Saturday, August 9, 2014

Help Wanted

I have been reading this book for almost ten months, and I am almost finished.

It's taken so long because I wanted it to, and because Alive Munro's stories have such an impossible angelic heft to them I wanted to linger, not to worship or to find divinity or anything like that, just to experience life the way she writes it, very droll and necessary and hungry and impossibly dim, but also somehow soulful enough to provide momentary escape.

Every one of these selected stories is about work, I found out -- not glamorizing or memorializing it, but capturing all the brutal ways it informs the way people experience life.  A lot of lonely librarians here, door-to-door salesmen, college professors, waitresses, secretaries, used-book-store clerks...  A lot of drudgery, a lot of soul-searching on cigarette breaks.  But Munro's territory is not Raymond Carver's, or even Bobbie Ann Mason's, it's more voluptuous than what they accomplish, it's more about how isolated work makes you feel, and in that isolation her characters seem to find solace, a reprieve from all the desires that make them miserable:  there's order in having to do something you don't want to do so you can get a paycheck.  There's reason where reason really isn't in life beyond clocking in.  Munro finds civility in work, but not the kind that elevates or even provides meaning. It's a civility of hours spent outside of desire and whimsy and hurt, plugged into a schedule mandated by people you barely know.

Work is a way for each of her characters to find a temporary system of placation.

In one of the penultimate stories in the book, titled "Carried Away," the main character Louisa runs the public library in a little town and lives in a hotel most of her life, and most of her life is spent trying to match what she feels with what is offered her.  They don't really match up that much, and yet throughout the story the library she runs becomes a sort of zone of tranquility and sense, and by the end of the story in which she recounts her love for a soldier during the first World War who wrote her letters and then came home and married another woman, to her marriage to a factory owner, to her final days, what Louisa returns to is the image of the first day she arrived in the little town, when she stumbled across a HELP WANTED sign outside the local library.  This moment would be her small, seemingly unimportant destiny, what gave her life a structure that allowed her to stay sane enough to continue on, and she clings to it now, understanding what it means to dedicate yourself to something, even if that something may seem mundane and unimportant to others.

And I thought at the end of this story about people who maybe don't work, can't find work, choose not to, don't need to, can't, etc., and how without it how hard it might be to locate yourself in a sea of not knowing, in an ocean of pretending to get what you want when you never do.  Munro's poetic yet flat and gorgeously quiet prose finds moments like Louisa's and constructs tiny vestibules of passion from them.

It's the kind of writing that makes you not want to read anything else.