Writer in Residence

To the Moons, Alice

Submitted by Nathan Whitlock

Earlier this week, on July 4, NASA announced that the spacecraft Juno had successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit. That it did so on Independence Day, and that NASA used the term “Mighty Jupiter” in the headline of its press release, sums up a lot that is corny, loveable, self-mythologizing, and impressive about the United States.

Almost a week later, on July 11, Alice Munro turns 84. I’m certain she is tired of being told this fact. Nevertheless, a random coincidence cannot be ignored, and so, this is a good time to re-read Munro’s story “The Moons of Jupiter” – one of my favourites – which was published in her 1982 collection of the same name, and has been anthologized many times since.

In the story, a somewhat successful writer named Janet has brought her elderly father from his home in Huron County to Toronto for heart surgery. The father refuses the surgery at first, but then relents. Janet, who is divorced and lives in British Columbia, is staying with one of her daughters. Her other daughter is absent. To calm herself before her father’s surgery (which may kill him), she window shops along Bloor Street, then attends a show at the Planetarium before wandering through the Royal Ontario Museum.

And that’s it.

Summarizing the plot is almost beside the point. Most of the details in the narrative framework are incidental – for example, in the original version of the story, published in the New Yorker in 1978, Janet was a painter, not a writer. “The Moons of Jupiter,” like almost all of Munro’s best work, drops you into a world and a scenario that has histories and narratives and (especially) grievances that flow way beyond the borders of the story itself. Readers get to enter this world and are given some of the back story, but we are always aware that we are merely guests, and that the characters have been living here for decades and will be here after we’re gone. There is a sense that the particular events we read about, though pivotal, are destined to be absorbed into the emotional lives of the characters as merely more damage, or even shunted aside by later upheavals.

My favourite part:

“I was tired from the drive-all the way up to Dalgleish, to get him, and back to Toronto since noon-and worried about getting the rented car back on time, and irritated by an article I had been reading in a magazine in the waiting room. It was about another writer, a woman younger, better-looking, probably more talented than I am. I had been in England for two months and so I had not seen this article before, but it crossed my mind while I was reading that my father would have. I could hear him saying, Well, I didn't see anything about you in Maclean's. And if he had read something about me he would say, Well, I didn't think too much of that write-up. His tone would be humorous and indulgent but would produce in me a familiar dreariness of spirit. The message I got from him was simple: Fame must be striven for, then apologized for. Getting or not getting it, you will be to blame.”

What fuels the story are not high-octane reversals and twists, but Munro’s ability to measure the exact temperature of the relationships, and to reveal (as she has done over and over in her career, to brilliant effect) the pinched, slightly cranky soul of a Southern Ontario, where self-mythologizing is as alien as Europa.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

You can write to Nathan throughout the month of July at writer@openbooktoronto.com