The New Yorker Reader: “Face,” by Alice Munro

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09/05/2008 9:00 AM |


Alice doesn’t shy away from summary — in fact she often deploys it to shattering effect, turning significant chunks of time into things that can simply be breezed through. But here she starts with a significant amount of telling — her narrator (a man, rare for Alice) lays out and explains a lot of his life, before settling into the incidents and details that make up the heart of the story. It’s hard to tell, in fact, how much of what she relates in the first couple pages is explicitly necessary for the Big Event she writes about — except, of course, that for Alice everything is connected and it’s important to address the simultaneous existence of a lot of different truths, even if it’s not immediately clear how it all fits together.

The speed or slowness with which time moves in her stories is, to me, the most masterful and emotionally resonant element of Alice Munro.

She’s brilliant at diving deeply and seriously into a single scene, and fast-fowarding through so much else (I’ve tried to write about this once before for this magazine), and there’s a devastating sense of emotional prioritizing that comes from a story that’s achingly evocative of one period of its main character’s life, and merely perfunctory about the rest. “Here,” she sometimes seems to be saying, “is the thing that is really important; all the rest is noise.” (The only really comparable thing I think of is The Age of Innocence, which ended up making a similarly brutal assessment of how much of life is really “real” and significant.)

This story is like that, with a story that seems to restart itself a couple of times, and involve the protagonist’s telling of several different elements of uncertain relation. A lot of his memories are tied to the same place and the same time and the same thing — childhood, and his early intimate relationships, and his very prominent birthmark —but with all these different related stories, and the major one only developing after some background and amid digressions, the narrator is trying to tell about his youth, there develops a real sense of confusion, like he knows these events of his life are seminal, but hasn’t quite figured out how it all fits together yet. He knows how much all this means, but he hasn’t figured out how it all fits together, and I think it’s rare for a writer to depict autobiographical confusion so clearly. It’s hard to write confusion without appearing either confusing or willfully naive, but what Alice does here, I think, is go along with the natural human (and Munro-esque) impulse to attach vaguely related things together, and believe in the connectedness of different stories that’re nevertheless linked by slim connections. It’s in her nature to tell different stories which are the same story.

And the other thing about this story, in addition to the working-out of autobiography, is an eventual confusion of reality, brought on by the difficulty of memory over the decades; and the blurring of reality that comes after even more decades. What this story is, with its conflicting tellings and uncertain memory and, finally, possibility of ghostly fantasy, is a depiction of the impossibility of really laying out, clearly, the story of your life. Even the title of the story — “Face,” after the defining attribute of the narrator/protag — is ultimately a source of more ambiguity than resolution, as the narrator’s caveats and speculations reveal.