Both Doris Grumbach, writing of God, and Mahmoud Darwish writing poetically of things and people he has lost have used the phrase “the presence of absence.” Without explicit reference to either of their works per se, I would like to use that phrase, “the presence of absence,” to refer to the overwhelming sense of importance we derive from the ellipses or lacunae in the stories Alice Munro chose to put in her collection titled after the last of the stories in the group, Too Much Happiness. Quite simply, in every story, there are things that the author in the case chooses to omit, to gloss over, or to mention only in passing. My contention is that these ellipses or lacunae of knowing, feeling, fact, or time in Munro’s collection stand out from those of the usual method of omission in the sense that they are key and crucial to the meaning of the stories, and are not merely structural conveniences for moving the story along.
In the first story of the ten, “Dimensions,” the facts we receive are delivered from the wife Doree’s emotional stance until almost the very end, and we have three interwoven strands of encounter amongst characters. There is the strand of story in which Doree goes to visit her criminally insane husband Lloyd, who in a fit of rage with her murdered their three children; there is the portion of the story taken up with Doree’s new life under her middle name “Fleur”; and there is the set of conversations she is shown as having with her therapist, Mrs. Sands. In none of these strands, however, do we sense the introduction of a synthesizing voice, as if the shattering of Doree’s life has left these three strands only loosely entwined. The husband is spoken of as a ghost, and he insists at a key point in the story that he has seen the children in another dimension. It is almost as if the story is “under-written,” though it is proficient and completely artistic as it is. Only at the ending of the story, in which Doree is desperately and effectively engaged in trying to save the life of an entirely unconnected person does the perfect resolution occur–and of course the “message” if one must have one is that no life is unconnected to the rest. Here it is that a synthesizing voice speaks, in a sense, because we are told that she has learned CPR from Lloyd before their children were dead, and then we feel the lacuna between a reasonable amount of give and take between them and the total disaster that their life together later became. “At what point did such and such a thing manifest itself?” is a futile question, but we can sense the gap itself, the presence of the absence of married charity.
In “Fiction,” the second story of this volume, the unfilled spaces are both of time and suggested plot. A woman encounters a younger woman, someone previously known to her as a child, now a young writer, who has written a story about people they know in common, including the older woman herself at an earlier stage, fictionalized. Not only has the young writer’s life since they fist knew each other taken place during an ellipsis, she doesn’t recognize the older woman in the present tense section of the story. There is also a hint in what the older woman expects to find in the writer’s fiction that she herself has victimized the younger woman, but this clearly is not in the fiction the younger woman writes, so there is a lacuna here, if in fact the tale is supposed to be based on her own experience, as the older woman expects. Naming the story “Fiction” of course highlights the fact that the young woman’s writing is perhaps more artistic than the older woman expects, because in writing of one’s own life, one is free to use blanks and spaces and absences of fact and time and sequence.
“Wenlock Edge” is named for a portion of poetry by A. E. Housman from A Shropshire Lad, and here there is a presence of absence in that the character’s feelings are only sketched out, but the poem itself is left to fill in a lot of territory, especially in the quoted sections. The narrator’s roommate Nina, not a serious student like the narrator, but a sort of Holly Golightly of the academic world and beyond, has some sort of undeclared (and therefore elliptical) relationship with an old man named Mr. Purvis, who at one point when Nina is ill asks the narrator to come to his house for dinner instead. Later, Nina gets together with a relative of the narrator’s, who has taken the narrator out to eat many times in a sort of older-cousin way. The lacunae come in when the two girls change places, because of what Mr. Purvis asks the narrator to do, what Nina does with the narrator’s cousin, and finally what the narrator does to “get even” with Nina and the fates for the shame she feels. The two men are two different kinds of bachelors, and the various points at which the narrator is left in ignorance or “guesses” about things make for an exciting and ironic story: after all, Nina has told the narrator’s male relative that Mr. Purvis is her own uncle: what if, perhaps, he is only an uncle and not the old pervert that the narrator has always assumed he was, even before she met him? Doesn’t that make the two girls the same, or very similar? But these sorts of thoughts are ones left to the reader to intuit, the narrator’s elliptical remarks don’t make them explicit.
The next story, “Deep-Holes,” has as a major “presence of absence” theme the way in which early suffering leaves its mark on a young man, a mark which his own mother is not fully aware of until she meets up with him again, years later, after much searching. Though she knows a few characteristics of his early personality which are predictive of his later ones, yet there is a huge ellipsis between the child and the suffering man during which his mother has not played a part.
“Free Radicals” is a story in which a woman whose husband recently predeceased her in spite of the fact that she has terminal cancer comes to terms with how much she still wants to live. When a threatening drifter comes to rob her and possibly kill her (she cannot be sure of his intentions), she has to attempt to deal not only with death, but with the life she manipulated others to get. Her sharing of a bottle of red wine with the drifter (and her remark that she cannot remember whether it kills free radicals or promotes them) has a symbolic connection to the end of the story and the drifter’s destiny, but there is a sort of blanking out of the obviousness of the symbol because of the sheer vitality and importance of the plot and dialogue as she lures him in line by line, still afraid for her life. She also shows a sense of guilt for an episode in which she was the “free radical” to someone else’s happiness, and attempts to make up for the past as well as affecting the future with a bit of fiction of her own; of course, the past cannot be reversed. The last words of the story, “Never know,” marks the lacuna that has ruled the plot.
