The main character of “Oranges and Apples” is a man named Murray. The first third or so of the story gives us a rather quick synopsis of his life leading up to a moment when he and his wife, Barbara, discover she may have cancer. That brings on a moment of reflection, upon the mysteries of chance and choice that have occurred in the couple’s journey to this point late in life, when we still may wonder just how they are together. They wonder as well. They’ve chosen to, though.
When she was a beautiful young woman, Murray’s father hired her to help at their department store. “I hired a looker from out Shawtown,” is how the story begins. Murray, gearing up to run the store, falls for Barbara’s beauty and her attitude, though they do not seem like two people who would go well together. Over the years, Murray takes over the store, loses it, starts another venture, becomes civically minded, etc. And then, later in life, he and Barbara have this cancer scare. While they are driving to the doctor’s they pass a farm that seems to have no particular significance to them.
However, that farm used to belong to Victor and Beatrice Sawicky. For years they’d drive by the farm and one of them would say, “I wonder what happened to Victor.” For years, though, “they haven’t bothered.” This is where Munro pulls us back into the past, to a mystery that the characters themselves really don’t understand.
When Victor moved to town, he and Murray struck an immediate friendship . . . at least, from Murray’s perspective. Victor would come over often, and Murray loved talking to him. Munro is clear that Murray’s may have some degree of homosexual attraction toward Victor, though this is not something, if present, Murray would admit to himself. Does his wife see it? Maybe. We don’t know that either. What we get, instead, is something clouded over, something we can merely see the shape of in the shadows.
One day, when he comes home unexpectedly in the afternoon, Murray’s life is changed. But no, this is not what we might expect:
He came home unexpectedly, and he found — not Victor and Barbara in bed together. Victor was not in the house at all — nobody was in the house. Victor was not in the yard. Adam [their son] was in the yard, splashing in the plastic pool. Not far away from the pool Barbara was lying on the faded quilt, stained with suntan oil, that they used when they went to the beach.
It looks like nothing at all is going on, yet, from Murray’s perspective: “In her thoughts, at least, she wasn’t alone.”
Now, once again, we may think we know where this is going. And Munro points in that direction. Certainly Victor, at least, has a thing for Barbara, and she probably knows this. But she doesn’t seem to care about Victor a jot. Despite that, Murray cannot help but feel an almost mad jealousy, displacing himself in his own life:
Daily life continued, ringed by disaster as by a jubilant line of fire. He felt his house transparent, his life transparent — but still standing — himself a stranger, soft-footed and maliciously observant. What more would be revealed to him?
But, and I think this is key to this story, who is Murray jealous of? Of Victor, for his beauty which Barbara must be attracted to, how could she not? Or of Barbara, because Victor should be Murray’s friend, not Barbara’s lover.
Munro deepens the mystery further when we see what Murray does to Barbara and Victor (not that we know exactly what happened), and that later in life he feels Barbara has disappointed him. It’s a strange choice Murray makes, and then he and Barbara choose to ignore whatever it was and whatever it meant.
“Oranges and Apples” refers to a game of choice. Which do you choose oranges or apples? The game, according to Barbara, purposely offers easy choices at first, but the choices then get progressively harder, until the game might make you choose between two really good alternatives, or worse, two really bad ones.
The story offers its characters a series of increasingly difficult choices. Murray is offered, among others, these choices:
• Being a minister or running his father’s department store
• Losing his friend or offering his wife to his friend
• Holding a grudge for thirty years or not
Murray’s wife, Barbara, is offered these choices:
• Considering reading to be a primary experience in life, or not
• Having an ordinary man for a husband or a lying stud for a lover
• Fighting (or not) for a husband who is infatuated with a friend
Murray is the main character here, one whose story stretches from college to almost old age. Choice is an important element in Munro stories, which seem to hold that choosing experience is always better than choosing emptiness.
