fata morgana in the Barents many years ago:  a Russian frigate put out to sea from the Kola Inlet, steaming along simultaneously rightside up and upside down. It was totally freaky.)  When Verna married, she’d “done her best to provide value for money,” murdering four hapless husbands with no regrets by giving them “tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire: to eat artery-clogging foods, to drink as much as they liked, to return to their golf games too soon.”

And she isn’t done. She claims to have renounced sin – the vices of flirtation and its consequences – but she considers the potential candidates for a flirtation all the same: “…there’s nothing wrong with a little warmup practice, if only to demonstrate to herself that she can still knock one off if she wishes to.”  Oh, she can.  And she will.

3.      Feminist Commentary

It wouldn’t be a Margaret Atwood story without some feminist commentary, would it?  I loved the image of Teenage Bob dancing around with Verna’s panty girdle on his head, straps “flopping around like jester’s bells.”  Verna thinks that panty girdles are “prehistoric,” that times are different now, that a girl would go on the Pill or have an abortion.  “How Paleolithic to still feel wounded by any of it,” she thinks.

4.      Clichés and Aphorisms.

But that image of Teenage Bob and the panty girdle is a slightly twisted version of an old teenage-boy cliché – as is slipping Verna a Mickey to get her to put out.  Bob himself is a cliché:  a teenage heartthrob, a football star, a great catch, the rich boy from the classy end of town.  And the story is chock-full of other clichés and aphorisms, for example: “there’s life in the old dog yet” and “old habits die hard.”  There are the timeless slogans of her taunters:  “Easy out! Can I have a ride? Candy’s dandy, but liquor’s quicker!”  Her mother’s reaction to the scandal is a whole string of aphorisms:  “Verna had made her own bed, and now she would have to lie in it.  No, she could not wallow in self-pity – she would just have to face the music, not that she would ever live it down, because one false step and you fell, that’s how life was.”  Atwood never lets up.  Verna goes to a Home for Unwed Mothers.  Her baby is taken from her and she is scarred, unable to bear more children; it’s as well, says a nurse, because “those sorts of girls made unfit mothers anyway.”  Bob “gets off scot-free, without consequences or remorse,” and his adult life is a cliché of success:  law school, marriage to his college sweetheart, three kids, five grandkids.  An aphorism has also turned Verna into a murderer:  “It was Bob who’d taught her that only the strong can win, that weakness should be mercilessly exploited.”  There are the cheap gift-shop gloves that Verna buys because she has read a lot of crime novels, and the let’s-get-together-for-a-drink banter between Bob and Verna.  As the murder scene unfolds, Verna’s second thoughts spill out in aphorism: “Shouldn’t she let bygones be bygones?  Boys will be boys.  Aren’t they all just hormone puppets at that age?”

One could argue that the entire story – murder on an Arctic cruise – is a kind of cliché, sort of like one of those murder mystery party games – Clue for adults – where participants come in costume and read clues aloud while trying to guess which of them is the murderer.  The superficiality and frequency of the aphorisms in “Stone Mattress” can lull the reader into thinking that the story is simple, light, almost a genre story.  But this is Margaret Atwood, and the clichés and aphorisms can’t be sloppy editing or immature writing – the kind of thing that one’s fiction workshop mates find and slash up brutally in one’s fifteen-page submission. Their use must be deliberate.  What on earth is Atwood up to?

I’m still not sure.  But I think that a possible key can be found in the sentence that followed Verna’s aphoristic second thoughts: “Why should any human being be judged by something that was done in another time, so long ago that it might be centuries?” The root of the word aphorism is boundary, and I think that Atwood is using cliché and aphorism to light up a flashing neon sign (cliché?) that points to a question of memory, judgment, history, and the boundaries of good and evil.

5.      Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord

Verna’s mother is a strict Presbyterian, so rigid in her notions and hardheaded that she was “unlikely to have been influenced by anything softer than a granite wall.”  (Though she has her own sordid past, her own stromatolithic layers; Verna’s father decamped, and she is a single mother in a “Paleolithic” time and place where being a single mom was judged scandalous in its own right.)

