In another story about loss and how it reverberates across time, despite its continuous passage, Alice Munro starts to convince me that Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is her masterpiece.
This story takes place over three time periods separated by decades. The framing period is the closest to the present. Here the writer is looking back on the summer of 1979 when she encounters someone, a man, she hasn’t seen in decades. The story then goes back even further to when the writer and this someone first met, when she was eight and he was nine.
This childhood section is the narrator’s first vivid experience of some kind of love, as well as of the strange dynamics and differences between male and female. She is already developing the memories that will form her views on feminism and marriage later in life. While complicated, it is still a tender section. The nine-year-old boy’s name is Mike McCallum. He’s in town with his father who digs wells. When he leaves, the narrator hears another woman calling “Mike,” and she runs to see if her dear friend is back. He is not, alas; it is another Mike, one who is only five years old.
I stopped and starred at this child in disbelief, as if an outrageous, unfair enchantment had take place before my eyes.
With that, we go to 1979 when the narrator, now in her mid-30s, runs into Mike McCallum again. By this time, she has left her first husband and is telling her friends that “I am learning to leave a man free and to be free myself.” But she finds herself, dare I say, enchanted by Mike once again. They didn’t know much about each other as children, being too young to really gain any of that ancillary knowledge, and they haven’t been in touch since. Yet, in a way, there is a genuine connection between them that the narrator has not felt since.
But not all of this is real. Most of their most intimate connections are played out only in the narrator’s head. When they drive somewhere together, she imagines herself as the wife, being in the wife’s seat. This role she feels the desire to play, even if she’s been there and already hated it, is to give Mike an “amplified, an extended notion of himself.”
It’s just a bit later that her fantasies have to drop. It’s not because of anything major that happens to them. He is not cruel. They do not have sex. He simply tells her that last year he accidentally backed over his three-year-old son, killing him. Suddenly, the narrator knows that she doesn’t know Mike at all, can never know him. She has not the first clue what he’s been through and what he and his wife are going through together.
How, then, does the narrator have these strong feelings toward Mike? He seems to reciprocate them to a certain extent. They may never meet again, and if they do she senses nothing will change between them. They will not consummate their attraction. They will still be attracted. In a way, this love they share is all in their minds and based on nothing much. Because it stays there, it becomes so significant: “Not risking a thing yet staying alive as in a sweet trickle, an underground resource.”
This story reminds me a lot of so many of my favorite William Trevor stories, where vital relationships play out so much more in the mind than out in physical space, yet they are still powerful and very real. It’s a remarkable story.
“Nettles” is a late, great Munro story about suffering. It is also about childhood, sex, marriage, motherhood, feminism, writing, and the postponement of ambition.
The narrator (let’s call her N) is on a weekend jaunt to visit an old friend, someone with whom she had shared pregnancies. In the old days, they had had many “a rampage of talk” about Simone de Beauvoir, Jung, Eliot, dreams, and “foregone ambitions.”
But there were babies to take care of. Their husbands were not particularly sympathetic.
Our husbands were not in this frame of mind at all. When we tried to talk about such things with them they would say, “Oh, that’s just literature” or “You sound like Philosophy 101.”
But now, N has left her husband.
I was hoping to make my living as a writer . . . What I wrote wasn’t any better than what I’d managed to write back in the old life while the potatoes cooked or the laundry thumped around in its automatic cycle. There was just more of it, and it wasn’t any worse — that was all.
It seems that N’s writing is also in an automatic cycle. What will make the difference? What will make the writing better?
In the end, we don’t know exactly what happened, except for this. She happens to meet, at Sunny’s house, a man she has not seen since she was eight and he was nine, or thereabouts.
They had had a friendship brought about by the fact that Mike’s father was drilling a well on N’s father’s farm. They spent a summer careening about doing daring things that were lots of fun. There was a happy equality about almost all the things they did together. N felt a terrible loneliness when Mike’s father was done with the well and the two of them moved on.
N pays some attention to the evolution of their friendship over the summer. Although the beginning was typified by adventures, the end was dominated by a game of war being held under the bridge. Two teams of boys pelted each other with mud-balls. The girls served the boys as munitions makers and nurses, thus acting out and trying out the roles society had seemed to require.
And then it was all over.
Now N and Mike are probably 35. N is divorced, Mike is not. Nonetheless, N does not think it all impossible that Mike will come to her bed. This seems to the reader wildly opportunistic, as if divorce has gone to her head. Even she admits as much.
