Where Do You Think You Are? Alice Munro's Open Houses
McGill, Robert, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
Compared to the other houses in town, hers appeared to have no secrets, no contradictions. What people said was, "It's such a pretty house, doesn't look real"--Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women
Alice Munro's "Vandals" invites critical readings of geography and space in her work. Her evocation of the house as a metonym for fiction challenges the privileging, by spatial theorists, of mobility and deterritorialization.
The conviction that literary criticism should develop a rigorous approach to space in fiction emerges from themes in many fields that indicate a shift in theoretical preoccupation from time to space. Postcolonial, neo-Marxist, and feminist studies are each in their way preoccupied with space, but terms such as interstice and territory are variously deployed, sometimes as metaphor and sometimes as direct referent to spatial problematics. Accordingly, the need has arisen for a hermeneutics of fictional space, that is, of the spaces in and of fiction. Literary hermeneutics must consider the spatial character of fiction: how it occupies and configures space, how geography and fiction intersect and inform one another, and how space is fundamental to reading. Linda Hutcheon has identified in postmodern fiction a tendency toward what she calls "historiographic metafiction" a fiction that, even as it tells a historical story, comments upon its own writing of history: its own involvements, its process, its limitations . In this essay I argue that in fiction such as Alice Munro's, there is also a geographic metafiction, a fiction that, even as it configures space and place, examines its own ability to do so. A reading of "Vandals," the final story in Munro's 1994 collection Open Secrets, demonstrates that Munro's fiction makes use of its own spatiality to comment upon the places it evokes within its narrative, while those places in turn inform the space of the story.
To refer to Munro's stories as "open houses" is to nod to her title Open Secrets in the belief that the two phrases are often synonymous in her work. The house is frequently a central figure in Munro's fiction, and it appears as a place infused with secrets, as evidenced in the much-cited assertion in Lives of Girls and Women that people's lives are "deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum" (249). Moreover, the concept of the "open house" suggests that, like the writer, someone who holds an open house is making secrets available and knowable to all visitors. Such acts of exposure are not transparent but fraught with vested interests and limitations, hiding some things even as they reveal others. Munro herself links the house to short fiction in her essay "What Is Real": "Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way. This is the nearest I can come to explaining what a story does for me, and what I want my stories to do for other people" (224). Munro's house-fiction comparison insists on a relationship in which each co-constituent both defines itself in opposition to and shares characteristics with the other. Houses can be essentially fictional spaces, while the space of fiction is a manner of built form that offers conceptual and imaginative dwelling.
But, while houses are at the centre of Munro's art, they are often places of marginalization in her stories, especially with regard to the women who inhabit them. Accordingly, a consideration of the peripheral visions in Munro's fiction must take into account the connections between gender and space. Munro says that early in her career "there was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal. [...] I came to feel that was our territory, whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men's territory. I don't know how I got that feeling of being on the margins; it wasn't that I was pushed there. …