From my perspective, Munro’s weaker stories get placed near the end of her books — not quite the end, as those spots are usually filled by some of the best. “Hard-Luck Stories” is third from the end, right in that weaker zone before things pick up again, and I do think it’s a weak story despite several readings looking for some key that would open it up. Perhaps someone here can enlighten me, and I’m anxious to see what Betsy has to say below!
That “Hard-Luck Stories” is weak is perhaps not surprising when one learns it was composed of pieces Munro had scrapped from “Simon’s Luck,” which we wrote about here. I thought “Simon’s Luck” was a great story, filled with foreboding and desperation. “Hard-Luck Stories,” on the other hand, felt rather pointless.
This story mainly concerns three individuals: a nameless female narrator, her friend Julie, and a man named Douglas. As the story begins, these three characters are not really in touch anymore, though the narrator is sitting down at a Toronto restaurant awaiting Julie for lunch. They last saw each other a couple of months before at a conference where Douglas was also in attendance.
The narrator and Julie begin to reflect a bit, and Douglas’s name comes up. The story shifts back to the day after the conference, when the three characters were travelling together. Strangely, as we settle down with the three characters while they eat together, they in turn start to reflect on their own past, sharing those “hard-luck stories.” We are now two levels removed from the narrator and Julie sitting at the Toronto restaurant, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what difference that makes to the story. Perhaps it’s that the characters are aging. We catch them thinking back on themselves thinking back.
Of course, the “hard-luck stories” are more of a side note to the interplay going on between the narrator, Julie, and Douglas while they talk. We get notes as to who’s looking at whom, etc.
For me, there wasn’t much more here. I’m happy to be shown the error of my ways. And for that . . . I’ll turn the time over to Betsy! In the meantime, I’ll think on the two stories that remain in this collection, stories I’ve already read and love.
Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” was published in a collection of the same name in 1981. Alice Munro’s “Hard-Luck Stories” appeared for the first time in The Moons of Jupiter in 1983. The stories make a nice pair. Both involve some heavy drinking, although Carver’s wins the decision with his two bottles of gin as against Munro’s two bottles of wine. Both involve some serial story telling among friends. Both are conflicted (confused, even) regarding the role of love in our lives. Both make a glancing pass at God. And both stories are complex, ambiguous, and ultimately mysterious.
It seems clear to me, although perhaps improvable, that Munro is in conversation here with Raymond Carver, something that touches me, much as the way that Elizabeth Bishop’s being in conversation with Robert Lowell touched me. The difference is that while Bishop’s conversation with Lowell was singular and life-long, Munro was in conversation with much that she read. That booklist recorded in Angela’s journal in “Labor Day Dinner” was just a teaser. Munro had been married to a bookseller, she had been a voracious reader in her childhood and youth, and one can just assume that part of Munro’s craft as a writer was to continue read voraciously and to incorporate in her writing her reactions to her reading.
I take Munro’s reply to Carver in the spirit of his original story — that Munro replies in kind and in spades.
While Carver posits the distance between the violence of human love and the serenity of the seminary, and while he posits the truthfulness of human touch against how inarticulate human speech can be, Munro remarks upon the violence of God’s world (its hard sickness and death) as against the fantasies we have about ideal communion. In this case, for instance, the poet dreams of a menage a trois with her lovely friend Julie and her compelling former lover Douglas. But she admonishes the reader: “truth” is in the “layers” between God’s hard reality and human fantasy.
Munro makes a specific point in “Hard-Luck Stories” of the role money plays in whatever it is that we sometimes call love. The “hard luck,” for instance, of the title reminds us of people “down on their luck,” people of no means, people you need to feel sorry for, and yet, at the same time, there’s the sense that such a story might be manipulative, might be intending that you do something for the poor victim.
