Literary reputations are a lot like ghosts – they make odd noises, they hang around long after their heartbeat has ceased, and they attract the belief of the credulous all over the world. Just as a bloated mass of spectral ectoplasm was reputedly once a two-timing grocer, so a bloated mass of lazy bloviation was once an up-and-coming Young Turk at Yaddo. And in both cases, the thing just won’t shut up.
It gets so that the weary reader expects every seance to go the same way. The chairs around the table may be assembled differently, but sooner or later the arrow always ends up pointing to “profound, compelling … a triumph.”
Such was my understandable fear, anyway, when I saw that the last London Review of Books featured a long piece on Dear Life by Alice Munro, despite the fact that the book headed up the dreaded Stevereads “Worst Fiction of 2012” list (it’s almost like the LRB doesn’t read Stevereads, as unthinkable as that is). But it turns out some seances do go in unexpected directions, as I could tell right off from the first paragraph of Christian Lorentzen‘s bravura piece:
There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career no in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental.
Hee. And so on:
Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder. I grew attuned to the ways of life is [sic] shabby or grubby, words that come up all the time in her stories, as well as to people’s residential and familial histories, details she never leaves out. How many rooms are in the house, and what sort of furniture, and who used to own it and what is everybody wearing? To ask these questions is to live your life like a work of realism.
Building and building, until the lovely coup de grace: “I started to think of reading Munro’s sentences as something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: it’s a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet aren’t wet.”
After the exhilaration of such an exorcism, it felt only natural to turn to Theo Tait’s review of two books on actual ghosts and get some more choice zingers, like: “Polls have consistently shown that between 30 and 40 per cent of people in Britain believe in ghosts – about the same proportion as, in principle, support the Labour Party.”
“Once you’ve accepted the notion of an afterlife the fear of revenants naturally follows,” Tait writes, “… funerals are, apart from anything else, banishment rituals.”
And if Tait doesn’t quite have the nerve that Lorentzen does to see the thing through to the bitter end – he makes a fatally wishy-washy allusion to “the genuinely anomalous” just as he’s reaching the finish line – it’s still a merry ride.
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