Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Short-a-Day: Alice Munro's "Corrie"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 47.
[Update: There are a few spoilers in the comments, so read them only after you've read the story (or have decided not to).]

Munro's latest, like much of her work, is very simply written, and doesn't bother trying to show off, and yet once more, I find myself not really caring. This prolific writer may be well-respected and talented, but the sorts of stories she writes--chronicles that span an entire relationship--tend to bore me. An author like Jonathan Franzen (in Freedom) is at least writing about modern characters; Munro's characters always seem rooted a slow and analog past, especially in this 50s piece.

I don't feel bad disliking "Corrie," though, because it seems like a poor example of Munro: there are quite a few confusing sentences, a lot of implied and unearned relationships, and the opening itself is rather confusing, beginning mid-speech as her father tells Howard Ritchie, a young architect, that:

"It isn't a good thing to have the money concentrated all in the one family, the way you do in a place like this. I mean, for a girl like my daughter Corrie here. For example, I mean, like her. It isn't good. Nobody on the same level."

By this, he means that it's not good for her because she's approaching the age of a spinster (27), and she's already got a lame leg lowering her prospects for marriage. But this doesn't ring true, given that the next page is filled with Corrie's spirit, particularly the way she wins over Howard, forcing him to rethink his initial appraisal of her (a "spoiled rich miss"). In fact, the majority of the story feels out of place with the very good bits that we are given of Corrie in this opening:

"Some creepy fortune hunter was bound to snap her up, some Egyptian or whatever. She seemed both bold and childish. At first, a man might be intrigued by her, but then her forwardness, her self-satisfaction, if that was what it was, would become tiresome. Of course, there was money, and to some men that never became tiresome."

This, essentially, is what happens, though Munro is clever in hiding it. Corrie begins an affair with Howard, whose work often requires him to travel from home, and things run smoothly until they are blackmailed by Corrie's former maid, who spots Howard and his actual wife at a separate function. There's a neat twist here, in that Corrie's the one who volunteers to pay the twice-a-year bribes, the one who suffers a twinge of panic--not at being caught (she doesn't believe in God, let alone what he considers "sin"), but at the thought of losing Howard. But this in itself is sort of empty--there's been little insight of their actual relationship, and less even of Corrie's feelings toward the whole thing (let alone Howard's).

The remainder of the story is carefully plotted, but just as emotionally absent, as Corrie and Howard continue to pay the bribes and to see one another, she taking up a menial job at the library (money isn't an issue to her) and finding joy in that, he for some reason coming across as peeved at the pleasure she's found on her own. All of this makes the ending particularly puzzling, as a funeral makes Corrie reassess the values of her own relationship, and leads her to make a choice that demeans her and strikes out against the structure of the story: "If what they had--what they have--demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay."


Tim said...

There was no one blackmailing them. It was all Howard taking advantage of Corrie. Corrie sees that at the end of the story, and ends up reconciling those actions with the companionship Howard provides.

Aaron Riccio said...

Tim, I realize that. I was trying to avoid spoiling the twist of the story. I still stand by my feelings (or lack of feelings) for the story. I can't fit the early descriptions of Corrie, her library jaunts, or the increased freedom she gains, with her reasoning for shacking up with the married man and then--after realizing his deception--continuing to pay him for the sin/privilege. She doesn't seem particularly lonely at the beginning when she's bound for spinsterhood (and Egypt), and she doesn't seem particularly alone at the end with Howard coming to see her less and less often. And if *she* feels shamed into paying anyway...well, that doesn't seem to fit her character, either.


Tim said...

It does have a confusing start. BTW feel free to delete my comment so it doesn't spoil the story for anyone.