In Search of Lost Time: Notes on Mad Men and Alice Munro 


The characters of Mad Men, new to the 60s and dressed in last season's clothes, tend to think of the world they inhabit in terms of the 50s and earlier, and so do we. Professionally, Mad Men's mid-level man's world of stale white privilege and casual alcoholism reminds us of John O'Hara, while the Draper residence in Westchester is a deliberate homage the stories of quiet suburban desperation John Cheever began writing in the postwar years; the acknowledged ur-text is Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, published in 1961 and coming to terms with mid-50s archetypes.

Next season, though, will be the first one set during the LBJ years; references to the civil and gay rights movements, and the war in Vietnam, have stepped forward from the background. And the archetypal frosting-blonde 50s housewife, Betty Draper—the bride on the wedding cake, as she was once called—was last seen flying to Reno for a divorce. With Mad Men's narrative, as the characters understand it, going off the rails, perhaps we should come up with some new literary antecedents with which to pretty up our critical discourse.

Betty is probably too old for free love, but the right age for its aftershocks. (She seems too blueblooded to ever end up in the sad swinging suburbia of The Ice Storm, but just give Francine a few more years...) In "Differently," by Alice Munro, a woman looks back at the 60s, in a letter addressed to a friend of her youth:

I've been thinking of all of us, really, how we were, fifteen or so years ago, and I think we were just as vulnerable in some ways as the kids with their acid trips and so on, that were supposed to be marked for life. Weren't we marked-all of us smashing up our marriages and going out looking for adventure?

(The letter's recipient wonders whether this woman, with her "expensive pastel plaid shirtdresses, her neat, short, fair hair, her good manners... really think[s] she had gone out looking for adventure under the influence of dope and rock music and revolutionary costumes... [I]n due time [she] married another, presumably more trustworthy doctor.")

Like Betty Draper, Alice Munro was born in the early 1930s, married in the early 1950s, and set aside professional ambitions to raise three children. The Munros divorced in 1972, a decade after the Drapers. (While Don stifled Betty's attempts at restarting her modeling career, Munro published her first two books in 1968 and 1971; in the early 60s, a Vancouver Sun profile was entitled "Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories.") A mother of three in her early 40s, Munro at the time of her divorce seems young only in light of everything that she's accomplished since.

click to enlarge LivesofMothersandDaughters.jpg

Alice Munro's literary stature—"our Chekhov," in the oft-quoted assessment of Cynthia Ozick—has to do with her classification as realist writer ("our Chekhov," in the oft-quoted etc etc). Her reality, though, is one in which time passes, and people change, often into something almost unrecognizable. In "Deep-Holes," from her her new collection, Too Much Happiness, out this month, a mother reunites with her son—first glimpsed at age nine, on a family outing—after he's spent years off the grid and out of touch. The meeting is tense, anticlimactic: she almost doesn't recognize him, he calls her by her first name, they fight over money. Afterward, she thinks: "He won't stop despising her, of course. Despising. No. Not the point. Nothing personal." That "nothing personal" is just brutal.

"Fiction," also from Too Much Happiness, is a story about how people who believe themselves to be settled discover otherwise. In the story's first section, Jon and Joyce are a husband and wife, a music teacher and a carpenter, living in a cottage in the woods they've restored themselves; over homemade wine, she laughs at his stories of his thick-set, literal-minded recovering-alcoholic apprentice, Edie—"Edie was like a pet, Joyce sometimes thought"—until, quite abruptly, Jon leaves Joyce for Edie.

The story's second section picks up again, decades later, at Joyce's husband Matt's 65th birthday. She is Matt's third wife; numbers one and two are in attendance, and their children. For their part, "[Joyce] and Matt have no children of their own. She herself does have an ex-husband, Jon, who lives up the coast... She invited him to come down for the party but he couldn't, because he had to go to the christening of one of his third wife's grandchildren... Her name is Christine, and she runs a bakeshop."

The years Munro elides here are like a cocoon: it's our job to figure out how the thing that goes in could possibly become the thing that comes out.

Munro, and this is something I've written about before so I apologize for repeating myself, is primarily an artist of time. These skips forward—and her flashbacks, her historical fictions, her pieced-together chronologies—are ways she has of telling us that who we are now is not necessarily who we'll be later.

In "Miles City, Montana," from 1985, a young husband and wife drive cross-country with their small daughters; it's the inaugural trip in the family car:

Andrew took a picture of me standing beside the car. I was wearing white pants, a black turtleneck, and sunglasses. I lounged against the car, canting my hips to make myself look thin.