The first choice that Murray makes is to forgo his ambition to be a minister, a choice which is forced upon him because he has lost his faith. At one point, he is ready to talk about this loss and this choice with his new friend Viktor, but he is cut off, and he chooses not to continue. The reader wonders what he would have said.
Murray, the failed ministerial candidate, ends up running his father’s department store, and indeed, eventually runs it right into the ground. In the end, he redeems himself by opening a tourist lodge on some family land, working steadily, almost like a monk in a monastery, and making a life. That’s a choice he had never considered, but the choice was only possible after everything else that happened.
Murray has a gorgeous wife, a wife who was originally hired by his father to work the men’s section of the department store, while it was still a going thing. There’s a pimping aspect to this transaction. Murray’s father had used Barbara’s unparalleled and awesome beauty to sell the goods to the male customers. Barbara’s beauty is not lost on Murray, and he marries her.
As often happens in Munro, happenstance happens to Murray. A big, strapping, galvanizing, charming “Polish Airman” moves into town with his wife. Murray feels revived by Viktor and pursues a friendship with him, and in fact rescues him when Viktor flees his marriage. The thing is, Viktor is not just beautiful. He also talks about ideas. He is invigorating, and he wants to talk, talk, talk. Barbara is, in contrast, a woman who loves to read and read and read, but who declines to talk. Murray is captivated by his new friend.
Murray put Viktor immediately in the same class of human beings as Barbara, but of the two he found Viktor the far the more splendid and disturbing.
People being who they are, Viktor is taken with the gorgeous Barbara, which only makes sense, since they are the two gorgeous people in the story. But does Barbara fall for Viktor? That is Munro’s mystery. I think not. She questions Viktor’s stories, she questions his marriage, and he senses it and insults her.
This reader thinks that Viktor threatens Barbara’s marriage, or Barbara’s primacy, and she ends up enticing Viktor to train his attentions on her.
It’s farcical. Barbara lies out on the ground, sunbathing, purposely tormenting Viktor, I think. Viktor, up in an apartment on the third floor, bare-chested (or possibly nude), studies her with binoculars. Murray, in secret, studies Viktor studying Barbara. Murray, too, has gotten out his binoculars. While Viktor is appreciating Barbara’s body, Murray is appreciating (in horror) Viktor’s.
Weirdly, and sadly, Murray manipulates a situation so that Barbara has to take Viktor some cold blankets on a cold night. It’s as if Murray is offering Barbara to Viktor. The reader puzzles over this, that although Murray adores Viktor, the only consummation he is allowed is to offer his wife to Viktor. And Murray is angry when the whole thing seems to amount to nothing, when Viktor disappears the next day, and when Barbara refuses to talk about it.
What are the choices here? The reader has to decide who has the choices.
Why did Barbara try to seduce Viktor? Was it because she actually wanted him for herself? Or was it because she wanted to get him away from Murray and get him out of the picture entirely? Or a little of both?
Is it Barbara who decides that she chooses Murray and sends Viktor away? Or is it Viktor who discards Barbara and elects to go away himself?
The intensity of Murray’s feeling for Viktor is revealed after Viktor flees. Murray goes into hyperdrive, into a kind of mania, trying to prove himself a superman like Viktor, but in so doing, he loses the store he had inherited.
In the end, years later, Barbara has a cancer scare. Watching Barbara come toward him with the news, Murray thinks, “Don’t disappoint me, again.”
What in the world does he mean by this? Don’t have cancer? Don’t leave me? Don’t leave me the way it seemed you were going to leave with Viktor?
Maybe it’s that simple, and my homo-erotic interpretation is off base. And, actually, “homo-erotic” is off-base, too. Who hasn’t fallen in love with a perfect specimen of their own sex? Someone who makes you feel like a million bucks? Someone who makes you laugh? Some friendships are made of that.
It’s just that when it seems as if Murray loses Viktor to Barbara, Murray turns the tables and offers Barbara to Viktor. It’s a move similar to his father’s, who had hired Barbara specifically to appeal to the male customer. Offering Barbara to Viktor, in this way of thinking, might be a way to keep Viktor close. But Viktor, whatever his proclivities or motives, senses that this situation is not going to be the main chance but is going to be way too complicated, and he flees.
