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"People Who Win": Alice Munro's Competitive Suburbanites


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This paper was published in Tsukuba University's Journal of the Foreign Language Center, in March 2010. I examine the way that Alice Munro's 1969 short story "The Shining Houses" secretly encodes---in imagery--- the problems that face fossil-fuel dependent economies. The story is a tiny microcosmic world: one suburban woman stands up for one farmer as the other suburban residents seek to have the farm demolished. This is one of Alice Munro's earliest stories and I see it as an embryonic expression of her later artistic concerns.

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"People Who Win": Alice Munro's Competitive Suburbanites

  1. 1. Marianne Kimura `People Who Win`: Alice Competitive Suburbanites Munro`s “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for an artist.” ---Anton Chekhov, in a letter to a friend Introduction Canadian writer Alice Munro (b. 1931) wrote her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades over a fifteen year time period, starting about 1954, with publication in 1968. She wrote these stories while she was also busy being a suburban housewife and mother in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her background was decidedly not suburban: she grew up on a fox-pelt farm in Ontario; after high school she received a scholarship to study for two years at the University of Western Ontario. After the scholarship money ran out in 1951, she married James Munro, a fellow student, and they moved to the suburbs of Vancouver. They raised three children and ran a bookstore together there while she was also writing fiction in her spare time. In 1972 their marriage failed and she returned to Ontario where she still lives and works as a writer. Her short stories have won numerous awards including the Canadian Governor General`s Award for fiction and the Canada-Australia Literary Prize. 1
  2. 2. Alice Munro told critic John Metcalf in 1972 that “The Shining Houses” (the second story in Dance of the Happy Shades) was `One of the few that I`ve written that had a B.C. setting and that drew on my life as an adult. I don`t think it was a very successful story`”.1 Critic W.R. Martin agrees with Munro`s negative evaluation, “the suburbanites are set up like clay pigeons and the formula or schema is too simple and obtrusive”. 2 Yet I`ll argue that this very simplicity makes for a natural lens through which it`s possible to see Munro`s thematic concerns in an embryonic or incipient form, concerns having to do with the tensions between rural farm life in the past and modern life of the suburb and city, concerns she would return to again and again throughout her long career. “The Shining Houses” simply, elegantly and correctly states the nature of the problems people face when confronting modern patterns of living, such as suburbs and big cities. Many of her later stories would elaborate on this theme, playing out the psychological ramifications and examining in greater detail what this early story outlines more basically. A Summary of the Story Alice Munro`s short story “The Shining Houses” (1968) chronicles a couple of hours in the life of a housewife named Mary. In the first half of the story, Mary visits Mrs. Fullerton, a neighbor who lives on an old little ramshackle farm next to the new  suburban development named Garden Place, where Mary lives. In a very ordinary conversation, Mrs. Fullerton talks about her past, her family, her farm. In the second half of the story, Mary and her young son Danny walk through Garden Place and go to a birthday party for a neighbor ’s child. The birthday party guests are a mix of adults and children, and the adults there (all 2
  3. 3. residents of the new Garden Place subdivision) discuss how they can make Mrs. Fullerton shut her farm down and move away. Their complaints about Mrs. Fullerton`s farm center on its appearance and its smells and they are convinced Mrs. Fullerton`s farm is bringing down the values of their suburban houses.. The little farm, with its “rough sheds and stacked wood and compost heaps”3 is a contrast to the new “shining houses” 4 with “stucco and siding”5 which make up the title of the story and where the suburban residents live. The suburbanites do not work as farmers and Munro makes sure to explain that the husbands “are not men who made their livings by physical work”. 6 Finally one of the fathers at the birthday party, a “real estate salesman, stocky, earnest, successful”7 named Carl explains that he has been to the Municipal Office to check on legal ways to force Mrs. Fullerton to leave. He goes on to say that he has found one way: the residents of Garden Place must sign a petition asking the town to build a lane that passes through the property of Mrs. Fullerton. Mrs. Fullerton`s land includes a “lane allowance” which means that a road can be put through it by the city and Mrs. Fullerton would have to leave. The birthday party guests all sign the petition but Mary refuses to do so, saying “we haven`t the right”8 even though her friends all her to sign it, with one saying, “You live here too”.9 The neighbors drown out Mary's attempt to argue against them: "(Mary) could try all night and never find any words to stand up to their words, which came at her now invincibly from all sides: shack, eyesore, filthy, property, value".10 Finally, Mary refuses to feel animosity towards the suburbanites: “it occurred to her that they (the suburban neighbors) were right, for themselves, for whatever it was they had to be”. 3 11
