I have family in Vancouver, but it’s a place I haven’t been to yet, and truth to tell it’s a place that does not loom large in my imagination. Of course it would be nice to drop by, and especially to play catch-up. But Vancouver itself does not beckon to me, unlike certain towns or cities.
I guess it’s because I had not read about it; it had not figured in my reading. This simple truth came home to me today, after I read — and reread — David Laskin’s wonderful piece on Alice Munro’s "storybook Vancouver."
In Alice Munro’s Vancouver nobody eats sushi. Nobody jogs along the sea wall or browses Granville Street galleries or shops for organic herbs at the Granville Island market. Munro, the 74-year-old Canadian whom the novelist Jonathan Franzen dubbed "the best fiction writer now working in North America," set a handful of her marvelous short stories in the damp British Columbian metropolis, and the urban geography is so exact you can practically map the city off her fictions.
But Munro’s fictions did not make too much of Vancouver’s "beautiful view." Indeed, if Laskin is right, she felt oppressed by it. And yet the city, faithfully recorded, lives on in her delicate pages.
"These women aren’t so much older than Kath and Sonje. But they’ve reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the bright water, the perfect small cove with the red-limbed arbutus trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. Kath feels their threat particularly, since she’s a mother now herself. When she nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as not to sink into a sludge of animal functions."
This is pure Munro: the social anxiety, the fusing of insecurity and disdain, the heavy tug of ordinary life, the way dread can rise and spread until it erases everything lovely. "She’s always dead on," Sheila Munro says when I ask if the descriptions of places ring true to her childhood memories. And yet it strikes me when I walk out on Ambleside pier that Munro has neglected to mention this stupendous setting – the echoing curves of bridge and cove and mountain, the dull silver of the sea, the green- black hump of Stanley Park, all this grandeur of land and water so close it is as if the great northern wilderness laps at the city’s feet.
But Munro was always oppressed, almost crushed by Vancouver’s fabled vistas. In the story "Memorial," also set in West Vancouver, a character named Eileen challenges a wealthy foolish man who boasts about his water and mountain view.
"Well suppose you’re in a low mood, and you get up and here spread out before you is this magnificent view. All the time, you can’t get away from it. Don’t you ever feel not up to it?"
"Not up to it?"
"Guilty," said Eileen, persistently though regretfully. "That you’re not in a better mood? That you’re not more – worthy, of this beautiful view?"
All of a sudden, Vancouver is a must-go-to place, and Munro a must-read writer.