"Wonderful," Andrew said. "Great. You look like Jackie Kennedy." All over this continent probably, dark-haired, reasonably slender young women were being told, when they were stylishly dressed or getting their pictures taken, that they looked like Jackie Kennedy.

The past tense and sarcasm should be a clue; still, it comes as a shock when the narrator mentions, casually, a few pages later, "I haven't seen Andrew in years."

Yet, in 1961, the trip goes on. In Miles City, Montana, one of their daughters, left momentarily alone in a pool, nearly drowns. Driving away, the mother reflects:

So we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that had first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous-all our natural, and particular, mistakes.

The story ends with our knowledge, fuller than hers, of what those mistakes will prove to be.

Life is a long shot, lived in close-up.


There's a place in Bisbee, Arizona called the Shady Dell Motel, where you can spend the night in a restored Airstream trailer, listen to Dean Martin LPs, and have breakfast the next morning at an aluminum-sided lunch counter (Dot's Diner). Staying there overnight, I imagine that I'm at a piney campground beside a lake in Wisconsin, flipping burgers in an unbuttoned bowling shirt over a wifebeater with a flattop can of Bud in my other hand.

It's easier to picture yourself in the past than in the present—we know what the past looks like. For now, we take plenty of pictures for posterity—for yearbooks and facebook albums—and trust context to fall into place eventually (knowing that later, too, we can edit out all the nights we stayed in, and never changed out of a t-shirt).

People who "watch Mad Men for the clothes" have it exactly right.


In Mad Men's season one finale, set weeks after Kennedy's election, Don is pitching Kodak with a campaign for their new slide projector, the "Wheel." He says:

Technology is a glittering lure, but there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash. If they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job I was in-house at a fur company. This old pro copy writer, a Greek named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is "new." It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond to a product. Nostalgia. It's delicate but potent. Sweetheart?

[An assistant switches off the lights in the conference room.]

Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship-it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel-it's called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels: around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.

During the second part of the pitch, Don flips through a slide show of him, Betty and the kids, at picnics and parties, grinning miles wide for the camera. The slides, with their iconic 50s casual and formal wear, are photographic evidence of a recent but definitely closed chapter of the American past—just like this show.

Watching a slideshow of his own homelife, Don forgets what he's just told the Kodak people: that nostalgia can be a bond to a product, that a good ad lies and says that this new product can finally salve that itch. (Don remembers all this after the meeting, when he returns to an empty house.) Good ads, ones appealing to the scrapbook editor in all of us, can even convince the man who once bragged, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." Watching the Carousel scene now, with some knowledge of the intervening years, makes the itch even more painful, the pitch more falsely promising.


In the season three finale, Don recruits Peggy to his new firm by telling her why she's such a good copywriter. She understands how America wants to feel whole:

"I see you as an extension of myself... Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. Then something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that's very valuable."

Roger Sterling, walking out of his father's advertising agency in December of 1963, wonders: "How long do you think it'll take us to be in a place like this again?" Do you want to tell him, or should I?

It's bold of Man Men to jettison the institutions—Sterling Cooper and the Draper marriage—that have thus far defined it; a question for Season Four is how these people will act, cut loose from the roles they'd previously been pressured to fit.

The cute getting-the-band-back-together contrivance of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is Matthew Weiner's attempt at making major changes without completely recasting a TV show with popular characters. (Hell, even I hope we haven't seen the last of Kinsey, Cosgrove and Hildy.) So it's hardly the case that Betty will ever be able to say, of Don, that she hasn't seen him in years.

But still. In a widely circulated interview shortly after this season finale, Matthew Weiner responded to some internet chatter:

It's so unambiguous to me that this marriage is over, but the audience seems to cling to the idea that they should be together because we want to believe in those things.

Mad Men is a show good enough to sell its viewers on the idea that we really can "travel the way a child travels: around and around, and back home again"; and it's a show good enough to acknowledge the sales job.

It's not really the case that the Draper marriage is something worth saving, any more than the sexist, anti-egalitarian but familiar Sterling Cooper is; still, it's not just Sally Draper who wishes that this closed-off philanderer and daddy's girl and resentful mother could learn (relearn?) to be happy together, all evidence to the contrary.

One of the many traumas of divorce is the way it compromises memories—puts us, somehow, on the other side of ours. Which, of course, we are.

Alice Munro's greatest story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," concerns a long marriage, happy and sustained despite all the infidelities, evolutions and reinventions that challenge couples in Alice Munro stories. And then, just when this elderly couple is ready to settle down and stop transforming, the wife begins to lose her memory, forsaking her forgotten husband for a new crush at the nursing home. We spend our lives trudging ever forward—and finally, the other side of the mountain is all that we can see.


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