Oh, What Avails
by Alice Munro
from Friend of My Youth
Sometimes it’s hard to accept that a favorite author has failed to meet one’s expectations. When I finish an Alice Munro story, if I don’t like it assume it’s me, so I read it again. Usually by this point I come around. And while I’ve wondered if I’ve simply invented some excuse to admire something from Munro I’d not accept from someone else, I’m okay with that. She deserves my forbearance, and I’ve learned that with a bit more work I can usually find the jewels and am the better for it.
But oh my do I dislike “Oh, What Avails.”
I’ve reread it a number of times over the past month, hoping to find that thread I’ve missed in prior reads, and increasingly these felt like work sessions. I just cannot latch on to this story, and I’m going to suggest it’s not me. I think “Oh, What Avails” is a failure; even though it has some great Munrovian insights, the story and its structure is unworthy of them. Fortunately, these insights — time, love, change, regret — come up in many of Munro’s strongest stories, so no great loss.
“Oh, What Avails” is broken into three sections: “I — Deadeye Dick,” “II — Frazil Ice,” and “III — Rose Matilda.” In the first part, we go to Logan, Canada, and meet Joan and Morris, brother and sister, as teenagers. Their mother is a widow who perhaps feels her position in town is greater than it actually is. Their neighbor, Mrs. Buttler, is also a widow with a teenage daughter, named Matilda. In part two we return to Logan ten years later. Joan has also returned town to meet with a lover, who stands her up. We see Morris and Matilda again as well; their relationship didn’t end well in “Deadeye Dick,” but they are friends now, if not lovers as Morris would like. In Part three, it’s at least ten years later still. By now Joan is divorced, living in Toronto, but she’s once again returned to her childhood home, where we again check in on Morris and the peripheral Matilda.
I think my resistance to this story is primarily one of convolution and lifelessness. I think the parts are a bit overlong in and of themselves, and they spread out in their tangents without Munro’s typical control. Most of the characters, other than Joan, are on display for their cruelty and subtle aggression. I’ve read the first part a number of times now, and I still find myself drifting when I read about the neighborhood. Usually I sense the purpose in these diversions; the town becomes real to me. Here I mostly get annoyed.
Part two is my favorite part. It’s there that Joan confronts her unfathomable desire to meet a lover, though she cannot understand any physical attraction and cannot say she is unhappy in her marriage. She recognizes this desire is foreign and “appears to be something that a person not heard from in her marriage, and perhaps not previously heard from in her life, might want.” It’s unbelievable to her and to her husband when he finds out. It is part of the tug that unravels her marriage, and when we meet her again, a decade after her divorce, she finds she has no regrets and can look back on her life fondly.
In Part three Morris himself seems to come to terms with his life and his lies, as well as all of his investment — both in kindness and cruelty — in Matilda that has also come to naught. Indeed, she hardly seems worthy any more, growing to be like her mother, and taken up by her own unfathomable, irrational attractions.
And where does that leave us? With what I consider to be a flawed rumination on our irrational desires and how we invest our time and energy in things that really are unworthy. Realizing that, we are both drawn to and repulsed by the object, and we may treat it harshly. Either way, it all adds up to a life. For some, like Joan, that can be okay. No regrets. For some, like Morris, at best you can come to terms with it and regret a great deal.
As I write this, I realize that I have gotten more out of this story than I might have thought. However, this recap is boiled down and, frustratingly, I recall that the story is not as filled with life as most of Munro’s stories are.
Now, I’m really looking forward to moving forward with Munro. This hitch is not a pitfall, and it did nothing to change how much I respect and admire Munro’s work. I’m just glad it won’t be the last Munro story I read!
“Oh, What Avails” is dark and off-putting.
Joan and Morris are carelessly brought up by their widowed mother. She is down on her luck and has never recovered from the long-gone heady days before her husband died, when money and booze both flowed. Position was established. Now it’s all a thing of the past.
The widow has a knack for lying and a penchant for irresponsibility, as well as a mean streak. In a perverse yen to recreate the past, she brings Morris and Joan up to think of themselves as special.