It is complicated, and Murray goes nuts, makes a lot of bad decisions, and ends up being not the big man, but maybe something better: a man who is good at what he finally does do. One of the things this story is about is what Murray should elect to do with his life. Be a minister? Run a department store? Maybe these choices are so bad that he needs some shaking up, a third choice: running the trout lodge, with Barbara, out in the sticks.
“Do not disappoint me again!” There’s more meaning in that mysterious thought than you might at first think.
To me, Murray’s original disappointment was that he couldn’t keep Viktor, and Barbara had failed, or chosen, not to keep Viktor either.
So why is there that throwaway thing about Murray’s faith and not becoming a minister?
It was as if he’d come into a closed-off room or opened a drawer and found that his faith had dried up, turned to a mound of dust in the corner.
Perhaps Murray’s own life has its “closed-up rooms.” Perhaps the faith that died was something autocratic and rigid, something that placed people in boxes. Murray was, after all, someone who had taken sociology courses, and someone who wondered if people might need “counselling.” Maybe when Viktor appeared, one of those closed off rooms got opened up.
Faith: while Munro is fairly opposed to the authoritarian and impersonal nature of institutions, she is none-the-less interested in religious questions: compassion, guilt, forgiveness, humility, waste, prayer, ceremony. In a later story in this very book, we hear about Austen Cobbett, an actual ordained minister who has a “careful, quiet kind of religion.” Austen is a minister who “rarely mentions God.” Austen says: “[T]here’s more than one way to love God.”
Where Murray and Barbara end up is running a sporting lodge, where Barbara can read and where Murray can live somewhat monastically, while still entertaining the men who come to stay. Murray is good at it, and Barbara plays the role she was destined to play in this family — the lure that brings in the business — with her beauty and her ability to toss off a dinner for thirty. And although she gains weight, she still, in this new iteration of her marriage, is free to read and read and read.
Which did Murray and Viktor and Barbara choose? Oranges or apples? The really easy choice between bad and good? Or the more difficult choice between good and good? Or the impossible choice between bad and bad?
All the while I’m put in mind of William Carlos Williams’ “Marriage”:
So different, this man
And this woman:
A stream flowing
In a field.
Note: I assume that anyone reading whatever I have to say about these Munro stories has already read them. This is a conversation about the story, not a teaser to entice you read the story. Best you know that. Because the pleasure in Munro is not so much reading her work but thinking about it afterwards, knowing full well that because the stories are so rich, there will always be someone to disagree.
Second note: Marriage choices, marriage triangles, and long memory about possibilities of long ago loves are much on Munro’s mind in Friend of My Youth. A narrator puzzles over the story she heard from her mother about Flora, who wanted to marry Robert, except that jealous Ellie steals him away, and then acquisitive Audrey steals him away again. It’s the mother’s long memory, however, that sticks with the reader: her fascination with Robert, and her idealization of Flora. In “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass,” Jack marries Hazel but he thinks he cannot forget Antoinette, except it’s the war he cannot forget. In “Oh, What Avails,” Morris thinks he can have both the girl from his childhood and the woman from the office, but his lying gets in the way. In “Differently,” Georgia cannot forget neither her lover, nor the mesmerizing Maya, nor the way Maya stole Georgia’s lover. In “Hold Me Fast,” Dudley has both the blond Antoinette and the red-haired Judy, but in the end, concedes, you can’t make two women happy. In “Wigtime,” Reuel thinks he can have another teenaged mistress on the side, just the way he had done in his first marriage so many years ago, but his wife outsmarts him. In “Oranges and Apples” Murray wants both Barbara and Viktor. Once again, William Carlos Williams intrudes. Robert, Jack, Dudley, Reuel, Murray, and Williams himself are all different kinds of philandering guys — all “a stream flowing in a field.”