Once again Alice Munro introduces us to a character in the first sentence and then backs off entirely, presenting a scene in which the character plays no part and then goes on to slowly reveal the character through the eyes of others. The character in this case is Eunie Morgan:
On the night of Eunie Morgan’s disappearance, Rhea was sitting in the bootlegger’s house at Carstairs — Monk’s — a bare, narrow wooden house, soiled halfway up the walls by the periodic flooding of the river. Billy Doud had brought her.
We wander about Monk’s for seven pages before we hear about Eunie Morgan again. At that point, the narrative still doesn’t let us know much about Eunie herself. Instead, we follow her worried mother as she wakes realizing she hasn’t heard Eunie come back in the house. She gets her husband out of bed as well, and they search, but to no avail.
Even after this search it’s a long time before Munro lets us know just what is going on with Eunie (this is not a story where all we know is that she’s gone). Through the pages we see her and Rhea playing together as children, and the portrait we get is of a lower-class girl who doesn’t quite fit in and who doesn’t quite know why. She particularly doesn’t fit in with the likes of Billy Doud, whose family is doing quite well in Carstairs since their factory is booming.
The story goes around and around, in and out of these relationships (there are more characters than usual for Munro). Spaceships? Kind of. It’s interesting. Though, to be honest, right now I’m not such a great fan of “Spaceships Have Landed.” It feels much more like a general portrait of a small town and lacks much of the interior drama I love in Munro’s work; it’s there, for sure, but I feel this story meanders a lot and is the weaker for it. It was the only story in the collection that was rejected by The New Yorker. However, it was published by The Paris Review. I decided to read that version to see if it helped me find a way into the story.
It didn’t change my mind. Instead, what I found particularly interesting was the difference between the version published in Open Secrets and the original version published in The Paris Review. They aren’t too different, but there is one major difference. I mentioned up above that the story — as we find it in the book — begins with a single hook about Eunie’s disappearance before veering off in the same sentence into the bootlegger’s for a detailed panorama focused more on Rhea and Billy Doud. With Munro’s go-ahead, George Plimpton cut that entire section when he published it in The Paris Review. Consequently, the magazine’s version begins with a stronger hook: the section when Eunie’s mom wakes up and realizes she has not heard Eunie come back in and awakens her husband to start a search.
I get why Plimpton started there. Conventionally, if we’re looking to pull the reader in, it’s the stronger start, really honing in on the disappearance rather than looking away at a group of people at Monk’s. Yet when Munro published Open Secrets she put the lengthy section at the bootleggers back. Clearly she had something else in mind with this story, and, other than in a clause that isn’t even the focus of the sentence — albeit the first clause of the story — starting with Eunie’s disappearance wasn’t the way to get what she wanted.
I searched to see what I could learn and found a relevant passage in Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (which is where I learned that it was Plimpton himself who axed the bootlegger section prior to publishing the story in The Paris Review), and Thacker does shed some light on what Munro was up to here: she wanted to move away from what happened to what may have happened.
She certainly does a lot of that in this story and throughout Open Secrets. It’s one of the central strengths of this collection. I think that’s one reason we so often see our central characters through the eyes of others. Munro doesn’t necessarily want us to know just what the central character is thinking, just what is motivating her. She wants us to experience what may have happened through the biased perspective of a bystander, sometimes many bystanders.
But I’m not entirely sure that is a strength of “Spaceships Have Landed.” We are around when Eunie returns the next morning, and no we cannot fully trust the story she has to tell, leaving us somewhat in the “what may have happened territory.” Rather, I think “Spaceships Have Landed” is much more about Carstairs itself, the town where this and a few other Munro stories take place. I think that’s why Munro wants to start with the vivid scene at Monk’s, where no one even knows about Eunie’s disappearance. In this story we again see the Doud family we’ve come to know a bit in “Carried Away” and will see again in “Vandals.” I think “Spaceships Have Landed” is as much about putting this town and some of its people on paper as it is about having us explore any “what may have happened.” While the questions are there, they are overshadowed by all of the details we get elsewhere.
I’m still open to seeing this story from a more promising perspective, so please share your thoughts.