  4. 4. Suburbia and the Car Brought Changes to the Landscape For sixty to seventy years, the dominant residential pattern in North America (Canada and the United States) has been the suburb. A suburb has two basic characteristics: it is comprised of single family detached houses with a yard, usually a lawn; and the car usually must be used for traveling to shops, schools, work places and so forth since suburbs are set away from areas of commerce and are generally inaccessible to anyone without a car. Prior to the widespread use of the automobile, living arrangements in North America generally were small compact towns surrounded by farms and areas of commerce were accessible by walking, trolley car, bicycle or by horse.This meant that living arrangements---the built environment of dwellings, shops, roads and workplaces--- looked very different than the infrastructure we see today, by and large generated by the needs of mass automobile use. Over time the built environment changes to reflect new ways of life. As the transition from old to modern occurs, conflicts over development arise when some people want to retain parts of the past (a farm, a pasture, an old estate or old harbor, etc.) while others want to use the same space to build something more profitable (a suburban subdivision, a highway, a fast-food restaurant, a shopping mall, a parking lot, etc.). Munro`s story details one small example, one woman`s encounter with such a conflict. This story provides guidance and necessary information to people who are living with the physical changes in the landscape wrought by the modern era. 4
  5. 5. Munro`s Story Foreshadows Later Findings How exactly does “The Shining Houses” provide this guidance and information? “The Shining Houses” tells a brief episode in the larger story of the economic process: one small farm meets its doom at the hands of its new suburban neighbors who deplore its appearance and fear that its presence will lower their property values . Munro is not an economist by training and she majored in English Literature in college, so perhaps it was her farming background, with its careful calculations of inputs and outputs bearing the slimmest of profits by which her family could live, that helped her to intuitively understand the far-reaching roots of the human economic process.12 The conclusions she reaches in “The Shining Houses” about human economic life actually seem to foreshadow the results of research on energy and culture that would come decades after this story. This ingenious fictional story outlines in a precise and detailed microcosm the contours of our species` own encounter with a new and powerful energy resource---oil from the organic matter accumulated from the solar rays of the sun over eons--- and an aware reader can grasp the penetrating and systemic treatment she gives to our situation as a species competing for survival while also following the universal rules which govern matter and energy. Turning to the specific nature of how “The Shining Houses” fulfills its goals, I will start with a book published in 1988 called The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, Head of the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. Tainter wanted to understand the principles underlying the changes we see in history as countries, governments, civilizations, groups of people, change, appear, 5
  6. 6. disappear or move over time: “The image of lost civilizations is compelling: cities buried by drifting sands or tangled jungle, ruin and desolation where once there were people and abundance”. 13 Tainter conducted case studies of lost civilizations (Roman Empire, Maya, Chacoan others) and concluded that problems occur as successful civilizations expand over time, use more and more energy as they compete and prevail over competitors (becoming more complex in the process of becoming more successful) but then reach a limit and fail when they are unable to sustain access –or increase access--to the energy needed to continue to maintain the complex structure of the society. For Tainter, the primary limiting resource whose shortfall spells doom for a civilization is energy: “Not only is energy flow required to maintain a sociopolitical system but the amount of energy must be sufficient for the complexity of that system”. 14 It can be said that energy is obviously a “master resource” which can generate access to other resources such as water, minerals, foods, weapons, medicines, and so forth. Munro`s “The Shining Houses” also shows an intense awareness of the successive nature of settlement patterns with one way of life giving way to the next for economic reasons, and it is not just manifest in the situation where the suburbanites will seize Mrs. Fullerton`s land and turn it into a road. Here is her description of the land area which underlies the suburban development of Garden Place: “And under the structure of this new subdivision, there was still something else 6
  7. 7. to be seen; that was the old city, the old wilderness city that had lain on the side of the mountain. It had to be called a city because there were tramlines running into the woods, the houses had numbers and there were all the public buildings of a city, down by the water. But houses like Mrs. Fullerton`s had been separated from each other by uncut forest and a jungle of wild blackberry and salmonberry bushes; these surviving houses, with thick smoke coming out of their chimneys, walls unpainted and patched and showing different degrees of age and darkening, rough sheds and stacked wood and compost heaps and gray board fences around them----these appeared every so often among the large new houses of Mimosa and Marigold and Heather Drive---dark, enclosed, expressing something like savagery in their disorder and the steep, unmatched angles of roofs and lean-tos; not possible on these streets, but there.” 