“Spaceships Have Landed”
by Alice Munro
from Open Secrets
Once again Alice Munro introduces us to a character in the first sentence and then backs off entirely, presenting a scene in which the character plays no part and then goes on to slowly reveal the character through the eyes of others. The character in this case is Eunie Morgan:
On the night of Eunie Morgan’s disappearance, Rhea was sitting in the bootlegger’s house at Carstairs — Monk’s — a bare, narrow wooden house, soiled halfway up the walls by the periodic flooding of the river. Billy Doud had brought her.
We wander about Monk’s for seven pages before we hear about Eunie Morgan again. At that point, the narrative still doesn’t let us know much about Eunie herself. Instead, we follow her worried mother as she wakes realizing she hasn’t heard Eunie come back in the house. She gets her husband out of bed as well, and they search, but to no avail.
Even after this search it’s a long time before Munro lets us know just what is going on with Eunie (this is not a story where all we know is that she’s gone). Through the pages we see her and Rhea playing together as children, and the portrait we get is of a lower-class girl who doesn’t quite fit in and who doesn’t quite know why. She particularly doesn’t fit in with the likes of Billy Doud, whose family is doing quite well in Carstairs since their factory is booming.
The story goes around and around, in and out of these relationships (there are more characters than usual for Munro). Spaceships? Kind of. It’s interesting. Though, to be honest, right now I’m not such a great fan of “Spaceships Have Landed.” It feels much more like a general portrait of a small town and lacks much of the interior drama I love in Munro’s work; it’s there, for sure, but I feel this story meanders a lot and is the weaker for it. It was the only story in the collection that was rejected by The New Yorker. However, it was published by The Paris Review. I decided to read that version to see if it helped me find a way into the story.
It didn’t change my mind. Instead, what I found particularly interesting was the difference between the version published in Open Secrets and the original version published in The Paris Review. They aren’t too different, but there is one major difference. I mentioned up above that the story — as we find it in the book — begins with a single hook about Eunie’s disappearance before veering off in the same sentence into the bootlegger’s for a detailed panorama focused more on Rhea and Billy Doud. With Munro’s go-ahead, George Plimpton cut that entire section when he published it in The Paris Review. Consequently, the magazine’s version begins with a stronger hook: the section when Eunie’s mom wakes up and realizes she has not heard Eunie come back in and awakens her husband to start a search.
I get why Plimpton started there. Conventionally, if we’re looking to pull the reader in, it’s the stronger start, really honing in on the disappearance rather than looking away at a group of people at Monk’s. Yet when Munro published Open Secrets she put the lengthy section at the bootleggers back. Clearly she had something else in mind with this story, and, other than in a clause that isn’t even the focus of the sentence — albeit the first clause of the story — starting with Eunie’s disappearance wasn’t the way to get what she wanted.
I searched to see what I could learn and found a relevant passage in Robert Thacker’s Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (which is where I learned that it was Plimpton himself who axed the bootlegger section prior to publishing the story in The Paris Review), and Thacker does shed some light on what Munro was up to here: she wanted to move away from what happened to what may have happened.
She certainly does a lot of that in this story and throughout Open Secrets. It’s one of the central strengths of this collection. I think that’s one reason we so often see our central characters through the eyes of others. Munro doesn’t necessarily want us to know just what the central character is thinking, just what is motivating her. She wants us to experience what may have happened through the biased perspective of a bystander, sometimes many bystanders.
But I’m not entirely sure that is a strength of “Spaceships Have Landed.” We are around when Eunie returns the next morning, and no we cannot fully trust the story she has to tell, leaving us somewhat in the “what may have happened territory.” Rather, I think “Spaceships Have Landed” is much more about Carstairs itself, the town where this and a few other Munro stories take place. I think that’s why Munro wants to start with the vivid scene at Monk’s, where no one even knows about Eunie’s disappearance. In this story we again see the Doud family we’ve come to know a bit in “Carried Away” and will see again in “Vandals.” I think “Spaceships Have Landed” is as much about putting this town and some of its people on paper as it is about having us explore any “what may have happened.” While the questions are there, they are overshadowed by all of the details we get elsewhere.
