There is no denying Alice Munro’s ability to weave a tale, but sometimes she is given more respect than might be due.  I just finished reading “Child’s Play” a 2007 story of hers that appeared in Harper’s.  Fair enough, but then to be included in The best American short stories, 2008?  I am not so sure about this inclusion.  The story seems overly hamfisted, an attribution I have probably never before given to Munro.

Part of Munro’s brilliance is her foreshadowing technique.  Sometimes she is not even hinting at a future plot development, but is merely coaxing the reader into an odd setting.  Instead of saying ‘we were at summer camp’ she goes through a mention of cots and coolie caps (and the discussion of ‘coolie’ as a way to set the time).  These are particularly brilliant strokes, not at all unique to “Child’s Play” but unique to Munro.  Her magic with dialogue is also … magical.  I cannot even begin to unlock how she does it.

All that said (and if I did not discuss it, then consider it, at the least, well-done if not brilliant), the reveal in this story seems tired.  I have the impression that Munro became tired of working her magic and decided to be a mere mortal about it.  She just blurts out the event causing the grief, causing the story.  It’s very sudden and sad to see a master not work her mastery.  But there is a moment earlier in the story where this also occurs.  Munro discloses her anthropologist eye and then tried to impress the reader with a clue about the secret dealings of women who just ‘click’.  Yep, she subscribes to ‘clicking’.  No explanation, no theory.  Once that affinity is posited she then moves on to describe how that relationship functions.

It is precisely that explanation that bugged me.  It seemed unnecessary, as a way to justify the way the two women interacted.  Here is where I prefer Hemingway.  He would have just done, instead of explaining.  The explanation comes off as an apology, a kernel of self-doubt.  It is possible that Munro anticipated this criticism, as not even one page later there is this gem: “I’ve felt less wary with men.  They don’t expect such transactions and are seldom really interested.”  This is why Hemingway could only capture relationships set against some background of overwhelming proportion.

Despite how good the story is, and it is a good one despite my comments, it is not even the best one I read this morning.  For that I offer a section of E.B. White’s rescue of Thoreau’s Walden, a book which needs resuscitation.

Thoreau’s assault on the Concord society of the mid-nineteenth century has the quality of a modern Western: he rides into the subject at top speed, shooting in all directions.  Many of his shots ricochet and nick him on the rebound, and throughout the melee there is a horrendous cloud of inconsistencies and contradictions, and when the shooting dies down and the air clears, one is impressed chiefly by the courage of the rider and by how splendid it was that somebody should have ridden in there and raised all that ruckus. (293)

Munro, Alice.  (2007).  Child’s play.  In S. Rushdie, ed.  (2008).  The best American short stories, 2008 (201-229).  NY: Houghton Mifflin.

White, E.B. (1954).  A slight sound at evening.  In J.C. Hallman, ed. (2009).  The story about the story: Great writers explore great literature (291-300).  Portland: Tin House Books.

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No sooner have I written the previous post than I begin chapter two of Chaloupka’s Kowing Nukes. Here is his argument:

…the warrior is now simply and starkly absent.  For several reasons (technological, political, and theoretical), the warrior has ceased to hold any kind of posibility.  Instances where the warrior seems to be present – Panama, Liberia, Grenada, Afghanistan, even the Persian Gulf – quickly present themselves as failures, spectacles, or exercises in nostalgia. (24)

It is precisely the absence of the warrior, also read as the increasing sociality of our civilization, that gives rise to so much literature about warriors.  Some may respond to Chaloupka that 9/11 returned us to a world that had ceased when he wrote the above words in 1992.  However, the remainder of the book pre-empts this argument by claiming nuclear weapons are an example fo the shift away from warriors and that our current world has not seen such a large revision to return us to the simpler times.  Der Derian’s Virtuous War (2001) is a better accounting of this shift than Chaloupka provides, but that is also easily acocunted for by the intended market for the two books.

The crux of my thought for now is that the Western and the espionage thriller are a romantic’s response to the increasing alienation we feel in our world.  I believe this alienation is inevitable and defines the human condition, but some reach out to a past time as a way to bridge the human gap.  Strip away the grocery stores and the deeply troubling give and takes of a long term healthy relationship and the writer is left with a solitary figure marked on the desolate horizon.  It’s the simple protagonist conflicted against a simple environment that best analogically allows the writer to conquer the true foe.

Chaloupka, William.  (1992).  Knowing nukes.

Der Derian, James.  (2001).  Virtuous war: Mapping the military-industrial-media-entertainment network.


