Friday, 17 June 2011

"Too Much Happiness": 'Dimensions'

Right, the first book I'm reading for the book club I'm aiming to join is a collection of 10 short stories by Alice Munro. She is the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, and her writing has been highly praised by what seems to be the entire critiquing world.
She's an old woman, apparently, which I guess is surprising - not only because of the content of her writing, but her style and because I live in one of those little bubbles where authors are either dead or in their 30s. Terrible misconception, I know.

Any hoo, I'm making notes of each story as I go, and I'll do my best to make some discussion out of them. They are short stories, and I'm not always sure what to say about them, so. It'll take me a while to get into my stride! I imagine some entries will be shorter than others - I already know that I'm not entirely sure what to make of the second story.


Synopsis: Doree is a motel chambermaid. She does work beneath her qualifications because it stops her from thinking about her past. Her husband, Lloyd, is in a home/asylum for the criminally insane after murdering their  three children. Doree is receiving counselling and help, and visits Lloyd, who eventually writes to her, telling her that he has seen their children and that they exist in another dimension, but he's not mad. Doree does not know what to make of this, and even begins to question her own mental health. Only when she saves the life of a boy who crashes a lorry does she break away from her past.

First of all, it is interesting to note the dynamics of their failing marriage. Doree tells the reader that Lloyd is in a home of some sort. That he is not the man she knew, and that she visits him. We know that she is under the supervision, in some way, of a Mrs. Sands - her therapist. As she recalls her marriage and the way she was dominated and increasingly controlled by a paranoid and critical husband, the instances and examples described do not seem terribly out of the ordinary. The disagreements and criticisms are seen in a lot of relationship dramas or stories of this ilk. The paranoia of Lloyd where Doree's friend, Maggie, is concerned, is not an uncommon argument; "She's trying to break us up. She'll have you moan to me that I'm a bastard" (not a direct quote, but pretty much there). It is an unfounded belief, and one many jealous husbands (or wives) have used in the history of marriage. He also, despite being an ex-hippy, became very strict and forthright in everything. He also blamed their third child's slower development (a common occurrence in younger children, actually) on the fact that she did not persist with breast feeding when her milk made him colic.
The way the marriage climaxes is in an oddly linear and normal behaviour, despite the fact we know that he is in an asylum. It opens up the possibility that all jealous, paranoid lovers could be mad, or require help. What is sanity? What is insanity? Where is the line drawn?

Until we find out why he is in the asylum. The description of what happened is not hyped or dramatised. It is written in short, bare and factually. They had an argument, and when Doree left and walked to her friend Maggie's house, Lloyd killed their children in punishment. So that they needn't ''feel the sorrow of their mother walking out on them". She had not walked out - she had merely walked away from the argument to get a breather.
We are told that Lloyd was classed as criminally insane, and this is reiterated by Doree when she visits him. He is "Not a person worth blaming for anything. No a person. He was like a character in a dream."
Munro also raises the question of criminality, and the severity of a person's actions. The narrator comments that "he was not a criminal; he was only criminally insane".  'Only' criminally insane. Is there a difference? Most would argue, yes, to some extent. But sanity is a tricky subject. There is no definition for 'normal', and as such, is there therefore a normal criminal?

The question of the nature of sanity is deepened by Lloyds letters, as he discusses how he has become aware of his Self, and the question of morality within behaviour and society - behaviour being something which he has been deemed incapable of judging himself - and even touches briefly on religion. The question of good and evil, and the Self is quite interesting. He is aware of what he is capable of, and he has done the worst that he is capable of, but there is nothing he can do. He is not insane. He is himself. That is who he is, and he can not become another person or take on another Self.

The title of the story, Dimensions, comes into discussion when he writes to Doree, telling her about their children. That he had seen them - not in Heaven. He does not believe in Heaven or Hell. But he believes that in his isolated state and constant thinking, he had reached 'the other side', or crossed dimensions, where he encounters their children in a faintly familiar room, and they tell him that they are all right.
He insists he is not mad, and that perhaps any reason she has not been able to see them is that she is still tied to the world.
Doree questions this in her head. She feels some sort of relief, despite herself, thinking of her children in a dimension. And comments that after all, she is perhaps just as shut off from the world as Lloyd was, for all that she was living in it. She is closed off, mentally, and perhaps she is supposed to be with him, if only to listen to him. There is a hint of destiny there, though she has already dismissed her young-love days where she thought she was destined to be with Lloyd. She does not feel that way now, and yet she considers the possibility that she is meant to be with him. Doree is not quite sure how she feels, only that she does not feel good seeing Lloyd, but she can not not see him, sometimes, either. Though people change, the feelings are there, and fundamentally haven't changed, even if she can not bear the thought of him telling her that he loves her still. It is an example of how hard it is to cut someone previously central to your life from your life.

It is on her way to see Lloyd that she is a witness to the lorry accident. On giving the joydriver of the lorry mouth-to-mouth and saving him, she is somehow released from this notion, or reconnected to *this* dimension or world. It could be that Doree, in her shock and despair and grief, was between worlds herself, and only through saving a child could she reconcile the fact that she could not possibly have saved her own.

The language is colloquial. By that I simply mean that it is stylistically simple and to the point. It does not contain slang or anything like that. And it's slightly more formal than this blog! However there is a sense of familiarity in the dialogue and mental musings of Doree. The justifications she gave to Lloyd's behaviour during the early years of their marriage, and the way she describes other people is quite how I - or people in general, I assume - describe their thoughts or feelings, or express denial.

The topic matter is quickly dealt with, for all of its potential depth. It is only a short story, but the characters are terrifically developed, with a good time period being covered in the 30 - 40 pages. There is no sense of drama, just melancholy and sad analysis. The way she dealt with the discovery of the children's bodies was brief, unassuming and very effective. There was a numbness to it, before Doree scrambles out of the house, clutching herself and reacting to the sheer shock that the scene described.
This story is by no means a happy one. It can easily be seen as depressing. I think it is also a study of human relationships, beliefs and behaviour. Most certainly it is questioning the nature of sanity and the human mind.

1 comment:

Ethan Spooner said...

Terrific commontary. We have used this story in an ESL class that I am giving in sourthern spain. Your commentary has helped frame the discussion here.

We have had another possible interpretation of the end given in class and seen through the "self" question. Doreen has no developed self before meeting LLoyd. During their relationship, he defines her "self". and in the end when she saves the Lorry dirver, she finds her "self" in the ashes of her relationship with Lloyed. Sort of a Phenoix story.