What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Alice Munro's Great "The Turkey Season" (Contra James Wood)

In celebration of Alice Munro’s great Nobel Prize win, I want to express my admiration for her wonderful "The Turkey Season" (The New Yorker, December 29, 1980; included in her 1982 collection, The Moons of Jupiter). I also want to take issue with a comment that James Wood made about this story in his review of Munro’s Selected Stories.

“The Turkey Season” is a form of fictional memoir. But it’s written so realistically that you’d wonder what aspect of it is fiction. In its use of “I” and its straightforward timeline (no flashbacks), it’s more like one of Munro’s personal history pieces (e.g., “Dear Life” and “Lying Under the Apple Tree”) than it is one of her short stories, which are often complexly structured (e.g., “The Love of a Good Woman,” “Carried Away,” and “The Albanian Virgin”). Its unnamed narrator looks back on her experience, when she was fourteen, working for the Christmas season as a turkey gutter. There’s a touch of drama at the story’s center – one of the workers commits a lewd act, the exact nature of which is unclear (“All I ever found out was that Brian had either done something or shown something to Gladys as she came out of the washroom and she had started screaming and having hysterics”) - that scandalizes a co-worker and ignites an uproar in the turkey barn. But, for me, this is a minor aspect of the story. What I like most is the description of turkey barn reality. For example, here is barn foreman, Herb Abbott, one of the story’s key figures, instructing the narrator on how to gut a turkey:

“All right. Work your fingers around and get the guts loose. Easy. Easy. Keep your fingers together. Keep the palm inwards. Feel the ribs with the back of your hand. Feel the guts fit into your palm. Feel that? Keep going. Break the strings – as many as you can. Keep going. Feel a hard lump? That’s the gizzard. Feel a soft lump? That’s the heart. O.K.? O.K. Get your fingers around the gizzard. Easy. Start pulling this way. That’s right. That’s right. Start to pull her out.”

It was not easy at all. I wasn’t even sure what I had was the gizzard. My hand was full of cold pulp.

“Pull,” he said, and I brought out a glistening, liverish mass.

“Got it. There’s the lights. You know what they are. Lungs. There’s the heart. There’s the gizzard. There’s the gall. Now, you don’t ever want to break that gall inside or it will taste the entire turkey.” Tactfully, he scraped out what I had missed, including the testicles, which were like a pair of white grapes.

“Nice pair of earings,” Herb said.

That use of “taste” seems so odd, and yet so right. The whole passage is both lyrical and humorous. It’s the expressive, shorthand way that experienced workers often speak. To write how people talk, one must know how they think. Munro seems to know how turkey gutters think. She writes from inside their world, as if she’s one of them. The specificity of her descriptions is almost surreal. Lily and Marjorie, two expert turkey gutters, sing while they work and talk “abusively and intimately” to the turkey carcasses (“Don’t you nick me, you old bugger!” “Aren’t you the old crap factory!”). Another worker, Gladys, running cold water on her hands (“The hands of all us were red and sore-looking from the work”), says, “I can’t use that soap. If I use it, I break out in a rash. If I bring my own soap in here, I can’t afford to have other people using it, because I pay a lot for it – it’s a special anti-allergy soap.” This, to my ear, sounds absolutely authentic. Rarely do we see the manual laborer’s world so empathetically evoked as it is in “The Turkey Season.” It’s this aspect of the story that James Wood fails to appreciate.

Wood, in his review of Munro’s Selected Stories (1996), says,

Often, her stories move around the disruption brought to a community by an exotic outsider. At such moments, the exoticism or danger of the interloper can seem unconvincing or uninteresting, because Munro appears to have loaded the dice by making the invaded community so unexotic to begin with. In ‘The Turkey Season’, for instance, she colours in the tiny world of a turkey-plucking barn, and its bleak personnel – an old man, some collapsed women, a little schoolgirl (who narrates the tale). A handsome young man arrives at work. He flaunts his sexual superiority, and harasses one of the women. But we are not sure how: ‘All I ever found out was that Brian had either done something or shown something to Gladys as she came out of the washroom and she had started screaming and having hysterics.’ Brian’s naughtiness is not important enough to hang the story on. And his behaviour seems trivial not only because it is opaquely rendered, but because the world he disrupts seems too ready to have been disrupted by precisely Brian’s kind of danger. The story is written from within the community; it has a complacency. ["Things happen all the time," London Review of Books, May 8, 1997]

Wood finds Munro’s turkey barn “unexotic.” I disagree. Turkeys “hanging upside down, plucked and stiffened, pale and cold, with the heads and necks limp, the eyes and nostrils clotted with dark blood”; turkey gutters in their “bloody smocks and heavy sweaters,” working “knee-deep in the feathers” – I find the place utterly strange and fascinating. What’s most fascinating of all is seeing the gutters and pluckers carrying on, talking about permanents, periods, marriage, and family, all the while reaching inside turkeys’ cold interiors and pulling out their guts as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do.

Wood says of “The Turkey Season,” “The story is written from within the community; it has a complacency.” “The Turkey Season” is Munro’s attempt to represent the surreal reality of the turkey gutter. There’s nothing complacent about it. I suspect Wood finds it complacent because he finds turkey-gutting an unworthy subject; he’s disdainful of it because it's working-class. (In George Orwell's Very English Revolution, he snobbishly asks, Why would anyone want to resemble the working classes, least of all the working classes themselves?) To criticize Munro for writing “from within the community” is to miss the very quality – the narrator’s firsthand physical experience of life in the turkey barn – that grounds her story in the real. In his review, Wood calls Munro “a great realist.” He’s right. “The Turkey Season” is a prime example of her realism.

Credit: The above photograph of Alice Munro is by Paul Hawthorne.

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