Alice Munro: “Haven”

03/08/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 5, 2012.

Just as everyone has their own idea of God, so does everyone have their own idea of a perfect haven: for our first-person narrator’s Uncle Jasper, whom she is staying with while her Unitarian parents spend a year teaching school in Ghana, it’s a tightly controlled home and even more tightly controlled woman, Aunt Dawn, and while this is all at first a bit of a shock to this thirteen-year-old character, what’s more shocking to her is her “slow realization…that such a regime could be quite agreeable.” Compared to her own mother, Dawn’s clearly suppressed, and yet: “What she did say was always cheerful, and she smiled just as soon as she knew it was O.K. to smile, so it was hard to think of her as being suppressed.” Harder still, considering that Dawn doesn’t appear to act any differently when Jasper’s not around: “Of course, it took all a woman’s energy to keep up such a haven as this.” Devotion is, I guess, an all-consuming thing; if you truly believe in it, then you truly are happy with the ways in which your time is being spent. You define yourself by something else. (Here’s an important line, then, from the end of the story, though it unfortunately seems to come out of nowhere, one of the problems with this piece: “Devotion to anything, if you were female, could make you ridiculous.”)

Here’s where the story runs into a bit of trouble: Munro, usually much more clever than this, needs something dramatic to happen, and so she introduces a new couple next door — “he was the county-school inspector, she was a music teacher” — who don’t know how reclusive and socially restricted Jasper’s household is. Dawn, who “had no practice in saying no,” winds up accepting an invitation for drinks, and good housekeeping now requires that she find a way to invite them over: “Drinks for drinks, coffee for coffee.” She knows her husband won’t consent, so instead she goes behind his back and schedules a light dessert party for “the night of the County Physicians Annual General Meeting and Dinner,” to which wives are not invited. Worse, she chooses to invite Jasper’s sister, Mona, a musician from whom he is obviously estranged, given his distaste for music and the thought of putting on airs — he’s a practical man of science, the town doctor, after all. Our narrator seems just as confused by all of this as we are. It seems obvious that Dawn wants to be caught, that she wants to rebel, but there’s no evidence for it in the story, and because Munro’s chosen to write from a second-hand perspective (in the first-person, nonetheless), we’re not privy to the motivations that move us along. Ultimately, it seems awkwardly forced by Munro, which is unusual from this normally superlative author: moreover, it seems to get us further away from the thematic structure of the haven that the story opened with, this idea of a girl, out of her element, getting some new viewpoints. To be fair, Munro’s opening line hints at hidden rebellion: “The seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver. The boys’ hair was longer than it had been, but not straggling down their backs, and there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation or defiance in the air.” But what does that have to do with a haven?

To answer that question, we jump a few months ahead: Mona has died, and she’s being given an Anglican funeral. Dawn isn’t wearing black, nor is she particularly upset; our narrator observes that in Mona’s death, “A thorn had been removed. A thorn had been removed from Uncle Jasper’s side, and that could not help but make her happy,” which implies that Mona’s late-night soiree — the one that rekindled these problems — wasn’t an act of passive rebellion, but merely a (literarily uninteresting) accident. Dawn, Jasper, and our narrator head to the church (a haven, wink wink), and another inexplicable event occurs: Jasper interrupts the service, has the organ-player replaced, and begins leading the congregation in the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” Perhaps this has significance to religious people, but to the casual reader, it comes across as an odd way of Jasper showing some feelings for his dead, estranged sister — what was wrong with the previous hymn, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”? Munro means, I assume, to show us that even in grieving, Jasper must remain in control, which is why when he gets stuck up by the altar (the chorus in in the aisle, there’s no room for him to return to his seat), he chooses to sing, as if this has been a part of his plan.

So, is this story about the cost of a haven on Jasper? Are we about to see what happens when the tightly-wound man springs a little undone? No. Instead, we cut back to Dawn, who isn’t singing for some reason. Munro has chosen a different narrator to tell her story precisely because she doesn’t want us to know her thoughts (hence a litany of “Or perhaps, or perhaps” to describe what her motivations might be), and while I respect that, I also think she’s not playing fair. We haven’t been given enough of Dawn and her circumstances to really understand, care, or guess. If it’s the first of Munro’s suggestions, “that she could not just trail along [in the hymnbook], the way I did,” then it seems as if the story’s about nothing at all. If it’s the second, that “she caught that shadow of disappointment on Uncle Jasper’s face before he was even aware of it himself,” then perhaps Munro’s showing us the lengths to which Dawn will deny herself to satisfy him (and how he can never be satisfied), though this too seems week. And if it’s the last, “Or perhaps she realized that, for the first time, she didn’t care. For the life of her, couldn’t care,” then I’m at a total loss: why wouldn’t Dawn care? (Note that if it’s because of her husband, then the second “Or perhaps” is redundant.) Munro ends by throwing her hands up in the air, or so it seems to me, with a complete cop out: “‘Let us pray,’ says the minister.”

I leave life up to my interpretation of God; I leave stories up to the writer so that they might assist in the work of translating the unknowable. This piece, which illuminates nothing to me about the narrator, her parents, nor her aunt and uncle, is nothing less than a failure to me.

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§ 3 Responses to Alice Munro: “Haven”

  • Josh says:

    I stumbled across this when looking for some kind of critique of “Haven” after I read it in The New Yorker, thinking I couldn’t be the only one who hated it. And I’m so glad I did – Everything you said is spot-on. This is certainly not the Munro that I’ve come to know and love. You’re right – what are we supposed to take away from this story? And why on earth would Dawn not care? I didn’t see any meaningful (or believable) changes in any of these characters – I was just scratching my head at the end of it. It was pretty disappointing. Well-written review of this story.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Part of the motive in starting this blog was to deal with my astonishment — as someone who dabbles in short stories, though has largely given up on trying to publish for the time being — in some of what was being written. Surely, I thought, I’d be able to identify something of value in what these highly regarded authors were producing. I’d also had the theory, after doing an extensive read of David Foster Wallace (my favorite author), that in some cases, whether we understood them or not, we had to trust that these authors at least had their own convictions for the choices they’d made. Unfortunately, what I’ve discovered over the years of reading, commenting, and now writing about them myself, is that the more elevated your name, the more devolved the editing gets, especially when there’s a rush to print (or other back-end deals between agents, editors, and publishers to promote an author, even at the temporary expense of their reputation). However, I’ve also grown to appreciate the differences in my tastes from others: there is a market for even fiction like this, and my goal for stories like these, then, is simply to identify what *I* don’t like about it (or what I do), so that I don’t repeat their mistakes in my own work.

      It’s certainly a work in progress, and the more viewpoints I get to read here in the comments, the better for me to understand — especially if there’s something I may have missed. (Although, as you say, Josh, I’d be shocked if there were some hidden level that we entirely missed, even for Munro.)

  • Tanuj says:

    I hated it too – the most when the narrator talks of the sounds from the bedroom. I’m like “What the –?”

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