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I love Cold War fiction.  I mean that very precisely.  Some people think I mean espionage literature and that is not the case, because something is lost in the current crop of espionage thrillers.  The enemy is not as cunning and when they are it feels arbitrary and forced.  What I just said might be taken to border on some racism or negative stereotype: Arabs as a backwards and stupid people vis a vis us sophisticated folk.

My take is close to this but not because of anything intrinisic to the enemy.  The enemy is behind us in intelligence gathering capabilities as well as in motivation, they are after all still involved in an internal struggle for the future of their society whereas we are the outside intervention looking to mold them into our image.  That is a very different story to the classic Cold War espionage thriller and I am sad to see the genre shift.  I will outline a classic of Cold War fiction and hopefully the differences are easily seen.

I recently finished reading one of the classics, had there been enough time I am sure it might have become a touchstone of the genre, by one of the classic writers: Nelson DeMille’s Talbot Odyssey.  If you are a fan of the werewolf genre then you might also enjoy this story – yes, Talbot is that Talbot.  Not as well written as LeCarre’s novels, but it resonates like LeCarre does: as a Western.  All the familiar tropes are there: lethal environment (in this book set inside a hostile shooting Cold War), one man alone, a stunning and impossible achievement of the masculine image, narrator’s cultural criticism and the obligatory surprise twist.

The most important quality is probably the idealized masculinity because the rest of the book is informed and is a backdrop for this image.  I will provide for you a couple of places where DeMille drops these images in this book.

“As the Duke of Wellington said when asked to impart a piece of enduring military wisdom, ‘Piss when you can.'” (338)

The necessary self-sufficiency to survive is an important aspect of these thrillers.  Without resourcefulness and a willingness to disregard societal norms the hero is sure to fail and be sucked into the maelstrom that is eating away at the very society he is trying to save.

He remembered a favorite line from Thoreau: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” (81)

Never forget though that self-sufficient man is indebted to his predecessors and hence the self-sufficient man is well-read, an ubermensch.  It is not a far stone’s throw to see DeMille writing about a man making a horseback trip across the wild west, camping at night over a fire, can of beans and reading a book with a pistol in his lap.  The clothes on his back are all that he brought for the trip, saving more important space for more important things.

Now we come to the ubermensch’s approach to the modern environment, namely the social environment:

There are basically five ways to hunt – baiting, trapping, stakeouts, beating the bush, and decoying.  it depends on the animal you’re after, the season of the year, and the terrain.  With the human animal, you can use all methods, or combinations of methods, in any season and terrain.  Just keep in mind that when the human animal approaches, he may take any form, including the guise of a friendly animal.  He may wave a cheery hello, or ask for a cigarette.  But you must relaize you ar ebeing attacked, and in that split second of realization you have to act, becasue a second later it’s too late. (260)

It’s hard to miss the romantic ideal of fighting and always being on guard DeMille longs for in this piece.  I am also seduced by these images.  The few months after being hit by the car I would wander the streets and was always imagining an immanent fight.  It was warming to imagine that I can be vigilant enough to save myself.  It restored a sense of purpose and control.  It’s how I suspect people who cut themselves are trying to reassert a sense of control over their bodies.  Iggy Pop’s slow suicide is how Lester Bangs describes that reclamation of control.  And yet we know the world is no longer like that, which is precisely why people write and read these thrillers.

All of the above are ways these books serve to idealize a certain image of man.  Those images then give way to cultural criticism, often a very silly and tired form of criticism.

Its ceiling beams and oak paneling still gave it the flavor of a hunting lodge, but the mounted animal heads and horns were gone, replaced by oversize canvases of proletarian art: smiling, well-muscled men and women working in the fields and factories.  The early capitalists, reflected Abrams, mounted animals they probably never shot, the ruling Communists displayed pictures of happy workers they probably never saw.  The noble and idealized creatures of the earth were destined to wind up as wwall decorations for the elite.  in a just and orderly world, perhaps, capitalists would shoot, stuff, and mount Communists, and vice versa, leaving the wildlife and working people in peace. (321)

DeMille is smart enough to be a cynic but does he not realize that this ubermensch, the man above ideology, is like the wildlife and like the happy proletariat nothing but a fiction?  A mythical beast wandering the world in search of a home.  DeMille’s vision smacks me like McCarthy’s does.  My frst thought is always: the world is not this hard.  But that seems to be the issue, they wish the world were that hard because that hardness is what weeds out the chaff from the wheat.  Deep down they are romantics and environmental hardship is their antiseptic for the world’s over-developed sense of sociality.

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