It’s a religious cliché – a stereotype – that Presbyterianism is an Arctic version of Christianity:  bleak, unforgiving, cold.  In that stereotype, we are all born to sin, and only some of us are predestined to go to Heaven. Good and bad are black and white; there are no layers, no gray.  God’s wrath and judgment of our actions and our faith take precedence over Christian love, wisdom, mercy, and compassion. And in murdering Bob, Verna has become this vengeful, judgmental God.  “Her sense of justice has remained Presbyterian:  she doesn’t want much more than her due, but she doesn’t want much less, either.  She likes balanced accounts.”

Verna’s third husband was fond of quoting poetry, and many of his favorite lines have stuck with her.  While she says that his passion was for the Victorians, who “always coupled sex with death,” she leaves his final favorite quote unattributed.  The story ends with a little “senior moment” – another cliché of aging. “Who was that poet anyway?  Keats?  Tennyson? Her memory isn’t what it was.  But the details will come back to her later.”

John Milton, courtesy Library of Congress

Final lines are often the most significant in a story, and I think that these are no exception.  As it turns out, “Calm of mind all passions spent” is not Victorian at all.  The quote is from John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, like “Stone Mattress” a tale of violence, vengeance, and judgment with its conflict rooted in sex and pride.  Atwood leaves the question of whether or not Verna gets away with murder unanswered, and she is equally non-prescriptive on the larger question of vengeance and judgment.  I think that these final lines ask readers to consider for themselves the relationship among memory, the boundaries of good and evil, judgment, and vengeance while hearing the story of how Verna takes a breather, does some inner accounting, and sheds some worn skin.  To what degree are our own judgments based in aphorism — in “universally known” general truths? Readers must decide for themselves how to balance memory and judgment.

In “Stone Mattress,” Margaret Atwood has given readers a literary stromatolite:  “a choice fragment, a cross-section” of an imagined life.

Posted in New Yorker Stories, Reading, Stories | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Detour in the Road

Sometimes it is necessary to take a detour.

I’ve been out of the blogosphere for the last eight weeks or so not because of a roadblock, but because I’ve been asked to write a book.

The thirteen-year-old daughter of one of my childhood friends suffers from a psychiatric condition.  She’s a beautiful, athletic, and talented young lady.  Her educational testing results show that she has an IQ somewhere in the “high gifted” range.  But her behaviors can range from a little bizarre to gut-wrenching, and from there to dangerous and frightening.  One phrase that seems to come up almost every time my friend shares a new anecdote about her daughter with me is, “You couldn’t make stuff like this up.”

Because diagnosis and treatment of the disorder are still controversial, there is very little reliable information available to parents, educators, and other “laypersons” who come in contact with children affected by the most severe form of this psychiatric illness.  Children believed to have the disorder have died:  some apparently from suicide, or from the unintended consequences of self-injury; a few at the hands of frustrated parents who resorted to abusive parenting practices; and a handful from the efforts of well-meaning professional therapists who attempted to treat children with untested, unproven therapies.

I believe that the story of my friend and her daughter needs to be told.  I need to do a lot of work before I can tell it in the way that it deserves, however.  My experience with pediatric mental health issues is limited, so I’ve spent much of the last eight weeks trying to digest scholarly articles on neurobiology and thick volumes of clinical psychology.  (I’ve discovered that diagrams of the human brain and neural nets can be an excellent cure for insomnia.)  My writing background is in fiction, not journalism, so I’ve been studying the memoir and science-medical writing genres in some depth.  And both my friend and I share concerns about the potential effect that writing the book will have on her daughter, who is still a minor and who is still in treatment.  We don’t want to traumatize her or impede her therapeutic progress by telling her story.  So we intend to tread carefully.