They are privy, however, to all the ways she is a poor model. She owns three little cottages that she rents out, but she mistreats the tenants and especially mistreats Mrs. Buttler, a poor devil who rents the house across the street. Mrs. Buttler makes a living as a seamstress, but she seems a bubble and a half-off plum, talking a lot and flying off the handle. She has an incongruously beautiful daughter, whom she likes to dress as a princess. The mother-land-lord has nothing but disdain for the poor-devil-tenant.
The very beautiful and the very beautifully dressed Matilda first attracts Joan as an admirer. Then she attracts a bounder. Lacking any common sense, Matilda remains in thrall to the bounder for much of her life, despite him being a liar, not very attractive, and a bigamist to boot.
Joan grows up. We meet her beginning an affair with what a friend of hers calls “a creepy man,” someone who uses a visit to see the “frazil ice” as a seduction routine. The ice in question can have a number of different appearances, and can be both beautiful and dangerous. It looks like snow, but it’s really slush. Although Munro does not explain this, I am sure she knows that if you should step on it, thinking there is solid ice beneath, you would go right through to your death.
I am sure she means that’s what certain love affairs really are. They look like meaningful connection, but they aren’t.
Morris grows up to be a stunted man, possibly because his looks were seriously marred when he injured his eye as a child. It was an accidental encounter with a rake in his mother’s yard. His mother, the one who lies to herself and everyone else, makes no effort to have him properly treated, not even to the extent of having his “dead-eye” replaced.
The fact that Morris grows up stunted, however, is more likely the result of his mother being a bum, than solely because of his injury. The injury is more of an epithet that indicates his lack of vision.
Morris grows up to make his life work the acquisition of money. He habitually cheats women “in small ways” and seems satisfied with this as a way of life. He seems to neither know the meaning of friendship or the responsibilities of love. Ironically, he becomes the beautiful Matilda’s dancing partner and chaste friend, while also taking his divorced secretary as a lover.
The restrained friendship does not preclude Morris from doing business with Matilda. He sells her a house for a good price. He small-cheats her when he tells her that the hot water heater is new.
On one particular evening of dancing, Matilda tells Morris that she had had to replace her hot water heater. As the evening wears on, he realizes there is something about her that is different. He thinks it has to do with the bigamist. The reader knows that the difference in Matilda is related to his cheating her with the hot water heater.
Munro addresses the confusion thus: she makes a pointed narrative remark in which the pronouns are vague. (Floating pronouns are a recurring feature of Munro’s diction; they serve to reinforce the continuing theme in her work that everything has as many stories as there are participants, and there are always dozens of participants, including the reader.)
A thought was forming in his mind that she had seen him finally.
Morris thinks that Matilda had seen the bigamist, and seen through him. Munro means that Matilda had seen Morris and seen through Morris.
All of the characters seem stunted, the point somehow being that mistreated children grow up to mistreat either themselves or others. I think Morris is meant to be a stand-in for selfish capitalism, but he is no Jarvis Poulter. The story feels lacking in the customary complexity, and it lacks the contrast of someone who is actually compassionate. The “friend of my youth” in this case is Matilda, and while her extraordinary beauty is potentially interesting, the fact that she is in the thrall of a bigamist is neither touching nor compelling. Her dead-end relationship with Morris is not really explored, except that he felt free to cheat her on a hot water heater. The life, the multiplicity, the variety, and the depth I expect from Munro is just not present here. I am surprised that the story was published, except that dismality and uncompromising hopelessness, not to mention a preoccupation with contempt, were at that time a specialty of The New Yorker.
Fate: One thing that does interest me about this story is the way it turns on the accident of a hot water heater giving out. That is the occasion of Matilda having a realization, and the occasion of the stunted capitalist finally being caught in a lie.
Image: And one thing I really like is the frazil ice image, although I don’t think it’s used to the full in this story, not like, for instance, the Pearl Street Swamp in “Meneseteung.” It mostly represents the lying bigamist and the cheating Morris. But it also represents being brought up to think you’re special, and all the trouble that can lead to.
