“No Advantages,” the first story in Alice Munro’s 12th collection, is a failed experiment. In twenty-three pages, it glances at real history, family history, family lore, literary history, geography, genealogy, religion, depression, smuggling, tall tales, education, and folklore. Quotations are made from family letters, a local document, a tombstone, and at least one book. At only twenty-three pages, it mentions over fifty people and over fifty places. Although it is concerned with time and focuses on three generations who lived two to three hundred years ago, it gives precious few dates, and one of the most important dates in both her history and in Scottish history, is left out — the date of the Clearing of the Crofters.
And the reader is distracted by the warning she makes in her foreword — that what you will find in “The View from Castle Rock” is “something like stories.” She goes on:
And the part of the book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative.
Why is “No Advantages,” despite a great title and a great epigraph, a failed experiment? For one, the reader has gotten used to reading an Alice Munro Story, and this is not an Alice Munro Story. It is not even “something like a story.” It is an essay, but it is an essay lacking any attention to the traditional form of an essay, which results in the reader feeling completely at sea. And bored with the endless names, place names, gaps and skitters.
While Munro may have limited herself in “No Advantages” to the fewest pages of any of her stories, I think she skimped herself. This “story” is a sketch for a book. And it is a story in great need of a glossary of names and places, at least one map, probably two, and in even greater need of a genealogical diagram. And for a writer obsessed with time, the lack of dates for the reader’s comfort is a real flaw. (The Highland Clearances, which threw the peasants off the land to make way for sheep, took place between 1760 and 1850 and these events provide the background for Munro’s great-great grandfather William Laidlaw to leave for Canada in the early 1830’s, a date she omits in this story.)
What impels Munro to be so ineffective? She wants to tell us a few things about her people, but she wants especially to claim her line to a Scottish writer, James Hogg, and a Scottish bard, James’s mother, Margaret Hogg. And she wants to claim her connection, through Margaret, to Sir Walter Scott. But she doesn’t want to brag. Hence — I think — all the obfuscation.
In short, if I have it right, an original William Laidlaw, apparently known as Will O’Phaup (because he lived in a shanty house called Far Hope), was born in 1698 in the lowland countryside halfway between Edinburgh and Hadrian’s Wall. He had several children, one of whom was Margaret Laidlaw Hogg, a bard whose folklore recitations were published by Sir Walter Scott. Another one of his children fathered James Laidlaw, from whom Munro is directly descended through the male line. James Laidlaw’s aunt was Margaret Hogg, the singer-reciter of ancient lore. His cousin James Hogg was “the Ettrick Shepherd,” a poet, novelist, and essayist.
James Hogg, cousin of Munro’s direct ancestor, was a prolific writer and litterateur whose best-known work today is his Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This novel features a religious debate and a main character who is a killer. Great Material! Calvinist theory of the day proposed that if you were saved, you could do anything you wanted. So the hero goes about killing bad people whom he assumes are already damned. Strangely, it feels to me as if a comparison of this novel to Munro’s work might be, if not scholarly, still very entertaining.
Thus, Alice Munro comes from peasant stock (like most of us), but she is distinguished by being tangentially related to a minor Scottish writer and his mother, a Scottish female bard who both seemingly sprang out of the Scottish heath into international fame. I can identify. I can claim a similar relationship, being descended from the sister of the Scottish Captain Kidd (1655 – 1701). And just as I see a wild streak in that side of my family, right down to me, I can respect Munro’s claim to a familial urge to literary expression and “Glory.”
Note: What follows is a hard-won, detailed discussion of “No Advantages” which I include mostly as a note to myself for future reference. Proceed as you wish.
I confess I am interested in the ideas she associates with her Scottish family line, perhaps because I am a Scot on both sides. She makes the point, twice, that Scotland was famous for having the “best educated peasantry in Europe.” John Knox (1514 – 1572), a man at the center of the Reformation in Scotland and founder of the Presbyterian Church, had insisted that all Scottish children should be taught to read and write so that they could read the Bible.
Munro emphasizes the idea that Scots were “disputatious, even the women.” Munro must have loved that, given that her entire writing life could be defined as a disputation, could even be described as a disputation with herself. Her 150 stories contain pairs and trios of stories that approach the same situation from different points of view, the most vivid situation most often explored being the runaway young woman v. the mother who is abandoned, or the runaway mother v. the children who are abandoned.