The initial furor and fever of research is winding down.  I’ve just about exhausted the resources and patience of my local interlibrary loan librarian.  And I’ve learned that self-care is very important for those involved in caring for others.  (Writing about my friend and her daughter, I’ve decided, can qualify in a sense as “caregiving.”  I’ve become intimately involved with minute details of their lives; what happens to them next matters immensely to me.  To write about someone is by definition, I think, to care.)  So, in the interest of caring for myself by doing something that I love, I’ll be getting back out on the road of reading and blogging about short fiction – albeit with more modest goals than I’d originally set back in May.  For the time being, I intend to read one short story a week and to blog about it.

November is supposed to be about “sea stories.”  I look forward to reading a few and sharing some thoughts about them.  It’s time to get back on the road.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reading During Hurricane Irene

How – and what – does one read in the midst of a hurricane?

Our hometown, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, lay right in the western edge of Hurricane Irene’s path northward.  We were fairly certain that the storm wouldn’t be strong enough to require evacuation – we’re two ridges back from the Bay and on high ground.  We stayed for Hurricane Isabel in 2003 – but despite the post-Isabel power outages, we foolishly failed to invest in a small home generator.

Early Saturday afternoon, the rain began driving sideways and the treetops started to sway and shed leaves and twigs; predictably, within the hour, we lost power.  Having been through a winter storm in the Azores in 1989, during which the wind went up to 180mph and no one felt safe, I feel jittery when the gusts go over about 40mph.  I couldn’t concentrate on anything serious.  I grabbed an old favorite Elizabeth Lowell thriller/romance, curled up in a glider rocker in the sun room (the only place in the house with enough natural light to read), and for the next three hours I imagined I was solving an international jewel heist in the South Carolina Low Country.  An imaginary Russian mafiya assassin was so much easier to handle than anything happening out in my backyard!

By seven, it was truly a dark and stormy night.  We lit sixteen candles and three kerosene lanterns; we huddled around the dining room table with books, magazines, and The Game of Battleship.

In our everyday lives, we are profligate with light. We take for granted the ease of flipping a switch or ten and illuminating every room in our house, of reading when and where we please.  Our house has a very open floor plan; but without electricity, the best we could do was to create a gray gloom in the kitchen and an island of soft golden light around the dining room table.  Reading after dark, I realized, is a modern luxury.  Literary luminaries of the pre-gaslight past must have needed so many others – wives, maids, manservants, slaves – to do the manual labor that made reading after dark possible:  preserve the food and make the dinner over an open flame and wash the dishes by hand, so the reader had free time; dip the candle wicks in tallow; fill the lanterns and clean their chimneys and trim their wicks.  Reading in bed by candlelight was not a safe pastime – or at least, it would not have been for me:  I fall asleep reading, and doubtless would have burned the house down.

I tried again to concentrate on Tolstoy while the wind roared over the roof.  It was impossible to see the corners of the ceiling – never mind anything that might be happening outside – but I could barely resist the urge to get up and try to look out a window that could shatter at any time. The dog hid in her crate and we tried not to flinch when we heard the unmistakable crack and thud signaling the demise of one of the seventy-foot tulip poplars somewhere behind the house. At least it hadn’t fallen on the house.  “I like the candles, Mom,” said my 13-year-old with a reassuring smile. “It smells like Christmas in here.”

Tolstoy wasn’t going to happen, at least not until the storm had passed us over.  Instead I opened the Book of Common Prayer to read the Service of Light and Evening Prayer:

“Be our light in darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all the perils and dangers of this night….”

The prayers were answered.  Two of our trees fell – but did no damage to our house, garden fence, or cars.  As of 5PM today, Tuesday, we’re still without power.  But we have lots of camping experience.  And I am blessed with a husband and two sons who are happy to play board games and work jigsaw puzzles by lamplight.  And of course, we can all gather around the dining room table with our books – because, unlike e-readers, our books do not need to be recharged.

Posted in Journey, Quest, Reading | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments