Alice Munro’s “Visitors” is at once delightfully tender and devastating. Wilfred and Mildred are a relatively happy, if complacent, retired couple: “Their house was small and they weren’t, but they got along fine in the space.” They’ve got a routine that keeps them comfortable. Companionship is not something they’ve ever been able to depend upon, but this particular partnership suits them both perfectly.
This world is invaded, though, by visitors. Wilfred’s brother Albert has called, the two not having spoken in thirty years, and proposed that he and his wife, Grace, come for a visit. Grace’s sister, Vera, also arrives, surprising Wilfred and Mildred. Mildred, for her part, thinks that Wilfred was just too excited about his brother visiting and may have simply talked over his brother’s mention of Vera: “Wilfred had been in a dither of hospitality, reassurances, amazement.”
The story, in large part, loosely follows Mildred’s amazement at the differences between the brothers, Wilfred and Albert, and the similarities between the sisters, Grace and Vera. Mildred has never had a sibling, so all of this intimacy with people simply because they are family is uncomfortable.
Brothers and sisters were a mystery to [Mildred]. There were Grace and Vera, speaking like two mouths out of the same head, and Wilfred and Albert without a thread of connection between them.
Then again, it would be uncomfortable to anyone, I think. Wilfred and Albert are exceedingly different. Where Wilfred is energetic and filled with humor (not always appropriate humor), Albert is dour and disapproving. He and his wives (that’s how it seems to Mildred) are religious and simply do not know what to do with these misfit relatives they’ve visited.
There’s palpable loss as the story continues. Wilfred and Mildred recognize that they have nothing in common with these visitors and that once the visitors leave they will never return. The family bonds are not that strong.
“Visitors” is not called “Siblings” or “Brothers” because those words were only aspirational, and those aspirations quickly discarded.
“Visitors” is a lovely story about love: slight, but deep; comic, but with a true sadness; one story with a constellation of stories within it. Mildred and Wilfred are a well-matched couple, both country people, both older, both round and retired, and they have achieved an affectionate balance between them that makes for an extremely pleasant way of life. The story’s occasion is that Wilfred’s older brother Albert, whom Wilfred hardly ever knew, has arrived for a visit with his wife and his wife’s sister, two dour old women who talk “like two mouths out of the same head.”
Mildred and Wilfred, if you listen to the sound of their names, are as complimentary as two halves of the same apple. They are a happy couple. The brothers, Wilfred and Albert, are as opposite as a clam and a dish of ice cream, and Mildred and the two sisters are, in my opinion, as different as a blooming cherry tree and a plank of wood. It’s a long visit.
I admire the way Munro makes of the confrontation a love story, one I enjoyed a lot.
That said, I’d like to think about something that’s been on my mind for a while. Sentence structure. Sentence structure and its helpmeet, punctuation, and maybe a quick look at diction.
Munro is a master of prose rhythm. Her sentences are varied in length and construction, often topped off with something really short for effect. In the one to follow, the short sentence comes first, and the more complicated one follows up.
Wilfred and Mildred were retired. Their house was small and they weren’t, but they got along fine in the space.
What I loved about this is that there are worlds contained in these two sentences. There’s something to grab onto here. Money’s not a thing (as it was in “Hard Luck Stories”), space is not a thing, fat’s not an issue, being retired is no big deal, and, generally speaking, Mildred and Wilfred are two peas in a pod and they make it work. Munro follows these two sentences with a long sentence of about 70 words and two different punch lines to boot.
They had a kitchen not much wider than a hallway, a bathroom about the usual size, two bedrooms that were pretty well filled up when you got a double bed and a dresser into them, a living room where a large sofa sat five feet in front of a large television set, with a low table about the size of a coffin in between, and a small glassed in porch.
So it’s a catalog of just how small the house is, a catalog that serves to punctuate the fact that they are in the awkward situation of having three house guests when they were expecting two. But snuck in there is the coffee table “about the size of a coffin”! What’s with that? Well, I think they usually spread their snacks out on it, and their drinks, their beer and cocktails, and what with their large sofa, it’s pretty homey. But Albert and his wives don’t drink. So that’s out. Munro makes clear the way death plunks itself in the middle of life: Wilfred’s mother dies when he was born; Mildred’s sugar daddy dies and leaves her nothing; brothers you hardly know show up trailing a gloom so heavy you want to cut it off him. He’s wedded to death and Wilfred wedded to life. As the story ends, Wilfred is thinking about how he will probably never see this brother again, this unpleasant, unhappy, uncouth brother. Death in life. Wilfred tells a story about how he won a ten-to-one bet. Alfred tells a story about a man who went into a swamp and never came out, perhaps a little bit like himself, trapped with the dour sisters. One alive, the other dead.
