Discovering Theme

Alice Munro has a new book of stories out. In Dear Life, the final four stories are as close to memoir, she says, that she’ll ever write. I was disappointed when a reviewer mentioned that the quartet takes place when Munro was a young girl growing up on a fox farm in Ontario, Canada. She’s written about that before. What I hungered for were stories about her adult life, her writing life.

Munro is one of the few fiction writers who has been successful with  that short form, bringing out a dozen or so books. I’ve read them all. Twice. But so far, not the new book. Reviews can sometimes dissuade me and one in particular, by Sam Sacks, regarding Munro’s themes, caught me up in surprise. Sacks says that “…her themes are psychological estrangement, spiritual emptiness, sexual degradation and the pitifulness of death.” Sacks goes on to comment that  Munro’s overall take on life, at least in her stories, is “methodical bleakness.”

Wow. I think I probably have a naturally bleak outlook on life, because I love Munro’s stories and think they are beautiful. The writing is elegant and crisp, the stories compelling, but more, her themes strike my soul in a way that Sacks captured through close examination. The review made me think about my own themes. How do I hold up against Munro? Do I love her work because her themes mirror my own? I wish:)

Yes with psychological estrangement, no to spiritual emptiness. I’m spiritually optimistic, but if anything of my spiritual nature translates into fiction, I don’t see it. That’s my loss, and some day, when I’m braver than today, I intend to correct it.

Sexual degradation–yes, I find to my surprise that all of my work has that undercurrent. Somebody somewhere is sexually degrading someone else in my novels. Sometimes they do it to themselves. In The Paris Notebook, that theme was mostly excised from the text by my editor. Later, I used the story of self-degradation as a gift to readers of my blog. Sarah’s Survival Guide can be read right on my website or downloaded as PDF. So that theme was not lost, just placed elsewhere.

My novels are more about life than death, and I have not really explored the theme of death in fiction. I’m still getting used to experiencing it in life–when loved ones die, the grief of it. When they sicken and a sad slide into senility or physical incapacity begins, yes, it is pitiful. I’ve always thought it was more than pitiful, horrific in fact.

Except at a distance, like when Cher’s grandmother dies in flashback in Sister Issues, I don’t feel skilled enough to take on death in my fiction; it’s difficult enough for me to deal with in real life. In real life, I think of it every day. I mourn friends who have passed; I plan my own exit strategy. (Move to Oregon or Washington). Looking deeply into Munro’s stories, I see the shallowness of my own themes. But, also, I would rather write hopeful stories than bleak ones.

One Comment on “Discovering Theme

  1. Hi Marie, So glad you found me! And that you like my book:) Here are a few of my recent reads, novels with death as a theme: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, A Memoir of Grief by Jennifer Weiner, The Bone Bed by Patricia Cornwell (anything by Patricia Cornwell), The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, Broken Harbor by Tana French. Also Joan Didion’s memoirs about losing first her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking) and her daughter (Blue Nights). Then also Joyce Carol Oates The Widow’s Tale. Didion and Oates books are ALL about grief, the others have it within some plot strands

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