Munro devotes precious pages to Presbyterianism in “No Advantages,” especially to the book-writing minister who was most likely her ancestor’s minister, Thomas Boston (1676 – 1732). We have a picture of a people consumed by enumerating and exposing sin, such as the “26 fornicators since the last sacrament” who were named and charged. Munro’s own uncle by ancestry, the writer James Hogg, was charged “at least twice” with fornication and fatherhood. Munro notes the pre-occupation with sin and personal responsibility, as well as the terrible gloom suffered by minister Boston and the frequent schisms and arguments that plagued the religion in general. It is my opinion that Munro emphasizes Boston in “No Advantages” because he is also an ancestor, so to speak. While Munro rejects conventional religion, her work is dominated by religious questions and debates that are answered with alternative religious inclinations or forms.
At the same time, the story imagines the pagan belief in “fairies” that her 18th century Ettrick ancestor must have held. These fairies were neither benevolent nor cute. They were death dealing and dangerous. Munro makes a point of there being a magical alternative to the overwhelming national obsession with sin and hellfire as presented by Presbyterianism.
Most important, Munro mentions in passing the likelihood that Will O’Phaup, her actual ancestor, dealt in smuggled brandy, something I associate with Munro herself, given that alcohol is a prominent theme in at least two of her greatest stories (“Circle of Prayer” and “Trespasses”).
And Munro devotes precious space in “No Advantages” to the suffering of the wife of preacher Thomas Boston. How she suffered the deaths of two children. How she lived with this devout, literate, god-obsessed, argumentative and dour man. How this once very beautiful girl took to her bed and stayed there. For years. It is telling that the character who is most alive in “No Advantages” is not actually a real ancestor but in fact a vivid picture of what the life of a literate, beautiful woman might have been like in 18th century Scotland, a woman who lived with a man who was a minister of a rigid Calvinist religion obsessed with catching fornicators.
One of the most revealing ideas in “No Advantages” is Munro’s discussion of her family’s love and hate of self-dramatization.
Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family. Though now that I come to think of it, it wasn’t exactly that word they used. They spoke of calling attention. Calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal. The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself. And when I study the people I know about in the family, it does seem that some of us have that need in large and irresistible measure — enough so as to make the others cringe with embarrassment and apprehension. That’s why the judgment of warning had to be given out so frequently.
I quote this at length because the preoccupation with “calling attention to yourself” is maybe the sole very important thing in the story. Later in life, Munro began using the phrase “paying attention” often. It looks like a kind of evolution, from calling attention to yourself, to paying attention. It looks like an evolution from selfishness to compassion. Paying attention to what? To others? To phenomena? To competing motives? To competing points of view? To limited points of view? To time? To intuition? To conscience?
Why would Munro’s editors risk Munro’s reputation with this “story”? Of course, they adored her. But really. What of the first-time reader who comes to Munro through this book and this story? I think the editors risked that inevitable encounter because Munro reveals here the unusual and compelling literary line from which she descends. That is somewhat interesting to the casual reader, and probably compelling to the literary historian. Perhaps Munro was given confidence in her talent more by her father’s reserve and his family heritage than her mother’s education and freewheeling independent thinking. But in the end, this story is a draft, a trifle and an annoyance. I am more interested in Munro’s real literary influences. Although she claims Eudora Welty, I would add Henry James, Faulkner, Simone de Beauvoir, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. And who else, do you think?
Final Personal Note: I am presently going through ancient West Virginia pictures. My father’s family arrived in the village of Daybrook shortly after the American Revolution. My great-grandfather plus three brothers fought in the Civil War. A score of men lived to be a hundred. Pictures of oil derricks float by. And dreams of greatness. Tales of school houses, horse races, town fairs, elocution prizes, river baptisms, automobiles, football, and daring women abound. The promise of high school. The thrill of university. One profound story of greatness in WWII. Like Alice, I want to write something that touches on the key forces at work in my family line, but I cannot use Alice’s model. I must use it as a warning. Too much can actually be too much.