I’m still open to seeing this story from a more promising perspective, so please share your thoughts.
In “Spaceships Have Landed” there are more than a dozen women, rich and poor, smart and not so smart, loud and silent, free and not free, good and not so good. That one has sought refuge (or is imprisoned) in a hospital and another is pimped out by her husband is telling of the boxes women endure; that one owns a factory and is known as “that Tatar” and another owns almost nothing, has visions, seems a-sexual, and is as good as a saint is also telling, and is perhaps the meaning of the story.
That Rhea outgrows her two friends and leaves them behind, that Rhea betrays one of them, that Rhea runs away and abandons her paralyzed mother, and that Rhea and her husband, between them, have had fifteen lovers is all extremely sad and part of being a woman of her time.
Most compelling to me in “Spaceships have Landed” is the tale of “The Two Toms.” When Rhea is a girl, she has a brief friendship with Eunice when every day all summer they play a game they call the Two Toms. They are not girls any more — they are boys — and they are wild. That Rhea has chosen “Tom” as a name for them is clearly derived from the yowling freedoms of the huge tom cats that probably populate the neighborhood. The girls (“the Two Toms”) play down by the river, they have enemies whom they defeat, they take captives, and they are all-powerful. They are boys.
Then they grow up, and their choices are limited: wild glove factory girl, lover, wife, pimped-out-prostitute-wife, daughter, betrayer, paralytic, Tatar, saint. In fact, most of these choices involve limits and paralysis of one sort or another. The role of the saint, the necessity of saints, is, in Alice Munro, problematic. Most of Munro’s women run from the role. But one of Munro’s most powerful stories is “A Queer Streak.” The Violet of that story is a sister to the Eunice of this story — both are saints who save their families, both are tantalizingly good, and both, in the end, despite pain and sacrifice, end up with loyal men.
The completely surprising thing about this story is that Billy Doud, the scion of the piano manufacturer, is the male version of the saint. In his peculiarities, we see Munro make a tip of the hat to the fact that not all men fit easily into the mold of a “Tom.” The difference is such men are simply odd, not mad. He is pre-occupied, somewhat of a drinker, not very interested in women, and adopts the un-moneyed life of the modern-day savior — the one whose jobs had “something to do with schizophrenics or drug addicts or Christianity.” That he marries Eunice, who is so much a girl of the very wrong side of the tracks, is also an act of rescue. But of course, the two of them are peas in a pod — a-sexual and visionary.
The territory of marriage is a constant exploration for Munro: from the wilderness of Annie McKillop’s marriage, to the fifteen lovers inhabiting Rhea’s marriage, to the sexual slavery of Mrs. Monks, to the gray paralysis of Rhea’s parents’, to the a-sexual union of the two saints — Billie and Eunice.
Madness and the false assignation of which is also a theme in Munro: that it is sometimes a woman’s only choice. The kind of woman who might be assigned the diagnosis of mad is one who withdraws, or one who has visions, or one who thinks, or one who wants to understand. Violet in “A Queer Streak” has a vision, Annie McKillop of “A Wilderness Station” has a kind of far-sighted vision, and poet Almeda Joynt Roth of “Meneseteung” has a drug induced vision and makes choices that appear “mad,” and she is not the only madwoman in that story. Eunice, Annie, and Almeda are also all sisters under the skin, seeking some kind of alternate life where they can be most alive, and yet to most other people they appear either mad or, at least, touched. In Annie McKillop’s case, of course, she declares herself mad in order to obtain safety from the man who might possibly kill her. In “Spaceships,” Rhea provides the counterpoint of the woman who is completely embedded in contemporary life, and for whom life is complex, tumultuous, and also painful. She has “freed” herself of her invalid mother and also freed herself her pre-occupied and somewhat a-sexual boyfriend — but when she runs away with her girlfriend’s boyfriend and is no one’s saint, she must also endure the complexities of her decision.