15 The “old wilderness city” with its defunct tramlines represents the built environment that preceeded suburbia. Although most of the city is now gone (except the public buildings that remain down by the water, with waterways, like tram lines, being common transportation routes before the oil era) small farms that used to surround this largely vanished tiny city still, like Mrs. Fullerton`s, “appeared every so often”. The new way of life, unlike the old farms, includes a car and a suburban house and the office jobs that go along with this sort of economy. Ways of life do come and then pass by, for economic reasons. But it is surely not possible to say that the old wilderness city on the side of the mountain “collapsed” in that the costs of maintaining this structure were too high. Rather, the new suburban development is part of a new and bigger sociopolitical organization, constructed on a much vaster scale than the old wilderness city. We know that the suburban families have great energy resources at their disposal: they have cars which use gasoline processed from oil and oil collected from the deposits in the ground has one of the highest EROEI 7
  8. 8. (energy returned on energy invested) ratings of all energy forms available. 16 Tainter makes it clear that higher rates of energy flow available to a society increase the level of sociopolitical organization of that society: “Energy flow and sociopolitical organization are opposite sides of an equation”.17 The old wilderness city has been absorbed by the new suburban development and this absorption apparently continues apace; the suburbanites want to remove all traces of the small farms that once formed the edge – and the food (energy) supply--of this old city. The Municipal Office, also part of the newer larger sociopolitical organization, will be part of this effort as it stands ready to enforce the lane allowance. The suburbanites are, of course, far from collapsing at the time of this story. Rather their way of life is in a strong growth mode, with more homes being built and a “new shopping centre” 18 coming soon . So where does Munro forecast the passing of the suburban way of life? She manages this creatively by using a sort of optical illusion, a device available to her as an artist, and one who works effectively in images. Mary and Danny are walking home after the party: “Outside it was quite dark, the white houses were growing dim, the clouds breaking and smoke blowing from Mrs. Fullerton`s chimney. The pattern of Garden Place, so assertive in the daytime, seemed to shrink at night into the raw black mountainside.” 19 Munro uses the interesting word “pattern” here as if to dismiss all suburban development “patterns”. Garden Place (visually at least) disappears into the night, and Munro makes sure to highlight the ultimate power of nature: “the raw black mountainside”. 8
  9. 9. Tainter explains that “complex societies are recent in human history. Collapse then is not a fall to some primordial level of chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity.” 20 Munro`s vision of “the smoke blowing from Mrs Fullerton`s chimney” seems also to strikingly give Mrs. Fullerton`s simpler way of life, along with nature, the last word. The suburbs collapse virtually and visually: Munro is obliquely predicting that they won`t last. The collapse of the expensive and complex way of life that is suburbia (and Tainter makes it clear that “collapse is an economizing process”21), if and when it happens, will be possibly tied to natural forces (“the raw black mountainside”), such as, perhaps the depletion of natural energy resources. Munro also explicitly uses the word “energy” in conjunction with the suburbanites in an earlier passage: “Today, since it was Saturday, all the men were out working around their houses. They were digging drainage ditches and making rockeries and clearing off and burning torn branches and brush. They worked with competitive violence and energy.”22 For now, as of 1968, the energy is all on the suburbanites` side, while Mrs. Fullerton is old and powerless. Munro is referring to human physical energy but her words, perhaps, allude to fossil fuel energy. Competition and Complexity The new suburban way of life, reliant on fossil fuels and office workers, overlays and displaces the old economic ways of life, which subsisted through small farms and a compact village in the center. Small farms rely on energy from the sun to 9
  10. 10. keep them going. Mrs. Fullerton`s “house and its surroundings were so self-sufficient, with their complicated and seemingly unalterable layout of vegetables and flower beds, apple and cherry trees, wired chicken run, berry patch and wooden walks, woodpile, a great many roughly built dark little sheds, for hens or rabbits or a goat.” 23 In this type of small farm, purchased inputs of food would be almost unnecessary. The chickens would eat insects and produce eggs and fertilizer, the goat would eat grass and produce milk and fertilizer, the rabbits would eat grass and could be eaten. The fruit trees and vegetable fields would also provide food for free. Why then is the old way of life (with its low `food mileage`, to use a term now in vogue) such an unattractive option to all the young suburbanites who are anxious to live only in suburbia, a place where consumption ---not production--- is the manifest rule of the day? What is so important about living in suburbia that they won`t even tolerate a non-suburban living next to them? Munro`s use of the word “savagery” 24 in a description of the old farms (“dark, enclosed, expressing something like savagery in their disorder and the steep, unmatched angles of roofs and lean-tos; not possible on these streets, but there”25) hints at the problem the suburbanites have with Mrs. Fullerton`s way of life. First of all, the increasing levels of complexity being generated by the rising energy availability make the simpler past seem “savage”---backward, primitive, outdated. Tainter stresses that complexity in a society is generated by problem-solving as people seek to change what they want to improve on or take an opportunity for an advantage.26 It seems that Mrs. Fullerton is not engaged in the problem-solving popular among the suburbanites. After all, she is focused on small 10
