While children have played a role in many of Munro’s stories leading up to “Rich as Stink,” it’s been a while — a few books’ worth of stories, at least — since Munro wrote from the perspective of an adolescent girl, something we got quite often in her first collections. It’s nice — very nice — to be back. Munro’s explorations of adolescence are disturbing in profound ways, as is the case here.
“Rich as Stink” introduces us to Karin, an eleven-year-old girl who spends her school year with her father, Ted, and his wife and the summer months with her mother, Rosemary. When the story begins, Karin is getting off the plane in Toronto for another summertime with her mom.
Karin is very young, but she’s pushing up against womanhood, potentially in an alarming manner. Before she exits the plane, she applies bright red lipstick, dons a black beret, and clamps a long cigarette holder in her fingers. It’s a joke, a game she means to play with Derek, the man who spent a lot of time with Rosemary, and consequently with Karin, the summer prior. Just why Karin is looking to play not just a woman but Irma la Douce, the popular prostitute in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce, is not clear but it is disturbing. Derek, it turns out, is not at the airport. It’s just Rosemary waiting, tired, “bereft,” and Karin is disappointed.
At this point we don’t entirely know who Derek is, and Munro complicates our expectations when Karin asks about him and Rosemary simply says, “We aren’t seeing each other anymore. We aren’t working together.” When Karin asks if they’ve broken up, Rosemary says, “If people like us can break up.”
We learn that Derek and Rosemary had a very strange working relationship. He was writing a book, and she is an editor, so they were working together. Meanwhile, Ann, Derek’s wife, stays sequestered in her home down the street. Karin visits Ann frequently, and it is clear to us that, while Karin can sense feelings, she doesn’t always understand what spawns disappointment, regret, sorrow, etc.
What emerges as “Rich as Stink” goes on is a dark look at a young girl who, as she is at the start of the story, is adopting the roles of older, usually sexualize women in an attempt to navigate her own complicated feelings toward her mom and Derek, culminating in a terrifying sequence in which Karin has put on an old taffeta wedding dress.
Karin is caught up in something she cannot understand, though she can feel the powerful currents. What side she should move toward is unclear to her.
At this Rosemary had left the room. They did not hear her start to weep again, but they kept waiting for it. Derek looked hard into Karin’s eyes — he made a comical face of distress and bewilderment.
So what did I do this time?
“She’s very sensitive,” said Karin. Her voice was full of shame. Was this because of Rosemary’s behavior? Or because Derek seemed to be including her — Karin — in some feeling of satisfaction, of despising, that went far beyond this moment. And because she could not help but feel honored.
It’s a dangerous world Karin is waking up to. She recognizes this sometimes, even in ways others don’t. For example, on their way from the Toronto airport, Rosemary stops to get some coffee at a doughnut shop. At the counter is an old, wrinkled man.
While the women were shaking their heads and laughing, and Rosemary was picking out her almond croissant, he gave Karin a wink that was lewd and conspiratorial. It made her realize that she was still wearing lipstick. “Can’t resist, eh?” he said to Rosemary, and she laughed, taking this for country friendliness.
“Never can,” she said. “You’re sure?” she said to Karin. “Not a thing?”
“Little girl watching her figure?” that wrinkled man said.
But Karin doesn’t recognize the brutality — particularly the emotional brutality — of Derek. Instead she sides with him, has a crush on him.
It was the truth, that there were people whom you positively ached to please. Derek was one of them. If you failed with such people they would put you into a category in there minds where they could keep you and have contempt for you forever.
It’s a very sad story. Ann is certainly in kept in a dark space, pushed there by contempt and knowledge that her husband is pretty much done with her. Ann’s anxiety is palpable, and it’s not just about the relationship between her husband and Rosemary. Rosemary has also feared failing Derek, but now that they’re no longer working together — quite the euphemism — she says she’s regaining her self respect. How quickly she might lose it again, since it seems she too might “positively ache to please” him.
And then there’s young Karin, aching to please also, and paying for this mess in ways she cannot imagine.
A stunning story. The reader is born along on a stream of impending danger. How much can parents neglect their children before something really bad will happen?
“Rich as Stink” reminds me of the 1897 Henry James novel What Maisie Knew. Maisie’s wealthy parents are divorced, and she is subject to their mutual hatred, their cheating, and their neglect. She spends six months a year with one and six months with the other, and then no time with either as she chooses a more dependable guardian for herself. In “Rich as Stink,” Munro considers how a modern daughter would be able to assert herself and declare independence. Not easily. Notice, too, how the title “Rich as Stink” plays off against What Maisie Knew. One of James’s investigations was whether and how money corrupted and could it ever be used for good. Munro’s locution is so un-Jamesian! So direct. So concise. No wasted words. Money stinks.