“Spaceships Have Landed” is filled with memorable visions for the reader, with vivid characterizations that function like icons.
But as a story, there is a kind of stasis to it. It’s like a Breughel painting, a portrait of the world of women, and the women — all except the saintly, a-sexual, good Eunice — are frozen in position, even when they run away.
As a story, I prefer “A Queer Streak” or “Meneseteung.” But as a painting, “Spaceships Have Landed” succeeds, given Eunice’s iconic, spiky, white-blond appearance, and given Billy’s good looks, monkish refusals, and saint’s obedience.
Short plot summary …
Metaphysical amorality and the wild, hormonal world of the young: Eunie meets aliens and a drunken Rhea nearly loses her virginity. A single night in the 1950s changes the adult lives of these childhood acquaintances forever.
Wow moment. Towards the end of the story:
‘Rhea spots Lucille Flagg’s name on a stone. But it is all right—Lucille isn’t dead. Her husband is, and Lucille has had her own name and date of birth cut on the stone along with his, ahead of time. A lot of people do this, because the cost of stonecutting is always going up.’
I never knew that people used to do that. Maybe they still do? Amazing.
An Alice Munro story with the title ‘Spaceships Have Landed’ – that’s wonderful. Set in the early 1950s, I think I’m right in saying it was a period when news stories about alien abductions and encounters with little green people were just starting to take-off (sorry about that).
What I really like about the story is that it has as a major theme, more than any other Munro story I’ve read, Munro’s own modus operandi as storyteller. (Well, at least in her later stories?) This, about a third of the way into the story, is central:
‘… the worst thing was when Eunie launched into accounts that Rhea found both boring and infuriating, of murders and disasters and freakish events that she had heard about on the radio. Rhea was infuriated because she could not get Eunie to tell her whether these things had really happened, or even to make that distinction—as far as Rhea could tell—to herself.
Was that on the news, Eunie? Was it a story? Were there people acting it in front of a microphone or was it reporting? Eunie! Was it real or was it a play?’
Rhea was infuriated because she could not get Eunie to tell her whether these things had really happened…
Munro’s readers were infuriated/delighted because they could not get her to write in a way that told them whether these things had really happened…
But I feel I have to try and work out what’s really happened. I feel Alice wants me to, while simultaneously making sure I never truly will (ha ha). Eunie might not care what is true/real and what isn’t, but I feel I have to try and sort out the plot, however imperfectly…
So on the night in question I think Eunie had resumed the sleepwalking habit of her childhood. Earlier we’re told ‘[Eunie’s mother] recalled that Eunie used to walk in her sleep. But that was years ago.’ And I think on this occasion Eunie’s sleepwalking is accompanied by vivid dreams, perhaps based on something she’d heard earlier that night on her radio about, for example, alien abductions.
And also on the same night in question, probably around the same time that Eunie sets off on her sleepwalking expedition, a drunken Wayne tries it on with (a drunk and willing) Rhea. But due to his inebriation (and the attentions of Rory the dog sniffing their private parts ha ha) he fails. He fails to ‘get it up’ (he fails to maintain his erection). Humiliated, he blames Rhea – hence his defensive but nevertheless appalling “I’d like to fuck you if you weren’t so ugly”.
Amazingly the increasingly assertive Rhea still marries him. In fact she’s the driving force – twice telling him home truths: “but you don’t like [Billy]”, and “You don’t want to get married to her. Lucille.” Surely significant in the tale is the fact that Wayne is a journalist – a searcher after the truth (supposedly ha ha). Just the opposite of the metaphysically amoral Eunie who Rhea finds ‘boring and infuriating’.