In “Spaceships Have Landed” there are more than a dozen women, rich and poor, smart and not so smart, loud and silent, free and not free, good and not so good. That one has sought refuge (or is imprisoned) in a hospital and another is pimped out by her husband is telling of the boxes women endure; that one owns a factory and is known as “that Tatar” and another owns almost nothing, has visions, seems a-sexual, and is as good as a saint is also telling, and is perhaps the meaning of the story.
That Rhea outgrows her two friends and leaves them behind, that Rhea betrays one of them, that Rhea runs away and abandons her paralyzed mother, and that Rhea and her husband, between them, have had fifteen lovers is all extremely sad and part of being a woman of her time.
Most compelling to me in “Spaceships have Landed” is the tale of “The Two Toms.” When Rhea is a girl, she has a brief friendship with Eunice when every day all summer they play a game they call the Two Toms. They are not girls any more — they are boys — and they are wild. That Rhea has chosen “Tom” as a name for them is clearly derived from the yowling freedoms of the huge tom cats that probably populate the neighborhood. The girls (“the Two Toms”) play down by the river, they have enemies whom they defeat, they take captives, and they are all-powerful. They are boys.
Then they grow up, and their choices are limited: wild glove factory girl, lover, wife, pimped-out-prostitute-wife, daughter, betrayer, paralytic, Tatar, saint. In fact, most of these choices involve limits and paralysis of one sort or another. The role of the saint, the necessity of saints, is, in Alice Munro, problematic. Most of Munro’s women run from the role. But one of Munro’s most powerful stories is “A Queer Streak.” The Violet of that story is a sister to the Eunice of this story — both are saints who save their families, both are tantalizingly good, and both, in the end, despite pain and sacrifice, end up with loyal men.
The completely surprising thing about this story is that Billy Doud, the scion of the piano manufacturer, is the male version of the saint. In his peculiarities, we see Munro make a tip of the hat to the fact that not all men fit easily into the mold of a “Tom.” The difference is such men are simply odd, not mad. He is pre-occupied, somewhat of a drinker, not very interested in women, and adopts the un-moneyed life of the modern-day savior — the one whose jobs had “something to do with schizophrenics or drug addicts or Christianity.” That he marries Eunice, who is so much a girl of the very wrong side of the tracks, is also an act of rescue. But of course, the two of them are peas in a pod — a-sexual and visionary.
The territory of marriage is a constant exploration for Munro: from the wilderness of Annie McKillop’s marriage, to the fifteen lovers inhabiting Rhea’s marriage, to the sexual slavery of Mrs. Monks, to the gray paralysis of Rhea’s parents’, to the a-sexual union of the two saints — Billie and Eunice.
Madness and the false assignation of which is also a theme in Munro: that it is sometimes a woman’s only choice. The kind of woman who might be assigned the diagnosis of mad is one who withdraws, or one who has visions, or one who thinks, or one who wants to understand. Violet in “A Queer Streak” has a vision, Annie McKillop of “A Wilderness Station” has a kind of far-sighted vision, and poet Almeda Joynt Roth of “Meneseteung” has a drug induced vision and makes choices that appear “mad,” and she is not the only madwoman in that story. Eunice, Annie, and Almeda are also all sisters under the skin, seeking some kind of alternate life where they can be most alive, and yet to most other people they appear either mad or, at least, touched. In Annie McKillop’s case, of course, she declares herself mad in order to obtain safety from the man who might possibly kill her. In “Spaceships,” Rhea provides the counterpoint of the woman who is completely embedded in contemporary life, and for whom life is complex, tumultuous, and also painful. She has “freed” herself of her invalid mother and also freed herself her pre-occupied and somewhat a-sexual boyfriend — but when she runs away with her girlfriend’s boyfriend and is no one’s saint, she must also endure the complexities of her decision.
“Spaceships Have Landed” is filled with memorable visions for the reader, with vivid characterizations that function like icons.
But as a story, there is a kind of stasis to it. It’s like a Breughel painting, a portrait of the world of women, and the women — all except the saintly, a-sexual, good Eunice — are frozen in position, even when they run away.
As a story, I prefer “A Queer Streak” or “Meneseteung.” But as a painting, “Spaceships Have Landed” succeeds, given Eunice’s iconic, spiky, white-blond appearance, and given Billy’s good looks, monkish refusals, and saint’s obedience.