Monday, February 09, 2009

The Two Readers Project, Ch. 4

“Labor Day Dinner” by Alice Munro
From Munro’s Selected Stories

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

“Labor Day Dinner” is crowded. Munro gathers no less than eight people for her 25-page story, and it takes a few of those pages just to introduce everyone and understand their relationship to each other. To sum up without taking 25 pages myself: George and Roberta, a couple who have been seeing each other for a little more than a year, go to their friend Valerie’s house for dinner. With them are Roberta’s daughters, Angela, 17, and Eva, 13.

The size of the cast is not a frivolous complaint. Though the story focuses on the misgivings that George and Roberta have about their relationship, it also concerns itself with the distinct personalities of Angela and Eva, the role of Valerie in everyone’s lives, and even the Christianity of Valerie’s son’s girlfriend. Got it?

In fairness, the experience of reading the story isn’t confusing. But with so much going on -- emotionally, at least; almost nothing happens, plot-wise -- this felt more like the synopsis of an Anne Tyler novel than a fully satisfying short story. It was ending just as I felt like the table had been set. It also reminded me, as Munro often does, of William Trevor, but I think she overreaches in ways that he doesn’t. For instance, the dialogue and diary writings of Angela and Eva struck me as unrealistic, true to Munro's purposes rather than to actual characters.

This is not to deny the story’s pleasures. Early on, after George cruelly tells Roberta that a sleeveless dress reveals her “flabby” armpits and leaves the room, she “starts humming something, feeling the lightness, the freedom, the great tactical advantage of being the one to whom the wrong has been done...” That last phrase is perfect.

My favorite line in the story is a wonderful description of the early stages of love. It comes after we flash back to when Roberta is first spending time with George, and Valerie is criticizing him, unaware that the two have already started a romance: “Roberta listened to all this with great interest and a basic disregard, because what other people knew about George already seemed unessential to her.” That alone would have made this worth my time.

On the last page, the story briefly seems destined to end in a horrendous burst of bathos, but Munro swerves around the danger with a modicum of grace. The story does finish on a workshoppy note of multiply vague meaning, but it’s a hell of a lot better than how it might have wrapped up. I’m afraid I’m focusing too much on the negative. I like Munro, and I definitely think Selected Stories is a book worth owning.

On a more experiential level, I read the story sitting on the small front steps of the small house in which I occupy the top floor. It’s been unseasonably warm in Brooklyn the past couple of days, and that promises to continue through the week. Reading in the sun, I became even more confounded by those who trumpet the end of the book. Cradling a Kindle on my lap would have made for a poorer afternoon, I’m sure of it.

(Read Tim's take here. When we choose the next story, I'll let you know. Try your best to get on with normal routine until then.)

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Blogger Cindy Fey said...

Oh yeah, I remember this story. Isn't this the one where another car crosses their path in the dark "silent as a shark"? Alice Munro is amazing.

7:49 PM  

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