For me Billy Doud suddenly falling in love with Eunie is the conundrum. It’s a great plot twist but perhaps the story’s weakest point. I can only make sense of it by imagining Billy not only as a weak character (that’s already been established by this point in the story), but also as someone who’s spiritually vulnerable – or spiritually open, depending on your point-of view – to superstitious goobledy-gook/religion. (The opposite of Wayne.) But as far as I can see Munro hasn’t laid any groundwork for this aspect of Billy’s character earlier in the story.
Otherwise I think the story is a great evocation of young people of the period dealing with the confusing – and nasty – dynamics of sex and romance. (The guys don’t come out of it well.) With all the usual depth of detail along the way that we expect from Munro: the character of Lucille, the imaginative world of the Toms, the unsavoury vibe at Monk’s on any given evening, the extraordinary ‘calm, preposterous’ Eunie.
The two couples stay the course, stay friends ‘in a way’, and – decades on – are ‘white-haired now’. Isn’t this about as good as it ever gets in a Munro story? A happy ending then.
Wonderful comment, Howard. I really how you see Eunie as an alternate for Alice: : “Rhea was infuriated because she could not get Eunie to tell her whether these things had really happened…Munro’s readers were infuriated/delighted because they could not get her to write in a way that told them whether these things had really happened…”
Alice Munro in the 1995 “Meanjin” interview: “Spaceships Have Landed” has a lightness about it of which I’m quite fond.
It certainly has, accentuated as the story is placed between two not at all light ones.
The beginning, omitted from “The Paris Review” version, builds the lightness up, gives an apposite picture of Carstairs men´s evening life at the bootlegger´s house, written almost as a small town comedy manuscript.
There´s also a working lady. Rhea admires Mrs. Monk performing her tasks, which Munro outlines skillfully. For Rhea, Mrs. Monk is the most interesting person in the room, with an open secret. ‘Cool’ Mrs. Monk deals expertly and tactfully when Rhea has too much to drink, even takes her home considerately.
Contrary to what the title suggests, “Spaceships Have Landed” is down-to-earth. As in many other Munro stories, teen-age girls social, physical and sexual insecurities are explored with understanding, as are the rituals of courtship and mating.
There is a wonderful sentence, a real universal gem in Rhea´s thoughts: You cannot ler your parents anywhere near your real humiliations.
Trevor is absolutely right, the story is very much about Carstairs, one of the numerous Wingham aliases. As often before, mostly about Lower Wingham, about social structure and class system, beginning to break down but still there.
Due to stories like “Spaceships Have Landed” Munro has been called Small-Town-Historian.
Canadian author Merilyn Simmonds writes in “The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro” (2016) : ‘Alice Munro is not from Wingham, Ontario, as long-time residents of Wingham are quick to point out. She was born in the hospital in Wingham, but she grew up across the river, in Morris-Turnberry Township. The poor side of town.’
Wrong side of town has been a painful matter in young protagonist´s lives in many of Alice Munro´s stories. Not this time. She has returned to Wingham as a neutral observer with an eye for everything back in 1953 when she was same age as Billy Doud in the story.
For us it is easy to get acquainted wth to-day´s Wingham; opening Google Earth or Maps you are able to follow Maitland river (in this collection Perigrine river after Sir Perigrene Maitland, lt governor of Upper Canada 1819-1829),
flowing beside Wingham and see the bridges connecting town to the other side, Lower Wingham.
Young Alice had to walk over the bridge from the southwestern corner of street plan Wingham during the school year to get home two miles away downstream.
The geography has not changed much during the years, but floods have made people to change the riverside and permanent settlement has fled the water in some places, houses with soiled walls are gone.
The grudge in Wingham against Alice Munro has diminished with new generations. Dismounting from Google aerial view to street view of Wingham main street, Josephine, we see The North Huron Museum, which has Alice Munro Collection, next door there is Alice Munro Literary Garden. In the nearby Alice Munro Public Library there is an annual Alice Munro Short Story Festival.