In a lesser way, the predation of the mother’s boyfriend in “Rich as Stink” reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita. In this story, the difference is that the predation is offhand and commonplace, whereas in Nabokov it is alien and exotic. In “Vandals,” a story from Munro’s previous collection, the predation on children is not commonplace: it is the studied work of a monster, and both the setting and the man are alien. In “Rich as Stink,” the predation is arguably the worst, given its ordinariness. And Munro makes it clear that the predation is created by the non-protection offered by the two women cultivating the predator and in the process, neglecting the child.
In Lolita, Nabokov presents predation as a form of possession, a form of slavery, and a form of mind control. Lolita never considers a means of escape. Munro, instead, votes for the inevitable spunk of an eleven year old girl. This girl asserts herself, as Lolita does not. Munro’s Karin asserts herself from the beginning and continually. But the man’s casual predation and the women’s casual neglect put Karin and her natural self-assertion continually at risk.
Does the child in “Rich as Stink” have the love of a good woman? No. Will the man in “Rich as Stink” have the love of a good woman? No.
When “Rich as Stink” opens, it’s 1974, and eleven-year-old Karin is getting off a plane in Toronto wearing a black beret and lipstick and dangling a cigarette holder from her mouth. The reader is worried about all this misplaced self-confidence making an eleven year old marked prey. Karin is disappointed not to see Derek, who is her mother’s married boyfriend. She does see her mother, looking older and looking about in a “dazed, discouraged way.” The reader registers that eleven year old Karin is somehow inappropriately attached to Derek — dressing and acting in a way that has a Lolita aspect to it.
As the situation unravels, we learn that Derek is a geologist who lives out in the bush with Ann, who is older. Rosemary, who is Karin’s mother, is divorced, and, it turns out, rich. Karin just visits her mother summers. Rosemary, despite her wealth, lives in a trailer. She has been helping Derek edit his book. Rosemary is simultaneously friends with Ann and for some time has been having an affair with Derek.
The summer before, Karin had witnessed and been drawn into fights: her mother would get hurt and would then withdraw. Derek would say he couldn’t deal with Rosemary when she “was like this.” Derek would ask Karin (the child) to deal with it. Derek would ask Karin to calm her mother down. Karin would.
In the meantime, Derek’s wife Ann has encouraged Derek to take Karin under his wing, taking her on hikes, teaching her about geology.
Karin has been quite determined to see Derek, her mother’s erstwhile writing partner and boyfriend. He’s not at the airport, and Karen asks if they’re having a fight. No, her mother replies, they “aren’t seeing each other any more.” We learn that Rosemary, who may not be glad to be free of Derek, is glad to be free of his book, which was a “tangle” and “confused.”
It troubles the reader that when Rosemary and Karin stop for donuts, there’s an old wizened man who appears to hit on Karin.
The three adults, the mother, the writing partner, and the writer’s wife, draw the child into their confidences for their own reasons. Rosemary allows her child to act the mother, calming her down, and Rosemary allows her daughter to see her making “kissy faces” behind Ann’s back. Ann, the spurned and childless wife, offers the child a kind of motherly comfort and companionship. Karin goes up to see Ann and announces herself:
It’s me, it’s me. Your lost child.
But it’s a devil’s bargain Ann has made. We hear that in the previous year, when Karin came to visit her mother, the place she liked the most was Ann’s. But Karin, the child, is privy to all the shenanigans that are going on. Karin jokes cruelly with Ann.
Can this marriage be saved?
The women seem oblivious to the fact that the child has been made aware of the adult betrayals of each other or that the child could suffer at all from her knowledge.
Derek, however, appears to the reader to want to blunt what it is that Karin knows. Neither Ann or Rosemary would ever smoke the weed that Derek offered them. But he has also offered it to Karin! And taught her how to inhale! At ten years old!
Rosemary had noticed that Karin smelled of pot. It never occurred to her that Karin was smoking it. It never occurs to her that Derek has given it to Karin, taught her, coached her, and praised her for smoking it. As a teacher, I have run into desperate parents who gave themselves moments of sanity by giving their hyperactive and unmanageable twelve year olds weed. I know this is a fact. I don’t like it at all, but it is almost understandable. But in the case of Derek giving Karin weed, we are in Humbert Humbert territory. Mind control. All the reader can see is Derek’s desire to control the child. Make her confused. Make her forget what she knows. Make her oblivious to what he is doing.
Rosemary is so engulfed in her own tidal emotions she doesn’t read what’s right in front of her. As for Ann, it’s as if she offers Karin to Derek.