Titles: “Oh, What Avails” refers to the poem “Rose Aylmer,” by Walter Savage Landor, an also-ran English contemporary of William Wordsworth. The pretentious mother in this Munro story, being pretentious, has picked out a pretentious poem. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion says that the introductory tribute to the dead Rose Aylmer is “overblown and meaningless.” Rose, it turns out, was a real person, a lord’s daughter who died at twenty. This back story seems to reveal some fawning on the part of the poet. Nonetheless, the poem is about that “one night” of bliss with a long lost beauty. The poem addresses the multiple losses of the Munro story: the widowed mother, the bereft children, the very beautiful girl cheated by not only fatherlessness and a bigamist but also by a longtime friend. Everyone in the story is tawdry, and mixed up with these folks, the almost forgotten poem is tawdry as well. Landor himself could be a character in this story, given his lifelong commitment to inconstancy, given that the poet himself seemed to think himself very special, having lived a life of constant upheaval, battles with convention, battles with neighbors, and battles with his wife.
As for the book title, Friend of My Youth, as applied to this story it is a dead cliche. Matilda is an acquaintance from Joan’s and Morris’s childhood. She is not someone with whom they could enjoy passing time or with whom they could develop a friendship. Munro seems interested in the lies we tell ourselves, not just in this story but in any story, and that we used to be “friends” with someone is one of those lies.
Tennessee Williams: The story bears a resemblance to The Glass Menagerie. Although she never mentions him, Faulkner has always seemed a touchstone for Munro, what with her Faulknerian creation of an entire locale and her interest in the way the past is important to the present, but here I also see the comparison to Williams, especially in the looking back embodied in the collection, Friend of My Youth. In addition, there is the domineering mother, the child who must get away, and in this story, the children who don’t, as well as the mother’s destructive fantasies about life. Williams’ “Gentleman Caller” is in Munro transformed into a two real life cads who embody cheating, the one a sexual opportunist and the other a sleazy real estate operator. Williams, like Munro, had a prodigious output, but unlike Munro his work seems to have been uneven. There is a stunning complexity, brilliance, and concision in Williams’ best work. Does Munro approach that? “Boys and Girls” leaps immediately to my mind, as well as “Baptizing,” “Royal Beatings,” “The Turkey Season,” “Miles City Montana,” “Circle of Prayer,” “Meneseteteung,” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” “Runaway,” “To Reach Japan,” “Train,” and “Dear Life.” We’ll see if the list stays the same when we reach the end.
Mothers: All three of the children in this story are failed by their mothers and unable to achieve their initial promise; self-delusion such as the self-delusion in Morris and Joan’s mother is a typical human failing in Munro.
Class-ism: The down-on-her-luck widow is grotesquely rude to the poor devil who rents the shack from her. Ironically, the poor devil’s daughter turns out uncannily beautiful, as if fate were to spit in the widow’s eye.
Three kinds of men: one a dead husband, another a dead-cheat at marriage, and the third a dead-cheat at business.
Diction: the “Oh, what avails” of the title is a typically Munrovian phraseology: slippery. The phrase had one meaning to Landor and probably another to Munro. What would help? What would profit? The poem seems to suggest that it was no use to Rose to have been part of the “sceptred” classes — she died anyway. As for the story, being brought up to think you are special is of no avail in the end, either. And as for cheating, it seems to have been of little avail to either the bigamist or to Morris. And the elegy Walter Savage Landor dedicates to Rose Aylmer? All is frazil ice.
More diction, as in floating pronouns:
“A thought was forming in his mind that she had seen him finally.”
Here Munro manipulates the narrative so as to underscore the way everyone, including readers, misunderstand each other. He, Morris, sees that Matilda has had a realization about something, that she is different. He thinks that it’s about the bigamist. The change in Matilda, however, is actually in regard to Morris. Matilda has realized that despite their lifelong acquaintance and recent “friendship,” Morris was willing to cheat her when he sold her a house.
The incoherent pronoun is a feature of Munro (as it is also a feature in John Ashbery), and this slippery diction intensifies Munro’s idea that every event has as many realities as participants.
The story’s general impression on the reader: It is one of my least favorite stories. None of the people are good company. Three of them are repulsive, and one is helpless. The complexities so typical of Munro either fall flat or are missing. But if you are looking for a story about bad mothers or cheats, especially capitalist cheats, then this is one for you.
Endings: Munro stories often build to a realization. Morris, here, loses Matilda, and seems at the end to realize he has lost something beautiful. Joan compares it to Landor’s poem. Perhaps he understands his loss – he has been “quite disciplined about love, and abstemious”. Probably a mistake. More like, the reader understands, the children, Morris, Joan, and Matilda, were on frazil ice from the get-go, where the ability to love was concerned.
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