Timeless Surprises in Open Secrets

Alice Munro’s Open Secrets: Stories is a collection of eight short stories, each centering on the whole-life spans of women who experience loss; most often, the loss of love, though the quiet, underlying theme of self-deception and self-delusion is foreshadowed in the title itself: the truth is plainly visible, but only if the characters choose to see it. It is important to note that readers of these stories must detect truths and answers, none of which are clear cut or easily discernable, and that we may change our interpretation of the truth behind the secret at another point in our lives if we come to these stories again. Munro uses various points of view (omniscient, first, second and third) in each of these stories to cloud the narrative, giving readers a puzzle to solve—one that has no defined solution at the story’s end. One might expect to find this ambiguity annoying, but instead, the narrative shifts and disturbing images Munro invokes in her work cause the reader to reconsider and ponder each story’s enigma after finishing the tale.

Munro helps create this sense of mystery by painting characters we aren’t sure we can believe or trust. In “Carried Away,” the protagonist is a wine-drinking librarian who falls in love and exchanges letters with a man she doesn’t know and who may exist only in her imagination. The narrator in “The Albanian Virgin” is a bookstore owner who relates a strange story told to her by a bizarre customer named Charlotte, who may or may not be Lottar, a woman once kidnapped by Ghegs and rescued by a Franciscan priest. “Open Secrets” relates the horrific story of a teen girl’s disappearance using an omniscient narrator who paints suspicious images of three men (Mr. Siddicup, Lawyer Stephens and Theo Slater), any of which could be the girl’s abductor, and she dangles the solution to the “open secret” before the self-deluding eyes of protagonist Maureen during a moment of divine clarity, yet Maureen refuses to believe herself. Perhaps most disturbing of these unreliable characters is the pacifist Bea in “Vandals,” who ignores the fact that two children are being sexually molested by her husband.

Munro causes readers to reevaluate what we know through the protagonists’ obstinate method of carrying on with their lives as if everything were fine in the aftermath of horrific events, but we are also often required to reassess the direction a story is taking based on a few simple lines of powerful writing. These twists in the stories are unexpected and sometimes astonishing.

It is through these puzzles and mysteries that Munro not only requires the reader to reexamine their impression of the story—what we believe actually happened in the narrative—but also to examine our own frame of reference: why have we reached one conclusion over another, equally fitting, conclusion? We arrive at our own interpretations, which may differ from that of another reader, based on what we’ve experienced to date in our own lives. Perhaps this is why Munro covers complete life spans of her main characters, instead of writing these stories as “slice of life” vignettes. Munro’s Open Secrets stories are therefore timeless (even though her characters and settings are specifically dated), because our understanding of the outcome of these stories differ at different periods in our lives, depending upon what we have experienced, or the secrets we keep.

Work Cited

Munro, Alice. Open Secrets: Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1995. Print.

A Good Drunk or a Large Sandwich

I know that this blog is about examining a single piece to show how it works, but I’m going to go ahead and look at a collection.  I’ll throw on my hair shirt later.  Promise.

Barbara Hamby and David Kirby were asked to put an anthology of contemporary, funny poetry together by the University of Georgia Press.  They worked to find and select poems that are funny because of their seriousness, because of the stark truth behind the laugh.  They sought poems that “feature a central self, someone who is creating a reality through language rather than describing what already exists” (xv).  The realities in these poems are varied, even though most are from the last twenty to thirty years (the earliest are by Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg), as are their brands of humor.

In the section titled “I Was Alone When It Hit Me:  The Self,” the poem “How to Like It” by Stephen Dobyns explores the human prospect of getting up in the morning, day after day.  How do we, as humans, learn to like our lives when we are so often faced with unwanted change?  With mindless repetition?  With the desire to escape?  Dobyns compares the human condition to that of a pet dog.  The dog, when faced with unwanted change, says, “Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk. / Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find” (72).  While the man in the poem broods about his past, the dog says, “Let’s dig holes everywhere” (72).  When the man is faced with difficulty and with feeling like an automaton, the dog says, “Let’s go make a sandwich” (73).  The dog’s responses, while obviously simplistic and non-human, do humorously point out how, many times, we make things harder than they need to be.  Perhaps a good drunk, or a large sandwich, are indeed what are needed from time to time.

The speaker in “How to Like It” wants to get into a car and drive without stopping and without looking back.  In short, he wants to escape his mundane life.  Dobyns’ use of the dog’s simple joys as counterpoint to man’s complications make this poem funny.  Most readers see themselves in the man who, at the end of the poem, has not driven off into the night, but instead has his head in the fridge, dog at his side, searching for the makings of a late-night snack.

Another poem that tackles a serious human issue with humor is Angelo Verga’s “My Wife’s Therapist” from the section titled “The Heart is a Lonely Perineum:  Love, Marriage, Divorce, and Hatred.”  The speaker is in a therapy session with his wife and his wife’s therapist.  The reader understands from the title that the speaker is in the session against his will.  It is not his therapist, after all.  The calm voice of the therapist begins the poem.  She explains that anger is not good in a relationship, and that “Flying into tirades can cause others to withdraw” (120).  She gives an example.  The therapist had a run-in with the owner of an office she was trying to buy.  Instead of becoming angry, she “examines [her] feelings,” and she cries (120).   At this example, the speaker points out that “My wife is breathing deeply so I know she is being moved” (120).  This is humorous because the speaker obviously knows that his wife is getting something out of the session, but he himself is obviously not.  One does not have to have been to a therapist to see the dark humor in total lack of understanding, but trying to remain serious for the sake of the others in the room.

