“Wigtime”
by Alice Munro
from Friend of My Youth

Trevor

“Wigtime” is the final story in Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth, and with it Munro closes out a series of stories that, to varying degrees, focuses on some reminder from the past showing us that time moves ever onward. These reminders can also show us just how strange and unexpected, for better or for worse, life’s pathway appears if we look back. Sometime chance makes us take a detour from which we never return; other times we choose to tear a canyon through a mountain to get where we want to be.

In “Wigtime” we meet two women — Margot and Anita — who were, well, friends in their youth when they were rather poor farm girls in rural Ontario. They walked to school together every morning, “struggling head down against the snow that blew off Lake Huron, or walking as fast as they could through a predawn world of white fields, icy swamps, pink sky, and fading stars and murderous cold.”

Munro’s description of their daily walk to school suggests to me some primordial state. This is their predawn, the beginning of their evolution, when they are just coming out of the swamps, as cold — as “murderous cold” — as that primordial goo may be when you live off Lake Huron.

They could never be deeply unhappy, because they believed that something remarkable was bound to happen to them. They could become heroines; love and power of some sort were surely waiting.

The story itself begins much later in their lives. Anita’s mother is dying in the hospital, so Anita comes back to town. It’s been thirty years since she and Margot last saw each other, and here they are, back together after a lifetime apart. They get together and talk, share their stories about that lifetime. Love? Power? Heroism? Who knows? It’s a life, and they’ve lived it.

More than explore the passage of time, then (which is what I often see in a Munro story, even if it’s not the main theme), “Wigtime” explores the forging of a life. Anita and Margot take completely different tracks.

Anita, for example, leaves Walley, becomes a nurse, and marries a doctor. Munro notes:

This should have been the end of her story, and a good end, too, as things were reckoned in Walley.

It’s a cheeky interjection by a writer who often explores how little those achievements can mean when one starts looking behind the doors, takes the measure of those caves paved with linoleum. But Anita is going a different route. She divorces, and now has a Ph.D. Is this good or bad? We don’t fully get the details of the divorce or Anita’s married life, so I think we can take it as just a fact and we cannot judge it for ourselves. Others do, of course:

People who approved of the course Anita had taken in life usually told her so. Often an older woman would say, “Good for you!” or, “I wish I’d had the nerve to do that, when I was still young enough for it to make any difference.” Approval came sometimes from unlikely quarters. It was not to be found everywhere, of course. Anita’s mother did not feel it, and that was why, for many years, Anita had not come home. Even in her present, hallucinatory state, her mother had recognized her, and gathered her strength to mutter, “Down the drain.”

Margot, on the other hand, fled into a scandal. She ran off with a married man in town that the two friends, so they say, didn’t find attractive. When we see her years later, she has five children and a nice house.

The way each tried to take control over their own lives couldn’t be more different from the other. For instance, it is notable that we don’t know much about Anita’s marriage other than that it ended in divorce. We do spend a bit of time with Margot and her husband. Many would say their marriage should also end, but that option doesn’t work for Margot, so she takes control over her husband and gets other things she wants by keeping the marriage going. Just as surely as her life has been affected by fate, she becomes a force of fate at work in the lives of others.

But here sit Anita and Margot, together again, taking stock, baffled by their own lives and baffled at the other’s. I love how Munro ends the story:

Margot and Anita have got this far. They are not ready yet to stop talking. They are fairly happy.

To me, this suggests they are still young, that they still have the “power of transformation.” No, perhaps not as much as they did when they were younger, but this reunion is not the end of a life and it is not the end of their stories. Who knows how they will move on from this moment, when they are “fairly happy”? Not them, but as time shapes their pathway, they will be part of that shaping.


Betsy

Munro’s seventh book of short stories, Friend of My Youth, is book-ended with stories that portray contrasting situations. In both, there is a woman and a dying mother, in both there is an off-beat sexual account of an older man and a teenager, a cast-off woman, and in both the subject is teen-aged friendship. But the first story, the title story, is cloaked in the sentimental desire for friendship to have been the stuff of ballad, myth, and mystery. Women in that story fall into stereotypes: bluestocking Valkyrie and doomed, greensick, crazy girls. In that title story, the memory of friendship becomes idealized and distorted, and ultimately real friendship is both misunderstood and missed-out-on. The woman remembering her youthful friendships is unable to ever reconnect. It is as if the wasting disease from which she suffers is as much the lack of friendship as it is the disease itself.