Heath has commented (in the Vandals section):
“I’d like to point out that in the ‘Spaceships Have Landed’ there are very strong implications that Billy Doud is not “naturally celibate and saintly.” But that he’s a gay man interested in Wayne.”
For me, this suggestion casts an interesting light on the very end of the story. And so far I’ve never really understood the ending:
– [Billy] asked Eunie Morgan to marry him.
– “I wouldn’t want for there to be anything going on, or anything,” Eunie said.
– “Oh, my dear!” said Billy. “Oh, my dear, dear Eunie!”
When Eunie says “I wouldn’t want for there to be anything going on, or anything” I always took her to be referring to sex. But I couldn’t understand Billy’s response. Now I guess it could be read as him kind of happily agreeing to that.
Does anyone else have any thoughts about the ending?
I note also that there’s no reference to Billy and Eunie having children.
This also might explain why, after a date with Billy, ‘Rhea would feel like crying, for no reason’. And why Billy never gets very far with his petting with Rhea (and it isn’t because she isn’t willing). I’d taken this to be a lack of confidence on his part. But, yes, maybe it’s because he’s gay. Not so easy in the 1950s.
Heath, are there any other examples from the text of what you’re thinking of?
It´s tempting to think Billy Doud is homosexual because there is lots of evidence of Billy´s indifference towards girls, in spite of him following the established pattern of dating.
His interest in how his buddy Wayne is doing I find very normal, as a part of young man´s uncertainty of his own kind of sexuality. Reading the first part of “Spaceships Have Landed” you might also think, like I did, that Billy turns out to be bisexual.
Later Alice Munro does not offer any evidence or clue of Billy´s sexual interest in boy´s or men.
Instead, on page 257, Munro makes it clear what it means when Billy keeps saying “Wonderful” as he watched and listened to Eunie:
What a relief, what a blessing, he might have been saying to himself. To find in the world and so close at hand this calm, preposterous creature. Wonderful.
His love – Billy´s kind of love – could spring up to meet a need that Eunie wouldn´t know she had.
The response Billy gives to Eunie´s conditional acceptance of his proposal (after his mother had died), the last sentence of “Spaceships Have Landed”, is very understandable. In Billy´s kind of love, nowadays called heteroromantic asexuality, a person has a weak sexual desire, but may well desire to live in a romantic relationship. Eunie makes her precondition clear: don´t try anything!
A perfect match for these lovers, with their rare kind of sexuality.
Thank you Harri – you’ve consolidated some of Betsy’s points. I think you’ve both cracked the conundrum for me. Eunie bewitches Billy not because of her talk of spaceships/aliens but because he suddenly meets someone who’s a bit like him, not of a conventional sexual/gender orientation. I had assumed Billy already knew Eunie (she does after all live only two or three doors away from Monk’s, and Rhea knows her) but in fact I now realise there is perhaps nothing in the story to say that this is the case.
Munro brings them together earlier in the story in a passing, ambiguous comment: ‘People close to the bottom, like Eunie Morgan, or right at the top, like Billy Doud, showed a similar carelessness, a blunted understanding.’ But she doesn’t say they knew each other.
And now I think about it, ‘a similar carelessness, a blunted understanding’ perhaps alludes to what I suggest is a central theme of the story – what I chose to call ‘metaphysical amorality’. This theme helps explain the title.
Like you, I also like this story for its lightness (and its title). Now I feel I understand it more, I’m definitely bumping it up to 8/10.
What a wonderful discussion.
Harri, Thanks so much for that information regarding the fact that the first publication of the story omitted the Monks section. That section adds what Heath has pointed out – that Billy is more interested in Wayne than Rhea. But it also has this name: Monks. Munro circles this idea often, asks this question: what is goodness. Here’s a sarcastic/ironic/honest answer – that it is the prostitute who is sometimes the saint, who sometimes does good, given the times..