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Critical Review by Josephine Humphreys
SOURCE: "Mysteries Near at Hand," in The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1994, pp. 1, 36-7.
Humphreys is an American novelist whose book on the disintegration of family life, Dreams of Sleep, won PEN's Ernest Hemingway Prize in 1985. In the following review, she praises Open Secrets as a collection of stories that "dazzles with its faith in language and in life."
On a winter night in 1919, in a hotel dining room in Carstairs, Ontario, a librarian who's had a few drinks begins to tell her darkest secrets to a salesman she barely knows. "It's a lesson, this story," the librarian says. "It's a lesson in what fools women can make of themselves."
The story, aptly entitled "Carried Away," is the first in Alice Munro's new collection, Open Secrets, her eighth work of fiction. And in fact, all the stories in Open Secrets are lessons. Ms. Munro's work has always been ambitious and risky precisely because it dares to teach, and by the hardest, best method: without giving answers.
Sometimes even the characters themselves have only a fuzzy notion of what their own stories mean. "Carried Away" isn't really about women making fools of themselves. And none of these eight stories are easy to predict. Just when meaning seems almost revealed, the story changes, veers, steps off a cliff.
The librarian, for instance, tells of the soldier who wooed her by mail during World War I, then came home and married another girl. After she confesses the details to the salesman and asks, "Do you think it was all a joke on me? Do you think a man could be so diabolical?" the salesman says, "No, no. Don't you think such a thing. Far more likely he was sincere. He got a little carried away. It's all just the way it looks on the surface." Then the salesman seduces her.
For many writers, that would be enough. The story, already 20 pages long, would indeed show how women make fools of themselves. But trust Ms. Munro never to be satisfied with a premature ending. Some five years later, an accident occurs in the sawmill at the local piano factory, "a particularly ghastly and tragic accident" in which the librarian's soldier "had the misfortune to have his sleeve caught by a setscrew…. His head in consequence was brought in contact with the circular saw…. In an instant the unfortunate young man's head was separated from his body."
Few writers would dare such a move, and fewer still could make it work. But Ms. Munro does. The narrative fabric into which this horrible event is woven is tight with a sense of time and place, a solid realism that allows even the bizarre to appear normal. And, as it turns out, decapitation isn't the final twist in the story, or even the most bizarre. Two more follow, a marriage and a vision, and the story concludes with a flashback that proves what we may by now have suspected: Ms. Munro's fiction is out to seize—to apprehend—the mystery of existence within time, "the unforeseen intervention," the unique quality of a person's fate.
Human apprehension of mystery has to start with language, our technique for rehashing and examining experience for any traces of meaning. So in Open Secrets people are continually telling and hearing stories—sometimes more than one at a time—in confessions, letters, rumors, ballads, conversations, newspapers. But some parts of life aren't quickly apprehendable through language. Puzzles of love, time, death, spirit—these are the open secrets, near-at-hand mysteries that can't readily be talked or written into clarity, but that nevertheless can be relentlessly turned and poked and studied until, with some luck, they yield something—a lesson that's partial and ambiguous but likely also to be momentous.
Every story in the collection contains some sort of startling leap, whether it's a huge jump forward in time (more than 100 years in "A Wilderness Station"), a geographical change (as in "The Jack Randa Hotel," when a woman follows her runaway husband to Australia to spy on him) or a sudden switch in viewpoint that changes the whole nature of the story. Mishaps and accidents twist through like killer tornadoes, throwing everybody off course. By thus expanding—you might even say exploding—the fictional context, Ms. Munro reaches toward difficult truths.
Perhaps the most exploded story in the collection is "The Albanian Virgin," which begins with the exotic narrative of a Canadian woman held captive in a remote Albanian village during the 1920's. But after five pages there is an interruption: "I heard this story in the old St. Joseph's Hospital in Victoria from Charlotte, who was the sort of friend I had in my early days there."
The narrator is a young woman of the 1960's who has fled both a marriage and a love affair on the other side of the continent. And her narrative is interrupted from time to time by a return to the Albanian adventure. The result is a bold assault on the assumptions and expectations of traditional fiction, with remarkable success.
Generally, we think of fiction as a process of gradual revelation. But what if a story can do the opposite—and still succeed? Just after the librarian in "Carried Away" arrives in Carstairs, she looks out at the bare winter trees: "She had never been here when the leaves were on the trees. It must make a great difference. So much that lay open now would be concealed." Gradually, time and experience obscure the easy lessons. Our lives leaf out. What we once thought true may be lost under the ongoing and always surprising accumulation of event and perception.
It's no coincidence that almost every story in Open Secrets has as its time frame the span of an entire life, for these stories draw upon the complexity of a mature, long-vigilant sensibility. And lifelong learning isn't easy. In "Vandals," a woman perseveres in a troubled marriage: "She learned, she changed. Age was a help to her. Drink also."
The only real guard against despair, against the "devouring muddle" and a life of "arbitrary days," is to make a narrative of the self, constantly reinterpreting the accumulated life. People whose lives have not panned out, like Millicent in "A Real Life," who talks her friend Dorrie into marrying a stranger, can thus achieve a compensatory wisdom, limited but powerful, and vaguely mystical.
In the title story, Maureen Stephens's supposedly lucky marriage has taken a sexually horrifying turn. And when a local girl disappears from a hiking trip, the lost girl reminds Maureen of how girlhood itself vanishes. She remembers her own secret recklessness. "To be careless, dauntless, to create havoc—that was the lost hope of girls." She experiences odd hallucinatory moments when she sees things that "seem to be part of another life that she is leading," as if she were "looking into an open secret, something not startling until you think of trying to tell it."
Fiction is the telling that startles, the telling that teaches. In Open Secrets, Alice Munro has written stories of tremendous strength, stories resembling the factory women she describes in "Spaceships Have Landed"; "They came jostling and joking down the stairs and burst out onto the street. They yelled at cars in which there were people they knew, and people they didn't know. They spread disorder as if they had every right." Heedless of convention, hazarding everything, firmly convincing us of the unseen good despite acknowledging our fears and harrowing experiences, Open Secrets is a book that dazzles with its faith in language and in life.
This section contains 1,250 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)