  11. 11. farming, or food production at the small scale. She is a marginal figure and the suburbanites want her only to go away. The problem is that Garden Place is not the only suburb in its local area: “Garden Place was already put down, in the minds of people who understood addresses, as less luxurious than Pine Hills but more desirable than Wellington Park.” 27 The residents and owners of Garden Place are then in economic competition with the residents and owners of surrounding new suburban developments. Who can be more successful? Whose property values can rise more quickly? As one Garden Place resident says. “…just standing there (Mrs Fullerton`s) house is bringing down the resale value of every house on the street.” 28 The Garden Place residents therefore feel that in order to compete they must force Mrs Fullerton to move. Her farm carries the taint of a simpler, less materialistically successful era--the hierarchical structure of the sociopolitical organization means that there are levels of status and maintaining this status , partly through accumulation of wealth, is vitally important. “(Garden Place`s houses) were for people like Mary and her husband and their child, with not much money but expectations of more.” 29Mrs. Fullerton, complaining about the price of eggs dropping due to competition from the supermarket, certainly doesn`t have expectations of more money, but less. To be living near her is to suffer `guilt by association`. Tainter specifically comments on the relationship between competition and complexity. He is referring to city-states but we can also apply his statement to the group of suburbanites in Garden Place.. 11
  12. 12. “In competitive, or potentially competitive, peer polity situations the option to collapse to a lower level of complexity is an invitation to be dominated by some other member of the cluster. To the extent that such domination is to be avoided, investment in organizational complexity must be maintained at a level comparable to one`s competitors, even if marginal returns become unfavorable.” 30 The suburbanites are not facing collapse any time soon, of course, but they must maintain their status among their peers---the other suburbanites---because the other suburbanites are also competing. Who won`t compete will lose. Munro`s anticipation of Tainter`s later detailed anthropological research is imaginative and also tantalizingly accurate and perceptive, sketching out Tainter`s main ideas in an artful microcosm. Entropy, Energy and Into the Cool The economic aspects of the problem with Mrs. Fullerton`s farm go beyond the downscale image of a “barnyard”.31Here is an exchange between Mary and Mrs. Fullerton: “I thought I might offer my black cherries for sale next summer,“ Mrs. Fullerton said. “Come and pick your own and they`re fifty cents a box. I can`t risk my old bones up a ladder no more.” “That`s too much,” Mary said, smiling. “They`re cheaper than that at the supermarket.” Mrs. Fullerton already hated the supermarket for lowering the price of eggs. 32 Later on, at the birthday party, a Garden Place resident named Janie Inger, angry about the “smell” of Mrs Fullerton`s farm says, “I`m going to stop buying (Mrs Fullerton`s eggs). The supermarket`s cheaper and who cares that much about fresh?” 33 Why are eggs and cherries (and likely everything else) cheaper at the supermarket than at Mrs Fullerton`s 12
  13. 13. farm? The answer is probably well-known to anyone with even a fleeting familiarity with economics: “economies of scale” makes producing on a large scale cheaper per unit of output than producing at a small scale. Mrs. Fullerton can`t compete on costs against large producers because synthetic fertilizers and machines were changing agriculture radically throughout the second half of the 20 th century. People had figured out how to tap the intense, powerful energy source of oil and natural gas, used to power the machines and used to synthesize the fertilizer. This story, which confronts in microcosm the changes in agriculture, the building of roads and other massive infrastructure including the rise of suburbia, is really the story of the human encounter with an energetically dense and abundant planetary energy source: oil. Astonishingly, in “The Shining Houses” Munro, I believe, frames the relationship between life and energy more deeply and more subtly than even Tainter does. In order to explain what I mean, I`ll turn to a much more recent scholarly work, Into the Cool: Energy Flow Thermodynamics and Life (2005). Building on and synthesizing work by biologists, physicists, chemists and other scientists, such as Alfred Lotka who studied population dynamics and econometrics, authors Eric Schneider (an ecologist who worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) and Dorian Sagan explain: The universe is a complex place, and its most common and its most interesting systems, including those of life, are open systems. Seal them up, imprison them, and they collapse. We (humans) are a particular material pattern of energy flow with a long history and a natural function. Our essential nature has more to do with the cosmos and its laws than with Rome (or any other human society) and its rules.34 Sagan and Schneider investigate the similarity between living and non-living NET 13
