Avoiding Alice Munro

I have taken to drinking decaf in whatever coffee shop I can find when trying to desperately to concentrate. (There are, strangely, fewer cafes in my neighborhood in Cambridge than there are in my neighborhood in San Francisco.)

Today, it’s Starbucks. Of course, no matter what neighborhood you are in, there is always Starbucks. Today, Starbucks is playing some godawful music that is jarring, annoying and distracting. That’s a first for me at Starbucks. Despite whatever bad things you may be able to say about the rampant spread of the chain, the bleakness of their coffee (I’ll come back to that) and the people who frequent the place, you can usually say that at least they play semi-decent music, something jazzy that fades to the background as you read the newspaper or your book. You can usually say, too, that Starbucks has a pleasant atmosphere that includes comfy chairs and swirly, if generic, Starbucks art.

Today is not usually. Today Starbucks is playing something between country and Beach Boys and college rock (complete with loping guitar), and I am sitting on a hard chair while the muscles in my back seize up.

What is predictable about today and Starbucks is the coffee. My god! Why is it that no matter how much half and half you pour into a cup of Starbucks coffee, it’s still unbelievably bitter and it remains so hot you burn your tongue? I think Starbucks actually brings its coffee to a boil before serving it. In fact, I think it says it on the cup: “Careful, the beverage that’s about to scald the heck out of your tongue is extremely bitter. It’s been boiling for the past half an hour.”

OK, that’s not actually what it says.

I fled here from the too-quiet of my apartment because I was trying to work on an assignment and found myself searching WebMD for symptoms to medical problems I don’t even have. Luckily, I don’t have wireless* or else escaping to Starbucks wouldn’t have helped my concentration at all. Whether it is indeed helping is up for debate, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it is.

*(The black-shirted folks at Apple apparently thought, “Hey, why make people buy a wireless card when we can make them buy a whole new computer?” This is obviously why they have stopped making the wireless card for my edition of the iBook.)

Anyway, I was trying to do this assignment for my lit class. I knew it was going to be a problem all weekend, because I kept thinking about how much I didn’t want to do it. The assignment was to write two scenes; one in the style of Alice Munro and one in the style of Raymond Carver. The Carver is fairly easy (think Hemingway without the pretension), but the Munro is killing me. Isn’t really good writing supposed to be un-imitatable? No doubt a person who uses words like un-imitatable is incapable of copying a great writer anyway. I recognize that Munro is a great short story writer. Her stories are intricate and honest. They carry truth like a burden. The problem is that I while I think they are brilliant, I find them incredibly depressing.

When I was in high school, I read every Anne Tyler novel I could get my hands on. Maybe I was in college, not high school. Anyway, I read all of Anne Tyler. I loved her books. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist, etc. etc. They were dysfunctional and dreary and about Baltimore. (Maybe dysfunctional and dreary because they were about Baltimore?) At the time, I thought the only way for a book to be good was if it was down and dreary. What can I say? I was full of angst and I wore a lot of black.

The mood of an Anne Tyler novel is a lot like the mood of an Alice Munro short story. Which is to say, depressing. At least Munro’s stories are set in Canada instead of Baltimore. (Um, yeah. You can fill in the witty Canada put-down here, if you like.) Sometime after college, I became unable to read Anne Tyler books. I would see her new novels out in hardcover on bookstore tables, and I would walk away defiantly. I would like to do this with Alice Munro, except that we are reading an entire collection of her stories in this class.

And I’ve got to copy her style.


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