by Alice Munro
from The Moons of Jupiter
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.
Trevor, I wonder if where we agree regarding this story is on the narrator’s almost complete lack of appeal!
I think that’s part of it for me, Betsy. I’m just not sure what her role is.
I should say that I don’t particularly care for “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” either! Probably me!
There is a wonderful small detail, describing another serial seducer in “The Moons of Jupiter”, ‘preserved but not ripened’ and after that a characterization ‘with such men the descent into love is swift and private and amazing – so is their recovery’.
One of the things this story is about, once again: what men and women want of each other.
This time the the seducer himself is seduced, by the stories Julie tells. The narrator knows her friends so well she foresees what is going to happen.
I´m absolutely with you Betsy, in her set-up there is a thought of bringing down her ‘friends’ especially Julie, a bit, or more. She´ll get her possibilty to be used by a hard, uncaring man. The narrator gets a possibility to monitor what happens, and later also a possibility of some revenge, when Douglas has moved on. There´ll be the revelation, she´ll confide that the guy in the story told by the narrator was Douglas.
I had the possibility to read again the Carver story, in translation, and noticed there is also a free internet access to the original story. Nice finding Betsy, it really is like Munro is having a conversation with Carver. Hard to prove it is intentional, but there it is.
Robert Thacker says that by the time Barber and Gibson were beginning to shape “Moons” in early 1982, “The New Yorker” has seen all twelve stories, must then be in 1981, which leaves an opening af a very small time window for the proposed dialogue with Carver. Thacker accounts for some rewrites during the editing process, but nothing on “Hard-Luck Stories”.
The Canadian “Moons” was published already in 1982.
Unlike Julie, the narrator does not succeed with her story, Douglas never opens up. Instead she learns something, a truth or at least a fact about herself. A pressure of the hand, with no promise about it, could admonish and comfort her….I could be always bent on knowing, and always in the dark, about what was important to him, and what was not.
It is also a personal statement, in an 1982 interview Munro said to Alice Weisman: ‘I work in the dark’.
One way of looking at what this story is about, is presented in the 2009 Harold Bloom book on A.M., in an essay by Katherine J. Mayberry, titled “Alice Munro and the Limits of Narrative”.
She points out “Moons” as one of Munro´s examinations of the capabilities and limitations of narrative, and uses “Hard-Luck Stories” as an example of the most direct treatment of the problem of the narrative in the volume.
She concludes: the narrator´s position at the end of “Hard-Luck Stories” is for Munro, the predicament for all narrators who seek understanding through language – the predicament of being ‘always bent on knowing, and always in the dark’.
Thanks for your comment, Hari. I’m on the run to a meeting, so I cannot respond in detail, but I wanted to thank you!
Thank you Betsy for passing on the seminal quote from this story that compares intellectual love to possessive love. So much unnecessary pain could be avoided with this self-knowledge…
It’s another brilliant observation from Munro. I really admire how direct she is in her stories when addressing love.
I think this reading of “Hard Luck Stories” misses another Hard Luck story. If one returns to the beginning Julie has a certain giddiness and discusses luck, love and Douglas. That is the third hard luck story. The narrator has lost in love, the hand on her back was not a promise of more but the beginning of being passed over for a friend.
I found this story to be a tough nut to crack. And on my first reading I did not see that when the narrator went to the dinner “with a man [she] was in love with” that man was Douglas. I think it it is a flaw of the story that this point is a little too well hidden.
But I’m not full agreement that the narrator saw Julie and Douglas as highly suited to each other and was trying to set them up. Rather I think she was, in a way she partially veiled to even herself, trying to act as a “sexual monster” and play of Julie and Douglas against each other–positioning Julie as a foil to herself with the ultimate goal of rekindling a sexual relationship with Douglas. But instead she ended up with a repeat of what happened at the dinner party where she, the “sensible” “intelligent” choice as an unmarried woman is passed over for “the kind that’s anything but intelligent, that’s like a possession.”
I think that when Douglas ran his hand over the narrator’s back in the church (and did so in a manner calculated to be invisible to Julie) this was a tacit apology of sorts both for what happened in the past and for (as Guido notes above) for what he was about to do next–going after Julie.
“The poet dreams of a menage a trois with her lovely friend Julie and her compelling former lover Douglas.” Where in the story does this happen?
Unlike Trevor and Betsy, I like the narrator. In my version, she’s trying to set Julie and Douglas up for good motives— (like Betsy she imagines things might work out between them. Also see the last paragraph of the story which is an answer to sometime reader’s last question). When the narrator speaks of love that’s like a possession, is she not possibly thinking of herself as being possessed with the hard uncaring but compelling and bewitching Douglas? And by the way, Munro’s concealment of the fact that the narrator’s trip companion was Douglas, along with all the hidden indications that a second reading reveals, is for me not a flaw, but one of the delights of the story.