In “Prue” Alice Munro continues her exploration of affairs older women have with fickle men, often thoughtless men, with her third story in a row, though all are quite different. In “Accident,” a music teacher named Frances has an affair with the math teacher which is launched at an unexpected trajectory when the man’s son is killed in a car accident, and Frances is forced to wonder whether the passion she felt in the affair was really enough to sustain a marriage. In “Bardon Bus,” an unnamed narrator cannot move on from an affair, and she worries about what this unfulfilled desire means to her identity. Then we come to “Prue,” one of Munro’s shortest stories, at a mere five pages. On its face, it could be a simple story with a relatively straightforward narrative: an older woman, Prue, has an on-again off-again affair with Gordon, according to his marital situation. She seems to accept life as it comes, and people think she’s rather uncomplicated. In this way, the story itself represents a common misconception of the protagonist Prue: “She is very likable. [. . .] they say of her that it is a relief to meet somebody who doesn’t take herself too seriously, who is so unintense, and civilized, and never makes any real demands or complaints.”
She presents herself as someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously, and, perhaps consequently, she is not often taken too seriously, even when it contradicts what she’s actually saying:
She presents her life in anecdotes, and though it is the point of most of her anecdotes that hopes are dashed, dreams ridiculed, things never turn out as expected, everything is altered in a bizarre way and there is no explanation ever, people always feel cheered up after listening to her.
She’s found herself in a relationship with a man who takes her when he’d like and leaves her when he’s trying to sort out his real life. She’s a fantastic filler as she “never makes any real demands or complaints.” For his part, and perhaps this is a reason Prue takes him as he is, Gordon has an “expression that indicates that there is a helpless, baffled soul, squirming around inside this doughty fortress.”
Besides not taking herself too seriously, she also presents herself as someone who lacks passion. Perhaps it’s a natural consequence again, then, that someone like Gordon feels no passion to her. So natural is her lack of passion, in fact, that he is free to explain just what happened when his dinner with Prue was interrupted by a woman ringing the doorbell and throwing her overnight bag at Gordon.
“Bloody overnight bag,” he said. “She threw it at me.”
“Did it hit you?”
“It made a hard sound for an overnight bag. Were there rocks in it?”
“Probably cans. Her deodorant and so forth.”
Prue watched him pour himself a drink. “I’d like some coffee, if I might,” she said. She went to the kitchen to pout the water on, and Gordon followed her.
“I think I’m in love with this person,” he said.
“Who is she?”
“You don’t know her. She’s quite young.”
“But I do think I want to marry you, in a few years’ time.”
“After you get over being in love?”
“Well. I guess nobody knows what can happen in a few years’ time.”
It’s a terrible exchange, and it follows a moment when it seems Gordon’s biggest worry is that this young woman has interrupted his dinner and caused his crème brûlée to burn. Though she doesn’t issue complaint, we can sense Prue’s inner spirit when she tries to escape the situation by making coffee. Gordon, perhaps noticing the subtlety, perhaps not, does not allow her to fully escape, following her and attempting to make it all good.
Prue’s inner life is tumultuous. When the story begins, we learn that she hates her name — it’s “[t]he only thing she complains about readily”:
Prue is a schoolgirl, she says, and Prudence is an old virgin; the parents who gave her that name must have been too shortsighted even to take account of puberty. What if she had grown a great bosom, she says, or developed a sultry look? Or was the name itself a guarantee that she wouldn’t?
Prue is willing to tell the story of the night Gordon told her that he’d like to marry her when he wasn’t in love. We know that it is another story that will leave people feeling cheered. Of course, the story is not nearly that simple (neither the one Prue tells nor Munro’s “Prue”); Prue, like the old maids in “Bardon Bus” is quite capable of calmly covering any passion she might be feeling. With “Prue,” though, Munro is subtly looking at the cracks in this veneer and some of the damage being done just below the surface in this seemingly calm woman’s soul.
“Prue” is, on one level, an entertainment. Munro gives us a character sketch, a deft take on modern coupling, a humorous pairing of two stubborn characters, and a set of interlocking puzzles — all in 5 pages.
Prue is a hostess in the dining-room of a resort hotel. With this information, Munro telegraphs the following: Prue is most likely quite attractive, is superficially charming, and she is not from the upper middle class. Her lover, Gordon, is a divorced neuro-surgeon who lives in an “architect-designed, very expensive” house, and with this information, Munro telegraphs that the relationship is another in which the balance is off. Gordon clearly is from the upper middle class, and he clearly has the upper hand in this relationship. Or thinks he does.
In that question resides the entertainment factor of “Prue.”
