Friday, May 18, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Lichen (by Alice Munro)

Collection: Selected Stories
Author: Alice Munro

Title: Lichen
Stella and David, who were married for over twenty years and have by now been separated for several more, aren't completely out of each other's lives. David is visiting Stella because it's her father's birthday and he's always liked the old man. On this visit he brings his most recent lover, Catherine, a wispy woman who's already on her way to being replaced with someone much younger.

The only person who knows about all of David's sexual shenanigans is Stella, because he confides in her. The dynamic between them is interesting. On the one hand he broke up the marriage with his affairs, and he now looks on Stella's comfortably aging body with contempt. On the other hand, there's no one who knows him better than Stella does, and because of this he's still drawn to her. David can't hide anything from her, which is both a relief to him and a source of unease. As for Stella, she might be repelled by David's behavior and realize that living with him is out of the question, but at the same time he's still a part of her life. Their history with all its love and rancor makes a full separation impossible.

David enjoys thinking of his life as a wild tale with himself at the center of it caught up in rampant passion and sexual drama. He characterizes each woman he's with as a different type (the fragile hippy, the wanton wild child), each one a prepackaged adventure with her own highs and lows, and it adds to his excitement that he can have more than one and try out different kinds. In reality he knows he's making it all up - oversimplifying them, oversimplifying himself, masking the truth with superficial stories the way he dyes his hair and pretends it isn't graying. I started out disliking David but by the end of the story the dislike was mixed with pity for his weakness. His fear of growing old is intense, seen not only in his pursuit of younger and younger women but also in his reaction to Stella's father, who appears to David as something other than human.
To get used to looking at his father-in-law, David tried to think of him as a post-human development, something new in the species. Survival hadn't just preserved, it had transformed him. Bluish-gray skin, with dark-blue spots, whitened eyes, a ribbed neck with delicate deep hollows, like a smoked-glass vase. Up through this neck came further sounds, a conversational offering. It was the core of each syllable that was presented, a damp vowel barely held in shape by surrounding consonants.
As long as Stella's father can safely be seen as "post-human" David can tell himself that he won't have to share the old man's fate. He'll stay young forever, somehow, even as he knows deep down it's a lie. (What I appreciate about his moments of self-awareness in the story is that they seem natural, unlike similar moments in some of Munro's other stories where the characters are too adept at analyzing themselves. To her credit though, Munro is consistently masterful at showing the measure of people's lives and relationships in relatively few pages, what would take other authors a whole novel to accomplish. "Lichen" is no exception.)

Stella I saw as a stabilizing force in the story. David tries in some ways to push her away or punish her by sharing sordid details about himself, but she doesn't react with the kind of violent disapproval that he expects. This in turn gives him a strange acceptance (maybe he needs one person in his life he can't lie to?) while also bringing out the pettiness and ineffectiveness of his actions and his whole approach to life. In truth I think Stella is more disturbed by him than she lets on, but she's determined to be even-keeled, solid as earth. In contrast to David, who lies to people and tries to live in denial about his age and character, Stella tries to chart a course of acceptance: she accepts her body as it is, she keeps active and takes pleasure in what she does, she welcomes Catherine into her home, she treats David with calm, she's determined not to rage against the state of things but instead to take it all in stride, as ugly as it can get. She comes across as much more self-sufficient and grounded than David (and in some ways, so does Catherine).

So what's the lichen that's referred to in the title? It has to do with a graphic photo that David shows Stella (like a child trying to provoke a reaction from an adult) and at first Stella thinks that what she's looking at is lichen. The photo, and the meanings assigned to it, become central to the story. The stories we make up about ourselves and about our lives and the people in it change with time; is there anything permanent, that can be restored or preserved as it is? The photo - and what it depicts - fades with time and exposure to too much light.

Lichen is also symbolic of relationships. In nature it's formed by the symbiotic relationship between a fungus and some kind of photosynthetic organism. A lichen is very different from the individual organisms (fungus, alga, etc.) that it's made up of. The relationship can be mutually beneficial to the organisms, or beneficial to one of them without causing any noticeable change, good or bad, in the other. Or it could be a parasitic relationship, where one of them benefits and the other suffers for it. It's an interesting metaphor for how people get tangled up with each other, and the reasons they stay tangled. What do Stella and David each get out of the remnants of their marriage? And does David attach himself to his lovers because he thinks that through them he can live? The image of David as a fungus wrapping himself around the women in his life and sucking energy from them fits. What, if anything, does he give them?


Other stories in this collection include Dance of the Happy Shades and A Wilderness Station.