The book-end to that opening story is “Wigtime.” The contrast is a relief to this reader. In this story, reunion actually occurs, and the rekindled friendship is real, honest, touching, funny, and open. The two women in “Wigtime” are resilient, and once again, as in many other stories, Munro makes a claim for the importance of boldness in adolescence as a foundation for that resilience.

Margot and Anita were friends in high school, and now, thirty years later, happenstance has thrown them together again for a day. Anita has come back home to be with her dying mother, and, hearing that she’s in town, Margot seeks her out and invites her to the house. Margot makes a pitcher of sangria and spikes it with vodka, and they talk and talk and talk.

In particular, they talk about why one of them would divorce and the other wouldn’t. They talk about, and think about, why one of them has sought out a Ph.D. and the other has had five kids. They also talk about what happened to the war bride who made a disastrous decision when she picked out the red-headed American to follow back to Canada.

Munro describes them midway through an almost perfect day:

Margot and Anita have got this far. They are not ready yet to stop talking. They are fairly happy.

I have had these reunions. They are the stuff of satisfaction. There is the sense of being understood, being known, being recognized, and being accepted. In the talking and the telling is a sense of what life really is.

What Margot and Anita talk about is what has been “momentous,” and, in particular, they talk about power. Power is important, because although each of these girls initially thought that something “transformative” would happen to them, both of them got waylaid by fate. The one had appendicitis and happened into becoming a nurse, which she had very little interest in. The other got seduced by a man who was ten years older and already married. So how or why has life not crippled them? It crippled the woman in the book’s first story, and it has crippled the war bride, lost as she is in a world of delusion. In contrast, both Anita and Margot have exercised some power over their own lives.

Margot asks Anita what has happened with her. Anita tells about it, although it’s “difficult” and “not so clear.” Anita has escaped her husband, escaped being a nurse, and has gotten a Ph.D. in anthropology. She has had many lovers, a fact she doesn’t regret. What began it all was a chance encounter when she was still married. While on a trip with her husband, the two stopped in a restaurant and Anita saw a man who looked like someone she had once loved. Leaving the restaurant, she felt herself “loose in strips and tatters.”

She decided that if she could feel such a pain, if she could feel more for a phantom that she could ever feel in her marriage, she had better go.

What Margot has is a wonderful house, five kids, and a husband over whom she has the upper hand. And Anita understands why this is real power, since Anita knows how Margot grew up: way poorer than she herself and in a house crawling with too many people and “crowded with confusion.” The father belted anyone in sight, and the mother sometimes hid bolted in the granary. Life in that house was crowded not just with violence and eruptions of madness, it was driven by ineffectiveness.

In contrast to her childhood and to her mother, Margot has the upper hand over her husband. When she discovers that her husband is having an affair with a teenager, she plots to make his “shame” known to him. She trails him to his assignation in a blond wig like a private eye and leaves an anonymous accusatory note on his windshield, a note with a whiff of Faulkner’s “town” talking. When she confronted him, Reuel said it was all “innocent.” And Margot, a child bride herself, says “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

It takes her some time to decide what to do when she discovers her husband is mixed up with a teenager. “Lawyer. Divorce. Punishment.” But then she thinks of the five kids and the life she’d built. She decides to get Reuel in hand. And when he gets out of hand, she knows what to do.

Wigtime? I still say it once in a while, whenever I think it’s appropriate.

Margot has achieved what most of Munro’s women struggle to achieve: effectiveness and authority. One could write a long letter to Munro talking about the way authority plays out, or doesn’t, in her women.