On another level, however, Munro uses this story as a sly introduction of herself, and as such she comes in under the radar. She herself has entered into another precarious relationship in which class will be a factor: she is a college drop-out from rural Canada, and her new lover(s) are the editors and readers of a classy outfit in New York. This story was one of the first published in The New Yorker, and to a degree, Munro is presenting her readers with an intellectual puzzle regarding what constitutes an ars poetica.
[Prue] presents her life in anecdotes, and though it is the point of most of her anecdotes that hopes are dashed, dreams ridiculed, things never turn out as expected, everything is altered in a bizarre way and there is no explanation ever, people always feel cheered up after listening to her; they say of her that it is a relief to meet somebody who doesn’t take herself too seriously, who is so unintense, and civilized, and never makes any real demands or complaints.
Munro presents her own life in short stories (over and over), and in them many hopes are dashed (Del’s, as only one of many others), dreams are ridiculed (think of Flo or think of the teacher in “Who Do You Think You Are”), things never turn out as expected (think of Del, think of Rose, think of Frances), everything is altered in a bizarre way (think of “Accident,” think of “Baptizing”) and there is no explanation ever. That last is more difficult to relate to Munro. To me, there is an explanation: life is tough. But I think Munro means here that she’s not going to make it easy for you.
“There is no explanation ever.” That’s the core of her ars poetica. I think Munro’s stories are so difficult because she tries to represent life and its motives and its causes as they really are — difficult, inexplicable, mysterious, filled with tumult, lit occasionally by a brilliant and pleasing light occurring in the most unexpected situations, and over in a second. To understand what just happened to you, you have only memory. The purpose of the writer, then, becomes the opportunity the writer provides the reader to “stop life,” as in a photograph, and let the reader pour over it for whatever meaning might be there. Munro is someone who I believe once said she took months to write a story, and didn’t think it too much to expect the reader to take some time to understand it.
Why would I think Prue is a stand-in for Alice? The slyness, for one thing. To balance off the power Gordon has over her (Gordon being a guy who feels it necessary to tell Prue he wants to marry her, but just not right now), Prue lifts stuff from him, stuff like one cufflink. She says it’s not stealing. And I think she’s right. She could never use one cufflink. She’s merely saying that she will keeps these bits of his until he does marry her, or if he doesn’t, he will have these reminders that he promised he would marry her and didn’t. Through this play-acting, she will point out the truth.
Why also do I think Prue is a stand-in for Alice? Think of the name. Prue could be a nick-name for: prudence (showing economy), prudish (overly modest), prunella (a kind of heavy strong material used for academic gowns or shoe uppers), prune (a withered plum, or an action that can cut something down to size), prurient (lustful, lascivious, lewd), pruriginous (causing itching), prussiate (a salt of prussic acid, cyanide, capable of usefulness and capable of inflicting death). Who is the true Prue? Who is the true Alice? Munro is messing with her New Yorkers. She is not exactly the country bumpkin they may take her for.
People who sought out her published works, of course, will find a passionate statement of her writing purpose in her second book, Lives of Girls and Women:
. . . what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.
This version of an ars poetica appears in “Epilogue: The Photographer.” This, too, is a bit of a puzzle. This “Epilogue” tells the story of a photographer who manipulates his pictures so as to seem to reveal a powerful truth. But his pictures are not true.
Munro did not want to achieve her power by photo-shopping reality. She did not want to achieve a sense of truth through literary tricks: not through the purely lyrical or purely satiric, not through the gothic or the romantic or the hard-boiled, not through the highly symbolized nor the continually embellished. No dark-room tricks to reveal the “truth.” Instead, I think her goal is the photographic story that by its detail, inclusiveness, and juxtapositions holds still and holds together all the layers of a particular experience.
If one were thinking of Prue as a kind of story-teller (as is the gal in “Bard on a Bus”), there is an off-hand reference to the necessity of the writer to use material from other people’s lives as the spine of a story. It’s not really theft, says Prue. I think Munro is signaling that this is a problem she is wrestling with, this use of material from her own life, and, necessarily therefore, from other people’s lives.
I also think she is warning her new handlers — her agent, her editors — this is what she does, she lifts stuff from people. That this is a continuing concern for Munro, one only need read “Material,” or know that she waited until her father was dead to write “Royal Beatings.”
And in “Prue” she says, playfully: “I am your soul-mate, not all those others.” And that did turn out to be true. Even though there were all those others.
Munro is saying to her new spouse: you might not actually get who I really am. I might seem merely “unintense” or “civilized” (as Prue presents herself). But like “Prue” Munro might also be a puzzle they will need to unlock, if they are to get past all the good looks and charm and entertainment.