The second punch line in that catalog? The glassed in porch. If you live in a northern place, a glassed in porch is a whole other season; it’s a sun room for when the temperature is 45 and the mud is still on the ground. Death in life. The coffin-like coffee table stands versus the glass porch with its light, warmth, stillness, sun, and life.
Regardless that she’s been compared to James Joyce, Munro uses an entirely conventional punctuation to deliver her dialogue. She also has a fondness for the colon, the semi-colon, and the dash, all used several times in this story to help her achieve a rhythm akin to speech and to thought. I’m put in mind of Kurt Vonnegut, who objected to the semi-colon, perhaps on the basis it makes a piece read like a business prospectus. But to me, Munro’s semi-colons are part of her effort to mimic the simultaneity of thought and the hum and detail of speech, so, for that reason (and for Munro’s suppleness of feeling) I’m good with the way she uses (not just in this story, but in many stories) the semi-colon. As for parentheses, there are none in this story, but there was one pair in “Connection” and at least three pairs in “Accident”; and any number of dashes in “The Turkey Season” that are substitutes for pauses and parentheses; actually, the dashes are everywhere.
I suppose there is an Emily v. Alice essay to be written — regarding the use of the dash by both.
Even though her punctuation and sentence structure are in most cases standard, Munro has a habit of leaving out words, perhaps to indicate how fast the mind works, or how it skips over things.
Wilfred had been in a dither of hospitality, reassurances, amazement.
The series that describes Wilfred’s “dither” leaves out the “and” that would usually complete the series, perhaps because here it underscores Wilfred’s amazement. Somewhat the way the “and” is left out, to underscore Wilfred’s “dither,” Munro sometimes leaves a whole thought out, makes a leap where the reader thinks maybe there ought to be another sentence which isn’t there. Often, that is to underscore the dither that the character is in, or worse; sometimes, when someone is trying to evade thinking about their own culpability or their own responsibility, Munro conveys that by leaving out a thought. The reader thinks, what’s missing?
Munro is the master of the right word. Mildred looks back on her career as a “brassy blonde”; Wilfred remembers a great cook who was as “good-looking as a turnip”; Albert tells a story about “Lloyd Sallows,” who disappears into a swamp and is remembered as a ghost or bogeyman; Wilfred “yelled” into the phone when talking to his brother across the continent; they all sit out in the shade of the “carport”; for ice cream, Mildred had “a mixed double.” I loved that one.
But maybe what typifies Munro’s diction is this: when she wants to express beauty, for instance, or to be more precise, to be in awe of beauty, or struck by beauty, Munro has Mildred walking with the brother-in-law toward the site of the old family home. They are “plowing through goldenrod, which, to her surprise, was easier than grass to walk in. It didn’t tangle you so, and felt silky.”
And then Munro immediately makes Mildred’s “surprise” more ample:
Goldenrod she knew, and wild carrot, but what were these little white flowers on a low bush, and this blue one with coarse petals, and this feathery purple? You always heard about the spring flowers, the buttercups and the trilliums and marsh marigolds, but here were just as many, names unknown, at the end of summer. There were also little frogs leaping underfoot, and small white butterflies, and hundreds of bugs she couldn’t see that nibbled at and stung her bare arms.
Here diction is reduced to words that Mildred does not know. But she knows enough to feel the wealth of fall, despite the terrible deadness of her brother-in-law, who tells a story about a man who disappears into a swamp.
Which brings me to story-telling. Seems like Munro has been explicitly letting her new readers in New York in on exactly what story-telling means to her. Here, there’s the story of Mildred and Wilfred, as well as the sad story of Mildred and Mr. Toll (who, obviously, took a toll on her, and the very sad story of Wilfred and how he was orphaned not once, but twice, as a child). There’s also the story of Wilfred’s night terrors, which are real and Mildred’s understanding and compassion, which are also real. And then there’s the mystery of sad Albert’s visit. He arrives with two women and takes to his bed.
But in addition, there are Wilfred and Albert telling stories, as well as Mildred thinking about what works in story-telling. She wonders why Albert told a story about a man who may have committed suicide; she appreciates the fact that if Wilfred were telling a story, “it would have gone someplace.”
She remarks that in Wilfred’s stories, “you could always be sure that the gloomy parts would give way to something better.”
And she remarks that Wilfred “usually” “figured in his own stories.” And by wondering why Albert told his swamp story, Mildred is assuming he figures in his own story as well, just more obliquely.
To a degree, Munro is both Wilfred and Albert. Wilfred favored a “stroke of luck” in his stories, as does Munro. But Albert wanted to tell what “happened,” regardless of whether there is an explanation or not. Albert wants to talk about death and fear; Wilfred wants to talk about luck and resolution. Munro wants to talk about it all.
But remember. Behind the story-telling, regardless the happy or unhappy ending, there is the fear and the night terrors, as well as the capacity for noticing the “little frogs leaping underfoot.”
If you were reading closely, or if you were a reader of Munro, you would know, too, that she usually figures in her own stories.