These Two Lanes Will Take Us Anywhere: Alice Munro and Bruce Springsteen

By on Monday, August 17th, 2015 at 9:04 am

Having just published my first book, I am often asked about my influences. I have a great list to rattle off: Lorrie Moore, Jo Ann Beard, Laurie Colwin, Justin Torres, Amy Hempel, Junot Diaz. I could go on. But, if I had only two pedestals to erect, I know who they’d be for: Alice Munro and Bruce Springsteen.

Although I am from New Jersey, my love of the Ontario writer Alice Munro long predates my discovery of Freehold’s own Bruce Springsteen. Given my feelings toward my home state during the period I was first learning about music—like many people, my middle and high school years—it follows that I would have dismissed Springsteen as resoundingly not for me. Munro, on the other hand, I came to early. She was the first author I ever learned about who eschewed novels, publishing only story collections. Some consider Lives of Girls and Women or The Beggar Maid to be novels, but in those books, each story works separately, while still coming together to comprise a whole. Munro’s protagonists are primarily, if not always, girls or women. They are not always, or even often, beautiful. She not only allows tragedy to befall her characters, but she allows them to commit horrible acts. In other words, she lets them be real. I aspire to her bravery in this regard; I still find it hard to reveal the ugliness in my characters. Even more aspirational than her plot or her characters, though, are her sentences.

Because Munro’s writing is so solid and simple, she is able to get away with what most writers cannot. In “Wild Swans,” from The Beggar Maid, she puts a young girl who has been warned of molesters on trains next to a molester on a train. The reader knows immediately what will happen, but when it does, the situation becomes disconcerting in its ambiguity. Munro doesn’t let herself, her characters or her readers off easy. While the language may be straightforward, no situation is ever clear.

Take this example from her story “Dimension,” from Too Much Happiness:

In the morning, early, Maggie drove her home. Maggie’s husband hadn’t left for work yet, and he stayed with the boys.
Maggie was in a hurry to get back, so she just said, “Bye-bye. Phone me if you need to talk,” as she turned the minivan around in the yard.
It was a cold morning in early spring, snow still on the ground, but there was Lloyd sitting on the steps without a jacket on.
“Good morning,” he said, in a loud sarcastically polite voice. And she said good morning, in a voice that pretended not to notice his.
He did not move aside to let her up the steps.
“You can’t go in there,” he said.
She decided to take this lightly.
“Not even if I say please? Please.”
He looked at her but did not answer. He smiled with his lips held together.
“Lloyd?” she said. “Lloyd?”
“You better not go in.”
“I didn’t tell her anything, Lloyd. I’m sorry I walked out. I just needed a breathing space, I guess.”
“Better not go in.”
“What’s the matter with you? Where are the kids?”
He shook his head, as he did when she said something he didn’t like to hear. Something mildly rude, like “holy shit.”
“Lloyd. Where are the kids?”
He shifted a little, so that she could pass if she liked.
Dimitri still in his crib, lying sideways. Barbara Ann on the floor beside her bed, as if she’d got out or been pulled out. Sasha by the kitchen door—he had tried to get away. He was the only one with bruises on this throat. The pillow had done for the others.
“When I phoned last night?” Lloyd said. “When I phoned, it had already happened.
“You brought it all on yourself,” he said.

This is a sensational scene. Munro manages it for a few reasons, the most impressive being that she doesn’t shock the reader. Rather, she chills in tiny increments: “He shook his head” and “He shifted a little” here become as terrifying as the most gruesome details another writer might deliver. The punctuation in the paragraph where the protagonist, Doree, finds the children, too, is careful and measured; it keeps the “reveal” slow. This—the murder of the narrator’s children by her husband—is also not the climax of the story. That comes later and centers on something that Doree does, not something that has been done to her. Doree, though flawed, has agency by the end of the story.

While Alice Munro can bring dramatic, even melodramatic, events down to earth with her writing, Bruce Springsteen can elevate the most mundane moments with his. He focuses, as she does, on character, place, word choice and simplicity.

Take the beginning of one of his best known songs—and maybe the best known song in general—“Thunder Road,” from the album Born to Run:

The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside
Darling you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me

Like Munro, Springsteen offers concrete details, bits of dialogue and real, flawed characters. She writes about a woman discovering her murdered children and manages to make it subtle; he writes about watching a girl walk out onto a porch—what a small moment!—and gives it echoes of something larger. As both the song and the story “Dimension” progress, highways become the symbols on which life and death hang. For Spingsteen, it is metaphorical: “Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks.” For Munro’s Doree, it is both metaphorical and literal, as she breathes life back into a boy who, after an accident, is lying in the gravel, “a trickle of pink foam…like the stuff you skim off the strawberries when you’re making jam,” coming from his head.

To me, though, the power of “Thunder Road,” hinges on one line—one of many used against me as I argued that this song should be the slow dance at my wedding: “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.” I hope I don’t sound diffident when I say that I don’t usually accept compliments on my appearance without adding my own silent “but” after them. Sure, I may look nice today, but not as nice as if my hair wasn’t being weird; maybe I’m beautiful in this dress but not quite as beautiful as that other woman across the room. What many people might take as an off-putting sentiment if expressed differently, here becomes pure and genuine: a true compliment. It makes me trust, and take seriously, everything else that the speaker says. In songs, men often elevate women, expounding on their beauty; here, Springsteen evokes both wings and heaven, but he’s comparing both of them, not just the woman, to angels. He seems to be saying, we’re regular people, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve better. Of course, much of the power of this song is in the music, in the singing of it, but the lyrics themselves do a lot of the work. By choosing to use colloquial words and phrasing, and by adding that “but”—inverting expectations—he draws not only a scene but two characters, a whole relationship.

Distilled, this is a song about the speaker trying to sleep with a woman, and to get the hell out of Jersey. But the screen doors and “dusty beach roads” of Springsteen’s Jersey are as vivid and desperate as Munro’s Ontario front porches and Highway 21 are stark and unsettling. The beauty in both their work is that, while they both write about redemption, Springsteen will make you feel it by saying it outright—“All the redemption I can offer girl is beneath this dirty hood”—and Munro will make you believe it, one punctuation mark, or missing punctuation mark, at a time. The story “Dimension” ends with what looks, at first glance, like a conversation:

“You sure?” he said.
Sure.
“You don’t have to get to London?”
No.

But notice—there are no quotation marks when Doree responds. Her measured, certain answers are internal. She owes them only to herself.

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