  14. 14. (Nonequilibrium Thermodynamic) systems in their responses to energy; a “Nonequilibrium Thermodynamic” system is, as the passage above suggests, open, non-static, changing, in flux---a living person is one example. To this end, they explore underlying similarities in patterns where chemicals or cells or organisms or other systems (including human economies) come into being (evolving) as they dissipate energy. Dissipating energy is one of the ways the Second Law of Thermodynamics35 (also called “the Entropy Law”) manifests itself. Why is energy so important to living organisms (like humans, animals, plants, etc) and also to non-living systems (like hurricanes and solar systems) ? Because energy is defined in physics as “the capacity to do work” and work is a “means of transferring energy into coherent action”, whether it`s on an atomic level, a cellular level, in a car`s engine, a grasshopper jumping or a human moving his legs while walking. Schneider`s and Sagan`s research is exhaustive and focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Like other NET systems, life`s complexity is a natural outgrowth of the thermodynamic gradient reduction implicit is the second law: where and when possible, organizations come cycling into being to dissipate entropy as heat. Gradients, such as that between the sun and space, may be huge, and draining them may take literally eons. Nonetheless, the complex systems that come swirling into being near gradients are natural. Although they may sometimes seem to be organized by an outside force, no “agent deliberating” as Aristotle put it over 20 centuries ago, is needed. 36 Elsewhere Schneider and Sagan write that “Nonequilibrium thermodynamics makes it clear that living is a chemical and physical process of an energetic universe.” 37 They also spell out that fossil fuels are a gradient developed by sun`s light striking the photosynthesizing cells of plants (the plants being another energy dissipative NET system) and that: 14
  15. 15. Flowing through complex systems, energy forms the basis for trapping and cycling of materials in economies, which reduce both natural gradients, such as the redox gradient between fossil fuels and oxygen, and “synthetic” gradients such as price differentials. 38 Munro anticipates the exciting findings of the authors who conclude that “the purposefulness of life has a thermodynamic origin” 39 and life`s purpose “reflects the advantages that accrue to living systems that ensure access to energy gradients.” 40There are at least two instances in “The Shining Houses” where the basic ideas expressed in Into the Cool find resonance. The last two paragraphs of the story, arguably the ones with the most impact, come nearest: The voices in the living room have blown away, Mary thought. If they would blow away and their plans be forgotten, if one thing could be left alone. But these are people who win, and they are good people; they want homes for their children, they help each other when there is trouble, they plan a community—saying that word as if they found a modern and well-proportioned magic in it, and no possibility anywhere of a mistake. There is nothing you can do at present but put your hands in your pockets and keep a disaffected heart.41 Munro appears to recognize, in the words of Into the Cool, that “since organisms and cells are nonequilibrium open systems, their behaviors, insofar as they organize to make larger, more efficient gradient-reducing systems, will be selected-for`. Or, as the authors of Into the Cool explain; 15
  16. 16. “organisms struggle not only for food and habitat, but for the energy that drives their material organization—their metabolism, reproduction, and expansion. Populations grow to take advantage of energy sources, enlarging flow regimes.”42 Garden Place is part of an “enlarged flow regime” while Mrs. Fullerton`s farm is clearly not, and this is the core of the suburbanites` problem with her presence: her farm is a barrier to the expansion of the energy flow regime which their way of life prescribes . The suburbanites may not be aware of the thermodynamic realities playing out under the surface of their lives, however. “Like many organisms, humans are sensing, moving, but not necessarily rational agents”.43 Therefore there is nothing that Mary can do except put her hands in her pockets and keep a disaffected heart; the suburbanites have “organized themselves into a larger more efficient gradient-reducing system”. They are “good people”----here Munro means they are `normal`, not evil or psychologically warped---with a purpose like successful life-forms everywhere: to “ensure access to energy gradients”, and “enlarge the energy flow regimes” which bring success for them . In the suburbs, material success relies on one thing as a base: constant access to the oil reserves ---used in transportation, construction, fertilizers, manufacturing (electricity generated from coal or oil) that were so abundant back in 1969. Basically, the higher energy flows enable cycling of more material and at higher rates. The suburbanites are people “who win”. Munro here seems to strike a evolutionary tone. “Life is complex thermodynamic system, not a paragon of virtue” 44 assert Schneider and Sagan. Could there be a better or more succinct statement of the suburbanites` moral position? Sounding herself like an ecologist or a biologist dispassionately discussing a lion catching and mercilessly devouring an antelope (another process set into motion by thermodynamics), Munro also writes about the 16