The next day, they arrange to spend some time together, Mike playing a round of golf, N walking along. She makes a feminist observation to herself. Perhaps the purpose of her walking with him was to provide “an extended notion of himself.”
It turns out, though, that the reason she is there with him is that she is someone to whom he wants to tell the truth, the truth he can tell almost no one. The truth is that he had accidentally run over and killed his three-year-old son the year before.
N had spent a fair amount of effort telling us of her own “miseries.” Her marriage had devolved into “hypocrisy, deprivation, and shame.” She had lost her children. Her affairs, post-divorce, left her feeling “frightened of a kind of non-existence.” She spent time wondering what kind of “expectations of women” the men she met might have.
Suddenly, with Mike’s confession, she understands that there might be “misery,” but that then there was tragedy. She understood that he confessed to her because he thought she understood who he really was. She understood that they might well love each other. But she understood that he lived, together with his wife, in lives of suffering beyond what even war might cause, because it was suffering for which he (and maybe she) was responsible. There would be no affairs. There would be no leaving.
At this point in the story, although Munro doesn’t say so, feminism takes a back seat. At this point, feminism is irrelevant. And it is perhaps at this point that N becomes the writer she is going to be.
In closing, she tells us about the nettles of the title. That they are not what she thought they were. She’d thought they were the six foot tall rather grand joe-pye weed. And instead, nettles are rather “insignificant.” Nettles are on a spectrum of poisonous plants, and the troubles they cause are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the troubles caused by other plants and poisons. The issue here is that for the writer there is the question of scale and the question of point of view. There are N’s miseries, which are real enough, and then there is Mike McCallum’s suffering. There are times when being a “nurse” is to be confined and to be used, and there are times when being a nurse is to provide comfort to hopeless pain or sorrow.
What will make her the better writer? To keep going on an automatic cycle? To stay stuck in the past of de Beauvoir and Jung? Or to move forward into a world of experience and listening? Munro spells none of this out. It is up to the reader to make sense of the metaphor.
N mentions “a bridge between one thing and another,” the way in conversation a person might reply to a question with a comment like “Well.”
It is as if meeting Mike McCallum is just what N has experienced — that bridge between one thing and another, except that in her case, the bridge might be the bridge between the automatic cycle of feminism and a new sense of what men are truly like.
Note: Mike’s last name is McCallum, a Scottish name derived from St. Columba. Michael is from a Hebrew name meaning “who is like God.” The immense suffering that Mike must endure is perhaps a human version of what suffering God must endure (if there is a god, something on which Munro offers no opinion), and yet, saint like, he does not leave his wife, nor does he blame her. This is more of Munro’s exploration of what comprises human goodness.
Note: Munro’s “bridge between one thing and another” is also evident in “Floating Bridge” and possibly in “Comfort.”
Note: Nina, in “Comfort,” is her husband’s “pliant” and “smiling” wife, his “attendant,” which is a clue to the relationship. Jinny, in “Floating Bridge,” is such a one. To a degree, the narrator of “Nettles” is an attendant. Johanna, in “Hateship” is a nurse to her husband. One could argue that the stories of this book revolve around the idea of the woman’s role as the “smiling attendant,” or her rejection of that role.
Note: What is the primary impulse of the story? To look at the way a writer matures beyond the “automatic cycle.” French philosophy and feminism can be mere nettles. Profound suffering is something else.
Note: How is the story of their eight and nine year old adventures key to “Nettles”? Mike and N had a summer of equality that closed with a violent game of war when the boys and the girls suddenly assumed rigid roles — the boys, fighting to the death, and the girls making their munitions and nursing them.
And then Mike vanished.
It is as if this story presages what happens to men and women in their twenties and thirties (if it’s the nineteen fifties). The men must go out and battle each other for a living. The women must “nurse” them. And then, suddenly, it all breaks down. Marriages become a shell. Divorces happen. But life itself moves on. Death and illness approach. To face death and illness, all of the grievances must fall away. One could argue that the grievances of assigned sex role are child’s play to the real thing — the grief of death and illness.
Except for this. Sometimes the grievance of assigned sex role results in illness and death. But the fact is the real tragedy of life is loss. How do you tell the difference between child’s play and tragedy? How does the writer? To a degree, the role of the writer is that of the pliant attendant, the one who listens. The one who pays attention.