In “Hard-Luck Stories” Munro primarily argues for the way we are tempted to lies and fakery in the pursuit of what we call love, often because money is inevitably mixed up in what we think of as love, and as money gives love a bad taste, we lie, to ourselves, to the lover and to others, about how money is at the base of our desire. Throughout the long lunch and car ride that are the setting of this story, we overhear the couplings of about a dozen couples, and how money, or the money that is wrapped up in the marital contract, is part of the motive. Keith, for example, marries Caroline for her fortune, and Caroline, for her part, uses her fortune to allow herself the privilege of being what one of her lovers calls “a sexual monster.” Caroline, after all, is someone who is willing to play three men off one against the other during the course of one house party. Another “sexual monster” appears in the guise of Stanley, the Encounter Group leader, the one who sleeps with as many of the women in his group as possible, and still expects to be paid for his efforts, much like a modern day gigolo. (Note another jibe here from Munro against the insufficiencies of or dishonesty inherent in the therapeutic psychological exchange.)
While Munro’s and Carver’s characters are both talking with the urge to truth telling, Carver makes intoxication and violence the drivers of his story, and Munro makes money and “possession” hers.
Fraud, fakery, camouflage, play acting, posing — these are the combined spine of “Hard-Luck Stories.” The narrator poses as a good friend to Julie and to Douglas, setting them up, so to speak. They seem highly suited to each other. Each of them is tall and lean, for instance. Each has proved rather self-sufficient, one in his business of buying original papers and diaries, and the other in pursuit of a stable family life. Each one is committed to truth-telling: Douglas in his pursuit of diaries, and Julie in her rigorous self-revelation when she tells her stories. When he collects her, he’s got the real thing. But there is the possibility that the narrator is trying to bring each of these “friends” down a peg or two by matching them up. After all, Julie has the better job than the narrator, and Douglas is the former lover who has rejected the narrator.
But there is also the possibility that something good might arise in the Julie-Douglas match-up. A close look at the stories Julie tells about herself reveal a woman concerned with truthfulness. She’s married to a man who is scrupulously truthful. She abandons an affair with a young man she met on the beach when she realizes that he is a patient from a mental hospital pretending to be a graduate student. She rejects an affair (although she does not reject his petitions entirely; she does love the flattery) with the Encounter Group leader on the grounds that he doesn’t he doesn’t know her at all. A close look at Douglas reveals that his life is devoted to the acquisition of women’s diaries, where presumably the truthful woman is his quest. It may be that Julie is a woman who will provide him a living version of the written word.
Of course, later, when Julie and the narrator/setter-upper/poet meet in Toronto, we are aware that Julie is having an affair, in the flesh, with Douglas. What we don’t know is whether she has left her husband yet, a stiff-necked man who has provided her nothing in the way of what she thinks of as love, but who is always truthful, by her account. So the reader is left to hash out that mystery, among others.
While Carver’s characters find it difficult to express what true love is, Munro’s poet narrator is glib.
There’s the intelligent sort of love that makes an intelligent choice. That’s the kind you’re supposed to get married on. Then there’s the kind that’s anything but intelligent, that’s like a possession. And that’s the one, that’s the one, everybody really values. That’s the one nobody wants to have missed out on.
She’s right, as far as she goes. But there’s something off about her, something untrustworthy. It is her use of the word “possession” that is the tip-off. On the one hand, the word suggests the kind of witchcraft that Stanley uses to get all his clients to sleep with him, and on the other, it suggests the kind of ownership that spouses can exert when one of them has the money or position or power of some sort or other to spread around to another who is lacking in money or position or power.
Munro herself allows that mutually passionate love is something we adore; “Accident” is an account of a mutually passionate love affair. But the narrator of “Hard-Luck Stories” seems unable to respect passion. There’s something snarky about her entire self-presentation, including her definition of love and her perception of passion.
To assume that Munro herself can only go that far is to mis-read her completely. After all, love, in Munro, is occasionally true. Think of Mildred and Wilfred in “Visitors”; the love they have is something deeply touching, filled with mutual respect, give and take, humor, and understanding, as well as mystery.
So, about that conversation Munro appears to be having with Carver. She ends with a writerly aside. The three friends are in a cemetery, and the poet remarks to us:
Then I felt something go over me — a shadow, a chastening. I heard the silly sound of my own voice against the truth of the lives laid down here. Lives, pressed down, like layers of rotting fabric, disintegrating dark leaves.
“Truth”, once more, is the central target — of writing, of love.
And once again, there is Munro’s writerly concern with “layers,” that the truth is found in the layers, one against another, the varied and various layers, as different, this reader thinks, as the multitude of moons of Jupiter are different from one another.