  17. 17. suburbanites: “…they were right, for themselves, for whatever it was they had to be.” 45 The suburbanites are fully engaged in reducing “the redox gradient between fossil fuels and oxygen”. The Second Law ensures that somebody has to dissipate this enormous quantity of energy (as work and heat) and thus increase net entropy in the universe. These suburbanites, with their cars and consumer lifestyles, are ideally suited for this task: “right, for themselves, for whatever it was they had to be”. “The End of the Automobile Age” If, as the late economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen said “(that) the basic nature of the economic process is entropic and that the Entropy Law rules supreme over its process and over its evolution”46then why is Mary so opposed to the suburbanites? The suburbanites, by using oil, are going to convert far more energy into waste heat and work than Mrs. Fullerton, who uses only solar energy captured in her crops, ever can. Why won`t she sign the petition even though she lives among them and presumably stands to gain as much as they do from rising property values? The answer is that Munro herself has a few reasons for disagreeing with the suburbanites, imagines that she is not alone, and wants to create a character which such a reader could sympathize with and join forces with, emotionally and symbolically if not in person. The biggest reason that Munro, like Mary, thinks that the suburbanites might be making a “mistake” 47is vaguely hinted at when Mary notes, “there is nothing you can do at present but put your hands in your pockets and keep a disaffected heart”. The 17
  18. 18. temporal dimension “at present” implies the time frame is short. Mary ---or rather, Munro--- perhaps suspects that this energy bonanza (US oil production in the lower 48 states peaked in 1970, two years after the publication of this story) is finite. 48 If so, then the development of suburbia, so expensive and car-dependent, may be proven to have been, in the words of a famous critic of suburbia, James Howard Kunstler: a “colossal misinvestment ……….a prodigious, unparalleled misallocation of resources.”49 One of the bestknown scholarly works on suburbanization Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985) by Kenneth T. Jackson (who was a professor of history at Columbia University when he wrote the book) sees no long-term future for suburban patterns of living: "the United States is not only the world's first suburban nation, but it will also be its last. By 2025 the energy-inefficient and automobile-dependent suburban system of the American republic must give way to patterns of human activity and living structures that are energy efficient." 50 (His study focuses on American suburban development, which were not that different from Canadian patterns where the latter occurred.) He cites the "rising real cost of energy and the reduced availability of fluid fuels" 51 as the primary factor limiting further suburban growth. With him, Kunstler agrees that suburbia is a transitory phenomenon. He writes that "The Auto Age, as we have known it, will shortly come to an end." 52 He too sees the decline in available petroleum energy as the main cause. 53 “Where Your Roots Are” 18
  19. 19. But there are emotional reasons to disagree with suburban development, too, which Munro herself alludes to when she writes "I guess that maybe as a writer I'm a kind of anachronism....because I write about places where your roots are and most people don`t live that kind of life any more at all. Most writers, probably the writers who are most in tune with our time, write about places that have no texture because this is where most of us live.” 54 Munro's own roots on a farm in rural Southern Ontario gave her access to the small towns and rural landscapes that predated suburbia. Rural pre-1950 small-towns in Canada and America meant places which relied on small-scale local farm economies. What, exactly, does she mean by the phrase ''texture'' here? Decidedly, she means to contrast the landscapes of her past with the modern places ("places that have no texture") available to today's denizens of North America, where one suburb or big city looks like another. Mrs. Fullerton's farm is described in the following passage: "the house and its surroundings were so self-sufficient, with their complicated and seemingly unalterable layout of vegetables and flower beds, apple and cherry trees, wired chicken run, berry patch and wooden walks, woodpile, a great many roughly built dark little sheds, for hens, or rabbits or a goat. Here was no straightforward plan, no order that an outsider could understand; yet what was haphazard time had made final. The place had become fixed, impregnable, all its accumulations necessary, until it seemed that even the washtubs, mops, couch springs and stacks of police magazines on the back porch were there to stay." 55 Mrs. Fullerton`s farm is pure `texture` and she is the only character who has an interesting "story" to tell. She tells Mary this story (about how her husband walked out on her) in her own words, using a kind of non-standard English dialect particular for her place. Her story has a mystery at its center (why exactly did Mr. Fullerton leave her suddenly one summer day?), and her narrative receives nearly two pages out of this 11-page story. Mrs. Fullerton's physical appearance is also described fully : 19
