- Pockets of Nothingness: “Metaphysical Solitude” in Alice Munro’s “Passion”
Calling attention to Alice Munro’s “fascination with connectedness,” Mark Levene’s astute and expansive reading of several Munro collections details “how the shadings of one volume come to the edge or to the center of another” (“Glimpse” 841). It’s not that Munro repeats herself; rather, Levene’s insightful metaphor suggests how Munro’s created an oeuvre that grows increasingly subtle in the ways it refracts (and comments upon) itself. If one considers Runaway, to which the story “Passion” belongs, one can discern numerous “shadings” connecting each story to others in the text and also to prior collections. The book’s final story, “Powers,” can be read on its own for instance, but in a certain light, a sentence or scene or even a single word from this story (e.g. “kilter” 303, 173) suddenly summons other moments in this collection (and others as well). The effect is Proustian in that Runaway appears to remember, and then seemingly forget, and then recast various components (thematic and stylistic) of itself throughout the eight stories. Munro’s interest in “connectedness” noticeably extends to the works of other authors.1 That “Powers” directly alludes to a number of writers—Dante, Milton and Tolstoy among others—and implicitly responds to stories such as Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” and James Joyce’s “The Dead” (the latter moving through the collection as a kind of sporadic wind) makes these “shadings” so complicated that to isolate even a few of them from the rest is to simplify their dynamic correlations. Fully recognizing the risk of simplification, then, let me start with the obvious: Munro has continuously found the human experience of temporality to be captivating. I will turn later to an examination of this interest in terms of the short story specifically and narrative generally; for the moment, let me remark that, while Munro’s treatments of temporality are necessarily manifold, they often illuminate each other. [End Page 183]
“Passion” vigorously jumps into the fray in the ongoing war between so-called pagan and Christian worldviews that characterizes many of the individual stories comprising Runaway.2 Its self-conscious portrayal of nihilism offers one possible response to this metaphysical and ethical conflict, which isn’t to claim that Munro’s writing advocates nihilism as a philosophical ethos; instead, it’s to locate this particular story along a spectrum of work that manifests considerable anxiety about the human experience of temporality. In this anxiety, “Passion” strikingly recalls the initial story in Munro’s first collection, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” in Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). Both stories feature the structural motif of a female being taken for a car ride into the unknown countryside by an older, trusted male; of greater interest is that a sensibility embodied in the early story becomes amplified in the one published almost four decades later. After her father explains the magnitude of geological time in “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” the narrator remarks: “The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility” (Dance 3). As we shall see, this sense of existential revulsion, as well as the narrator’s recognition that such a response to human brevity isn’t shared by everyone in quite the same way, contributes to the latter story’s more extensive exploration of nihilism. One would hesitate to place Munro’s work within the Absurdist literary tradition in terms of technique; however, when one considers the significance of suicide to Runaway (both Neil and his father commit suicide in “Passion”; additionally, a man throws himself beneath a train in “Chance”) and recalls some of Munro’s remarks from an important interview, Albert Camus’ notions of philosophical absurdity become pertinent.
For Camus, the Absurd results partially from our awareness of mortality, but more precisely, absurdist thought occurs in the instant one perceives the fundamental disjunction between the human desire to derive a sustained meaning from experience (either subjective or communal) and the recognition that the world in which we live is indifferent, indeed alien to human concerns. I will expand on the way that...