Some people would describe what the three adults are doing as adultifying the child. But to me, each adult in this story is in addition a kind of predator.
Twenty pages to go. I am fed up. Rosemary needs to shape up. Needs to get her act together. Derek is a dangerous person. This is Judith Herman territory again: remember Bea and Ladner in “Vandals.” Herman’s thesis is that incestuous behavior from the father or the boyfriend directed at an innocent child occurs when the girlfriend or mother refuses to see.
Ann lets Karin try on her wedding dress.
Derek isn’t one for wedding pictures. He wasn’t even one for weddings.
When Karin sees herself in the mirror, her beauty, she thinks there’s “something fated about it, and something foolish.”
Ann wonders what Derek would say if he saw the girl in the wedding dress. Karin replies, “He’d say, What kind of stupid outfit is that?”
The reader reacts in alarm and pain. As does Ann.
But Derek comes back in the house, and they’ve invited Rosemary. Karin had overheard Derek and Rosemary:
[Derek] seemed to be teasing pleading, comforting, promising to reward her, all at once. Karin was so afraid that words would surface out of this — words she would understand and never forget — that she went banging down the stairs.”
James emphasized what it was Maisie knew, what Maisie understood. But James cannot bear to let Maisie suffer forever and rescues her with a court-appointed guardian. Munro, in contrast, faces what Karin’s knowledge and comprehension does to her. It scars her. Munro makes a point of the scarring, given that Karin ends up, end of story, in the hospital for burns suffered when her dream wedding veil catches fire.
Karin is put in the position of doing what kids do: telling the truth. When faced with a sugar coated version of her parents’ impending divorce, Karen had pointed out, “Yes, but will you live there.”
With Ann, she blurts out that she’s been watching the “lover-dovers.”
Ann and Derek and Rosemary appear to think that what Karin knows matters very little. But then Karin acts out her feelings. We’ve been warned. The story is bookended with two scenes in which Karin dons a costume that endangers her. Eleven year old Karin is traveling on the plane alone and wearing lipstick and a beret. Now, at the end Karin puts on Ann’s wedding dress, ties the veil on with a tie of Derek’s, stuffs the breasts, applies rouge. She would like to be Derek’s bride. She knows that Ann is not his true bride. She knows that her mother, with all her upsets, is not Derek’s true bride. But she also knows that she herself is not Derek’s true bride either, given she knows Derek will say, despite her beauty, “What kind of stupid outfit is that?”
But by donning the wedding dress and its veil, and by applying the rouge, she acts out the sham of marriage. She goes downstairs in her costume, the costume that the reader knows is the means she is using to confront them with the joke that they all are.
But the veil catches fire. It burns her neck, but not her face. But the burns are bad enough that she is hospitalized. When she wakes up in the hospital, she pretends it’s Ann in the room, not her mother. Karin has changed. She knows she’s different.
. . . that was what Karin had become — something immense and shimmering and sufficient [like a continent] ridged up in pain in some places and flattened out otherwise, into long dull distances. Away off at the edge of this was Rosemary, and Karin could reduce her, at any time she liked, into a configuration of noisy black dots. . . . she was on her own.
Footnote: I have just finished reading Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ Small Fry. Lisa is the illegitimate daughter of the fabulously wealthy Steve Jobs. Lisa wants a father and a mother who are completely present and she wants this with the same intense desire that Karin does. I am stunned at the similarities between Karin and Lisa. Both are utterly neglected by both of their parents. In addition, both Karin and Lisa Brennan-Jobs were assigned, as children, the job of calming their erratic and irresponsible mothers down. Both Derek and Steve Jobs allow themselves to be weird teachers, the one instructing Karin about weed, the other instructing Lisa, bizarrely, about sex. Both Lisa Jobs and Karin are subjected to being aware and almost complicit in their parents’ betrayals of their friends and spouses. And finally, the natural self-assertiveness of Karin and Lisa leads them over a cliff into self-destruction.
I would note that James cannot bear to unfairly punish Maisie the way he sometimes has reality punish his adult heroines. Curiously, life provides Lisa Brennan-Jobs a similar reprieve. She is rescued by a neighbor somewhat the way Maisie is rescued by a court appointed guardian.
But Munro’s Karin? Karin can only survive if fate allows her a mechanism that will separate herself from her mother’s abuse. And, as Munro makes clear in story after story, the job of being an eleven year old girl is to slowly separate from her mother and develop an independence that will sustain her later on. Except for this: the job of separating from the mother is so complicated and so difficult that danger and the possibility of self-destruction are part of the dive. And yet Munro insists that girls, if they are to survive, must make this leap.
Munro is a psychologist of almost terrifying insight.