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Introducing his study of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s fiction, Ajay Heble is appropriately circumspect, limiting its scope to issues emerging from critical debates among Munro’s commentators. The Tumble of Reason performs a delicate balancing act between several strands of Munro criticism, filling in connections and details and expanding analysis of her 1990 collection Friends of My Youth. As such, it consolidates rather than innovates, developing in its “plea” for “wonder in our everyday lives,” the paradox identified by Helen Hoy in 1980 of the conjunction of banal and extraordinary in Munro’s work to investigate the phenomenon of the “difficulty” of such a best selling author. The study is addressed beyond the “seasoned critic” to “the general reader” and consequently wears its theory lightly.
Heble opens with a polemic against a dominant critical approach to Munro’s writing that has situated it within a realist tradition, rearticulated as magic or hyper-realism. Instead, he proposes to highlight how her work questions the very conventions of realism, not in as overtly a metafictional way as contemporaries Robert Kroetsch, Michael Ondaatje, or Audrey Thomas, but by exploiting fully the “reality effect” then undermining it through the introduction of other potentialities. A strategy of indirection, this absent level of meaning is what Heble terms “paradigmatic discourse” that constantly gestures towards a gap between writing and the reality it would represent. Each of the seven chapters focusing on a collection of Munro’s stories examines a different narrative trope for producing this gap and interrogating the “real,” for any opposition between what is real and what is other than real, Heble suggests, cannot be assumed automatically in her multileveled textuality which is subject to continual disruptions of writing. [End Page 164] Preeminent among her strategies are the double time-frame and the story about story-making which are analyzed in relation to the opening of varying degrees of possibility, of supposition, of latency, of deferral of meaning, within a “hermeneutics of suspicion” marked by surprise, complicity, deception and secret.
Significantly, in launching his challenge, Heble does not comment on the critical convention of realism, referring readers instead to a discussion of this tendency in Daziron’s 1985 thesis which, with its emphasis on focalization and figuration, deploys a mode of formalist close-textual reading of individual stories similar to Heble’s approach to Munro. This points to a certain Quixoticism on his part: the bogeyman of realism had already been faced—and displaced—in a number of articles published in the early 1980s which examined Munro’s textual strategies from several perspectives including generic (the gothic impulse, story cycle or novel), narratological (framing, closure), linguistic (the search for an appropriate language, pronouns), and particularly feminist (issues of representation and signification, critiquing the “real” within a theorization of the corporeal). Heble cites Hoy’s 1980 article alone as a happy exception to the realist rule, though he draws on others for his general argument about absence and surprise, problematics foregrounded in such titles as Saying the Unsayable (1984, Miller ed.) and Controlling the Uncontrollable (1989, Carrington).
Blodgett’s Alice Munro (1988), the title most listed in the index, is noted as “the first sustained attempt to acknowledge Munro’s departure from traditional mimetic realism” (emphasis added). Its sixth chapter, titled significantly “The Syntax of Absence,” offers a structuralist analysis of the coincidence of epistemological and formal quests as these engage the Munrovian problematic of the interplay of the continuous and the discontinuous; of how metaphor and analogy—conventional economies—lead to illusion; and the centrifugal pull of difference and variation. Heble takes up this approach, substituting the terms “paradigmatic and syntagmatic,” though inverting the common (Kristeva, Lodge) distribution of continuity and discontinuity to the Saussurean/Jakobsonian axes of analogy and contiguity, likeness and difference. Heble’s attempts to distinguish his book from Blodgett’s on the grounds that though both want “to interrogate Munro’s engagement with the conventions of realism,” he is “more willing than Blodgett to consider the extent to which Munro cannot simply...