Sunday, April 6, 2014

"But the Boulder Is Gone"


Alice Munro's work is filled with landscapes that don't mean anything and yet reverberate with non-meaning and a sort of backward emotional soulfulness you can't label or justify.  They are simply the nameless centers of universes that encompass us all.  In "Chaddeleys and Flemings," one of her most expansive and yet intensively introspective stories, she turns the boulder-decorated gravesite of a one-legged nobody in rural Canada into the end of a line of thought about what we know about other people, what we remember, what we need to remember, and what truthfully ends up worthless, which happens to be most everything and then again nothing at all.  The hopelessness is the quid pro quo and is the reason you need to hope.  Her artistry collapses philosophy and makes feeling become the only compass, a feeling that is schooled and chilled by a direct connection to what is "there."  And "there" is this:  dirt, gray grass, that comatose boulder sucking in the light, allowing words to defy but never erase, words being gravel and weeds and dimly lit sky.

"But the boulder is gone," writes Munro.  "Mount Hebron is cut down for gravel, and the life buried here is one you have to think twice about regretting."

I'm always trying to figure out why I love  Munro so much.  It isn't her way with words as much as her way with getting outside of words, finding that perfect "objective correlative" that pieces together a moment that transcends metaphor and simile and theme and configures the shape behind "hope" and "despair."  It's something so secret and universal the words turn out to be usefully useless, and you come upon that image of that boulder now gone and yet as heavy as it ever was.  The tongue can't go there.  The brain can't either.  But it's all she has to work with so she finds the pulse inside the boulder, that feeling throbbing within the most uninteresting object and scenery and scenario. 

I'm almost halfway through her Selected Stories right now, reading them slowly, but also trying not to lose the impulse to skip to get to those diamond-sharp insights that happen almost every paragraph.