When the speaker finally seems to understand, the therapist asks what he has learned.  He says, “would you like me to go over there and fuck with them for you?  I could yell and curse.  I could make them treat you good.  I could scare the piss out of them” (120-121).  The speaker has learned nothing from the therapist because he does not want to be there; he does not think much of her methods.  For the speaker, examining feelings and crying are not options.  This gangster mentality response is funny in itself for its sheer audacity, but when the therapist responds with “No…Let’s begin again…Anger is bad. / Understand?” it is difficult not to laugh and to side, at least a little bit, with the speaker (121).  Most people do not want to be told that their way of doing things is wrong.  The speaker’s defiance is darkly humorous.  And his response?  “I nod my head” (121).

Lynne McMahon’s “We Take Our Children to Ireland” appears in the section titled “Mothers of America Let Your Kids Go to the Movies:  Family Life and Strife.”  What is funny in this poem is the cultural difference in language that is acceptable to use in front of, and directed at, children.  In America, we tend to try to shield children from all unpleasantries, for ill or for good, and if a parent swears in front of or at a child, it is considered borderline if not actual child abuse.  McMahon shows the opposite trend in Ireland.  “[T]he nicely dressed matrons / pushing prams, brushing away their older kids / with a Fuck off, will ye?” (161). She shows the Irish “mundane hyperbole of rebuke – / you little puke, I’ll tear your arm off / and beat you with it, I’ll row you out to sea / and drop you, I’ll bury you in sand / and top you off with rocks – / to which the toddler would contentedly nod” (161-162).  This is not only funny because of the little shock most Americans would feel hearing this kind of language used between mother and child, but also because she writes that these phrases will be the only things her children will remember of their visit to Ireland.  It won’t be the barbed wire of Northern Ireland, and it won’t be the castles, the things parents want their children to remember.

In Jeffrey Harrison’s poem “Fork,” the humor is serious indeed.  Included in the section “We Who Love Precise Language:  Poems about Writing and Literature,” “Fork” tells the tale of a college writing student who is rebuked and bullied by his teacher.  She tells him that he will never become a writer, that he is worthless, all the while touting her own writing greatness.  His reponse?  He steals one of her forks.  He takes the fork to Europe, takes pictures of it with all of the great monuments, sends them to her one at a time anonymously.  He keeps the fork with him as an impetus to write, and to write well.  Bad teachers are a very serious issue.  Nearly everyone has had one, and nearly everyone has either gotten over their abuse or succumbed to it.  At the end of the poem, the speaker realizes he no longer needs the fork.  He is independently successful.  He says, “You might even say your fork / made me a writer.  Not you, your fork. / You are still the worst teacher I ever had. / You should have been fired but instead got tenure” (301).  The humor here holds a message, not only for the student – keep going regardless of what one bad teacher might say – but also for teachers.

Each of the poems in this collection creates its own reality.  The reality of the late-night escape plan, the unwanted therapy session, the kids’ memories from their trip to Ireland, and the power of the teacher in her classroom – all of these realities reveal their own, individual brand of serious humor.  It is the humor in each poem that allows the reader access to the humanity in the uncomfortable situations discussed.

Hamby, Barbara and David Kirby, eds.  Seriously Funny Poems about Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else.  Athens, Georgia:  The University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Why Surfers Can Ride Dust Storm Waves

In the short story Sales, author Judy Budnitz has taken what exists in her imagination and used concrete detail to convince readers that a world in which salesmen are treated as livestock, afternoon dust storms are the norm instead of thunderstorms, and surfers who ride waves of dirt instead of water can exist.
In Sales, a herd of salesmen are kept in a pen in the back, akin to a herd of cattle. When Budnitz writes that salesmen “jostle for spots closest to the fence” (Budnitz 158) the words bring to mind cattle gathering around a fence to see who or what is walking by. The thought could be expanded to any type of herd animal, jostling for position against a fence in any type of enclosure such as a pasture or a zoo.
Concrete detail applies to the setting as well. Wearing sunglasses and scarves, the narrator and her sister are sitting outside, but instead of sitting in the sun, they are “watching the afternoon dust storms roll past” (159). The storms are complete with waves and surfers, even though the surfers are dressed in attire that, in a normal setting, is more akin to protection against toxic waste. There are descriptions of the ocean color and a surfer wipe out that without concrete detail to anchor the story’s reality, wouldn’t work.
But even in this bizarre world, the inhabitants still deal with familiar emotions another bridge between reader and imaginary world. A lonely girl is told over and over again how men won’t find her desirable because of her looks and flat-chest; “mature women” (165) are the only desirable ones. It’s an attitude that is prevalent in our society—looks are what matter and the reader has another connection that re-enforces this story’s reality—an emotional hook. The salesmen are society’s outcasts, “pariahs” (166) that are to be avoided at all costs. The story’s attitude toward salesmen echoes current society’s attitude and the reader has another point of connection that makes Budnitz’s tale more believable.
Concrete detail is what makes this story believable, even though salesmen aren’t herded like pests and surfers don’t ride the waves in dust storms. Sales re-iterates much of what Flanner O’Connor talks about in her book Mystery and Manners, regarding concrete detail and appealing to the senses, which is why I was drawn to this particular story.

Works Cited
Budnitz, Judy. “Sales.” Nice, Big American Baby. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2005. Print.