In this story, “Face,” there is an ellipsis of memory between the evidence of the boy’s strawberry birthmark on his face, and having “face” or daring, as the young girl his playmate in the story does later, approaching his bedside when he is in the hospital and reading poetry to him without identifying who she is. He is a minor celebrity in adulthood, so he is known to her, though he does not at first know her. The lacunae also occur between the years in the story when they have encountered each other.
In the story “Some Women,” the ellipsis contains the significance of the title, which is different from the point of view of each of the story’s female characters. As Old Mrs. Crozier would say of her daughter-in-law Sylvia “Some women take the joy out of life.” As the narrator would say of the masseuse and attendant Roxanne “Some women are no better than they ought to be.” As As Sylvia would more evasively put it about Roxanne when Sylvia finally wins in a tug of war over her dying husband Bruce’s affections, “Some women are not aware of how they should approach the dying.” Finally, when Bruce’s mother Old Mrs. Crozier intuits that her son has set aside his flirtation with Roxanne for his wife, she outright says something to Roxanne about leaving, and it’s obvious that she has switched her opinion and thinks some women get way above themselves, and above their place. Bruce himself is in a way the location of the lacuna, amidst so much female activity and plotting.
The next story, story number eight, is called “Child’s Play.” In it, two girls named Marlene and Charlene, who joke at camp about being twins but who are widely different in some respects both as children and as adults, conspire to do something quite horrible but described in everyday terms to a third girl, Verna, a developmentally disabled child. But this event, which is the central event in the story, is held until the end, and almost is left out altogether; there is a lacuna or an ellipsis in the place where the narrator’s human compassion should be, though it’s obvious by the avoidance tactics in the narrative that she now knows what she did, and how it should be morally assessed. It’s the actual moral assessment which is missing, really, though the narrator remembers, finally, or imagines, what must have happened after she and Charlene left the other girl. Thus, the repressed memory and the imagined results only come together at the very end, and it’s the overt sense of guilt which is also repressed, though clearly it has had a major effect on the narrator’s choices in life.
In “Wood,” we quite literally have the case of a man, an amateur logger, who cannot see the forest for the trees. He is given numerous small contracts to log wood from various farms, and does so. When a local ne’er-do-well gossips to him that he is not the only person with a contract on a prized piece of land, however, he loses his composure and tries to beat the competition, with the result that he gets injured, almost without knowing how it happened. Though the story has a happy ending in a sense (at the same time having passages reminiscent of “To Build A Fire” by Jack London), the lacunae or ellipses center around what the truth actually is about the contract (never known) and the man’s realization that it is not only wood,for humankind’s use, but also has a life of its own as a mysterious and deeply silent living thing. The wood has previously only spoken to him as something to sell; now, it speaks to him out of its own deep “presence as absence,” its enigma of the world before or without humankind.
The title story, “Too Much Happiness,” doesn’t seem to follow the same patterns as the other stories, in having lacunae or ellipses of knowing or feeling or fact, though the time scheme is transient, partial, and elliptical. This story is a brief account of the significance and the ending days of Sophia Kovalesky, a Russian mathematician. As Munro notes, “I have limited my story to the days leading up to Sophia’s death, with flashbacks to her earlier life.” Munro recommends Don and Nina Kennedy’s book on Kovalesky for those interested in reading more.
As a whole, Munro’s book reminds us of Henry James’s edict that if a work is well-imagined, that the reader will be the one to do a good proportion of the work in responding imaginatively to the writer’s words. Certainly in Munro’s case, there is much for the reader to respond to, without anyone being likely to get the sense that the work is not complete. In fact, in calling the “blanks,” ellipses, and lacunae instances of “the presence of absence,” I intend to indicate the same sort of artistic choice as may pertain to the white spaces on an otherwise brightly-painted canvas: they are an integral and vital part of the whole, and call for something from the observer, an act of responsive mimicry which makes the “filled-in” described portion itself all that much more sensitive and profound.
5 responses to “Ellipses/Lacunae of Knowing, Feeling, Fact, and Time in Alice Munro’s stories in “Too Much Happiness””
Another person I should read and haven’t, partially out of fear of it being too dark for me. The effect of absence and silence that you describe sounds really cool.
Thanks for reading. You shouldn’t worry about Alice Munro being too dark, really. She’s rather more ironically inclined than dark. One or two of her best stories in this book are “Free Radicals” and “Child’s Play,” and while there’s death in both, she does handle them coolly, without excessive palavering and weepiness. If you were to pose the famous rhetorical question “Death, where is thy sting?” to an Alice Munro story, you’d had to answer it with “the sting of death/life is Janus-faced, and we confront both at the same time.” A long-winded way to say that the sting itself is what Munro is interested in investigating, she’s not making heavy weather over the consequences to her characters. Very “cool,” as you note.
Once again our reciprocal feelings of being under read come back to haunt me as I wonder why I have never picked up this author when it is clear that I should have and that clearly I am rubbish and need to take out a loan to buy lots of books so I can get ‘gooder’ at books.
I like a book to have balance, there must be enough not told to us, to contemplate, to be for the reader to journey and understand. Critical thinking is the key as I for one will relish this book when I get it, which I will someday.
This is certainly a good book by an acclaimed author, but then there are so many that I think you can be excused for not having gotten to her yet. It really did surprise me just how she carried the ellipsis technique through from story to story, and what a unified presence the book as a whole had: a lot of short story writers put together books that are simply collections of what they’ve written so far, without unifying themes and techniques. I think the “blank space on the canvas” was both a technique and a theme, as I’ve implied if not fully explained above.
I do have a fascination with themes, I have dabbled myself with short stories with the theme of solitude, needless to say it is under layers of other things that haven’t been finished either.