  20. 20. "her eyes showed (her age), black as plums, with a soft inanimate sheen; things sank into them and they never changed. The life in her face was all in the nose and mouth, which were always twitching, fluttering, drawing tight grimace lines down her cheeks. When she came around every Friday on her egg deliveries her hair was curled, her blouse held together by a bunch of cotton flowers, her mouth painted, a spidery and ferocious line of red." 56 In contrast, the Garden Place suburbanites don't seem to be unique characters, nor are any except for Carl, roughly sketched as "stocky, earnest, successful", described at all. The Garden Place residents seem to all resemble each other when they talk (no one has a dialect, or a long story with a mystery at its heart to tell, they all complain about Mrs. Fullerton) . Also, they are depicted as doing the same things: "A dozen neighborhood women sat around the living room, absently holding the balloons they had been given by their children."57 Narrative expands and grows strong, poetic, detailed, memorable, and flavorful in the presence of the local, quirky, individual character of Mrs. Fullerton. But once possessed by the Garden Place residents, narrative and narrative power seems to fade, pale, shrink, become unsubstantial, undifferentiated and general. Loss of a sense of place has powerfully restricted and inhibited narrative flow, tension, mystery, and personality. And narrative power is intimately connected to a sense of place. Mrs. Fullerton says, "My boys wanted me to sell then and go and live in rooms. But I said no. I had my hens and a nanny goat too at that time. More or less a pet. I had a pet coon too for a while and used to feed him chewing gum. Well, I said, husbands may come and go, but a place you've lived fifty years is something else. (Emphasis added)." 58 Mary herself is used to long stories and understands a sense of place-----Munro implies that Mary has a rural background similar to Mrs. Fullerton’s: “And Mary found herself exploring her neighbor`s life as she had once 20
  21. 21. explored the lives of grandmothers and aunts---by pretending to know less than she did, asking for some story she had heard before; this way, remembered episodes emerged each time with slight differences of content, meaning, colour, yet with a pure reality that usually attaches to things which are at least part legend.”59 In Garden Place, Mary is sort of a `spy for the other side`. Her loyalties are with Mrs. Fullerton. Munro thus provides a space in the cosmos---her fiction---where the harshness of the thermodynamic realities of life may be reflected on and turned over in the privacy of one`s own mind, perhaps with conclusions mirroring Mary`s growing understanding and horror. The blithe suburbanites` victory is so total yet marked out in this story as utterly temporary, trivial on a cosmic scale, yet devastating on a human one.. “Dulse” (1980) and “Post and Beam” (2000) In “The Shining Houses” Mary`s husband does not speak or appear. He`s not at the party, or at least not mentioned as being there, so he can`t take sides for or against the suburbanites` position. Like Sherlock Holmes` famous clue of the dog that didn`t bark in the night, the husband`s absence indicates something important: Munro may not have yet figured out how to explore the full impact of a modernizing economy on the inner lives of her characters. Later she would skillfully create situations that laid bare the characters` loyalties and prejudices with respect to country life as opposed to modern notions of wealth. She would use these ideas to create tension and inner drama.Two examples from many later occurrences follow, although there are more. In “Dulse” (July, 1980) a character named Vincent (a later incarnation of Mrs. Fullerton) “had a farm—it was his family`s farm, where he had grown up, near St. Stephen. He said you couldn`t make enough to keep you nowadays, just from farming….the market is all controlled now, it is all run by the big fellows, the big interests” 21 60 Lydia, the main character , an
  22. 22. editor and a poet from Toronto, is getting over a broken heart (she had been in a depressing relationship with a cruel but witty and successful man named Duncan who has an apartment in the city). Lydia considers what it would have been like if she had stayed in the rural town she grew up in and married a local: “With (Vincent) she could foresee doors opening, to what she knew and had forgotten; rooms and landscapes opening; there. The rainy evenings, a country with creeks and graveyards, and chokeberry and finches in the fence corners…… should she have concentrated on the part that would have been content with such an arrangement and forgotten about the rest?”61 Duncan and Vincent are strongly contrasted, one cruel, intelligent, the other uneducated, patient, ironic. Duncan is a later, more intellectual version of the successful suburban husbands in “The Shining Houses”, while Vincent is a touchstone whose amusing and folksy stories of country living help Lydia to regain her lost sense of self and get over her emotional scars incurred by her unhealthy relationship with Duncan. In “Post and Beam” (Dec. 2000), Lorna is from rural Ontario but lives in the suburbs of British Columbia and is married to a pretentious, bossy and successful mathematics professor, Brendan, who is proud of his elegant “post and beam” “contemporary” 62 suburban house , and is surely another incarnation of the suburban husbands in “The Shining Houses”. Lorna finds psychic freedom when her cousin Polly, who still lives on the same farm where Lorna grew up, visits and causes Brendan to get impatient with her long and winding conversational style. Polly (a more complex version of Mrs. Fullerton) has chosen to remain single, to live a hard life of poverty in rural Ontario, and her independent though materially circumscribed life gives Lorna a chance to think about freeing alternatives available to her in the future, such as “shaping this story to be told to somebody…as an entertainment” 63 (that is she’ll become a writer) which is what Munro herself chose. 22