Anita has achieved something similar to Margot: at mid-life, she took control over her own life. She decided to leave her husband and decided to get a Ph.D. She acted on the evidence in her own life, just as Margot acted on the evidence in her own life. The choice of anthropology is interesting, in that it’s about observation and experience. The women in Munro often learn the most from experience, and it is experience that brings them the authority they need to make their decisions.

Also in Munro, a part of women’s experience and authority is a history and memory of interchange with other women: aunts in particular, and grandmothers as well, but also friendships, especially teen-aged friendships.

We had power, Anita thought. It’s a power of transformation you have, when you’re stuffed full of fear and eagerness — not a thing in your life can escape being momentous. A power you never think of losing because you never know you have it.

Over and over in Munro, teen-aged girls make incomplete or even disastrous choices, choices that often involve a mistaken or misplaced submission to the lure of men’s power. What seems to happen is that women mistake submission for power. What drives many of her stories is the inquiry into how women choose, later in life, from the authority of accumulated experience, to take possession of their own lives.

As is often the case in Munro, there is a foil to Anita and Margot. Teresa is the war-bride who Reuel had brought home. Teresa’s choices, by story’s end, have left her in a crippled state. She is in a home, confined there for her delusions. What appears to have happened to Teresa is that she lied to Reuel about her age, and that inevitably, that lie caught up with her. So when Margot and Teresa meet her, she is a village fool, someone everyone avoids because she cannot stop talking. It is as if the one lie has led inevitably to a life of self-delusion and finally, over the cliff to complete instability. Munro has a horror of self-delusion. Most of her stories regard the lies we tell ourselves as the ones that do the most damage, and what damages one’s authority the most. The lying and its associated world of self-delusion prohibit the accurate observation of one’s own experience, and thus prohibit one’s full maturation into choice and autonomy.

Like anthropologists, Munro suggests, women observe, and from the authority that that observation affords, middle life often brings them an opportunity to choose to assume a rightful power over their own life. It’s never easy, it’s often messy, but it is what women do.

As always in Munro, there are several side inquiries going on at the same time, only one of which I want to take up before I finish, because it is related to having authority in your own life. Throughout Munro, there is a profound distrust of “authority” assumed by others — psychologists, teachers, professors, and often, mothers. Munro is much more interested in the authority you achieve by considering your own observations and experience. Even here, Margot has achieved a full authority in her life, having made both a practical and moral choice regarding Reuel, with the added importance of having learned from and having righted the chaos of her own childhood.

These words — authority and agency — are important concepts from the world of existentialism. Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was published in 1949, available in English to Munro when she was just married at 20 in 1951.  Munro was a great reader and there is no reason to think she was not influenced by existentialist philosophy. Early on, Spinoza is an allusion, and it is clear that much of her later writing is an exploration of people’s search for meaning and their attempts to create meaningful, personal experience that some would call religious. I could argue the same for Margot and Anita (given that the story emphasizes “transformation”) but will concentrate instead on the concept of authority.

Anita is mid-stream. We do know that she has righted one mistake from her childhood: that she had once dreamed of being an archaeologist and had rejected it for being “too odd.” Anthropology is a close second, come to in mid-life, and probably closer to what she wants to know anyway. (We do know that her mother had decided judgments about class, judgments that Anita rejects in her choice of Margot for a friend.)

Being mid-stream, we do not know if Anita is going to achieve the clarity Margot has achieved. We do not know if she will end up as one more professor who miss-uses her authority, and we do not know if she will ever turn from her string of lovers to a more committed relationship.  Oh – you say that Munro cares not a whit for the possible richness of committed relationships? That they are all “submission”? I would disagree. There are several stories that attempt to capture such: “Leaving Maverly” from Dear Life, for one, and “A Real Life” from Open Secrets, for another. And there are others. What the mass of stories discuss is the way most relationships miss that richness.

To a degree, it is Margot’s and Anita’s reunion that is the perfected relationship. There is honesty, loyalty, and trust.

Margot and Anita have got this far. They are not ready yet to stop talking. They are fairly happy.

That is, and this is experience speaking, the description of a perfect relationship.

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By |2017-12-15T14:08:14+00:00December 15th, 2017|Categories: Alice Munro|0 Comments

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