  23. 23. “Dulse” and “Post and Beam” are particularly notable because the main character is or will become a fiction writer, like Munro herself. Contact with the rural countryside---like a talisman--- via Vincent and cousin Polly, both liberates and stimulates the main characters, providing the necessary expansive frame of mind and perspective on life to write. But we can say this idea began with Mrs. Fullerton telling her long stories; Mary is not a writer but she appreciates stories and knows how to get Mrs. Fullerton ---and her own country relatives---to tell her their stories. As an early effort, “The Shining Houses” presents, without too many artful and distracting complications, the basic scene—the social scene engendered by the underlying energetic exigencies—that concerned Munro in her formative years and adulthood. Later stories are often more complex, refined and interesting arrangements that still share the basic conundrum (what should human beings do with all the oil and the energy therein) expressed in “The Shining Houses” and can be understood as such. Munro understands that we must follow the sun, or the stored energy (petroleum) which the sun has made available. Making the choice to pursue wealth and success in the cities or suburbs with vehemence and single-mindedness may change us inside, though, giving us more than we had bargained for. In Munro`s opinion perhaps the changes, though exciting and inexorable, may bring new problems. 23
  24. 24. 1 Martin, W.R. Alice Munro Paradox and Parallel (Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1987), p. 36 2 Ibid. p. 36. 3 Munro, Alice, “The Shining Houses” in Dance of the Happy Shades (NY, NY: Viking Penguin, reprinted 1984), p.24 4 Ibid, p. 23. 5 Ibid. p. 23. 6 Ibid. p. 24 7 Ibid. p. 26. 8 Ibid. p. 28. 9 Ibid. 10 Ibid. p. 27. 11 Ibid. p. 29. 12 In Dance of the Happy Shades, Munro`s story “Boys and Girls” explains that the foxes on the farm of the narrator were fed horsemeat from horses that neighboring farmers no longer needed (the horses might be old, too sick, or made redundant by the newer tractors, according to the narrator), Munro also describes the manual work on this fictional farm in detail. 13 Tainter, Joseph A., The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, U.K.; Cambridge U. Press, 1988), p. 1 14 Ibid. p. 91. 15 Munro, p. 24 16 “EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is the rate of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy source to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource. When EROEI of a resource is equal to or lower than one, that resource becomes an energy sink and can no longer be used as a primary source of energy……A society will generally exploit the highest available EROEI sources first as they provide the most energy for the least effort. For example, when oil was originally discovered (about 100 years ago) it took on average one barrel of oil to find extract and process about 100 barrels of oil. That ratio has declined steadily over the last century to about three barrels gained for one used up in the U.S. and about 10 for one in Saudi Arabia.” (from Also, following are some basic EROEI (also called shorthand EROI) numbers for other energy-acquisition strategies: Hunter Gatherer (basic EROEI ratio)= 10:1; Farmer, Horse and Plow & Pre-Industrial Transportation= 10-20-1; High-Tech Farmer&Modern Distribution-Transportation=1:16; all EROEI data from “A Preliminary Investigation of Energy Returned on Energy Investment for Global Oil and Gas Production” by Nathan Gagnon, Charles A.S. Hall, and Lysle Brinker, Energies 2009, pages 490-503) and “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?”, by Charles A.S. Hall, Stephen Balogh, and David J.R. Murphy, Energies 2009, 2(1), pages 25-47. From the notes, the High-tech farmer & Modern transportation energy capturing strategy uses 16 units of (oil) energy to capture one unit of (food) energy. This is possibly Munro`s basic concern---running an energy deficit is fine as long as the oil lasts. 17 Tainter, p. 91. 18 Munro, p. 24. 19 Munro, p. 29. 20 Tainter, p. 198. 21 Ibid. 22 Munro, p. 23 (emphasis added). 23 Munro, p. 22. 24 Munro, p. 24. 25 Munro, p. 24. 26 Tainter, p. 194. 27 Munro, p. 23. 28 Munro, p. 27.
  25. 25. 29 Munro, p. 23. 30 Tainter, p. 201. 31 Munro, p. 26. 32 Munro, p. 22. 33 Munro, p. 26. 34 Schneider, Eric D. and Sagan, Dorian, Into the Cool; Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life (Chicago, IL; University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. xii. 35 The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in a system, a process that occurs will tend to increase the total entropy of the universe. 36 Schneider and Sagan, p. xvii. 37 Schneider and Sagan, p. 146. 38 Ibid, p. 279. 39 Ibid, p. 299 40 Ibid. p 299 41 Munro, p. 29. 42 Ibid, p.147. 43 Schneider and Sagan, p. 279. 44 Scheider and Sagan, p. 295 (emphasis added.). 45 Munro, p. 29. 46 Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971) p. 283. 47 Munro, p. 29. 48 “In the long run, the foolish choices will be weeded out as, again, maximal gradient reduction may power short-term growth but may not be sustainable over the long term”. Into the Cool, p. 298. 49 Kunstler, James Howard The Long Emergency (New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) p. 17 50 Jackson, Kenneth T, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (NY,NY: Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 304. 51 Ibid., p. 297. 52 Kunstler, J.H. The Geography of Nowhere (NY,NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993) p.124 53 “The known global reserves of petroleum are expected to last roughly another thirty years. This means that in the lifetimes of most Americans living today, the essential fuel that has powered the suburban-consumer way of life will no longer be available,” (p. 112) JH Kunstler The Geography of Nowhere. 54Munro, p.i. 55 Munro, p.21. 56 Munro, p.20 57 Munro, p. 25. 58 Munro, p.21. 59 Munro, p. 19. 60 Munro, Alice “Dulse” in The Moons of Jupiter (Toronto, Canada: Penguin Books Canada (1995) p. 46. 61 Ibid. p. 52 62 Ibid. p. 198. 63 Ibid, p. 217.