Guest reviewed by Ulrica Skagert.
In “Face” Alice Munro makes one of her particular detours into the past to contemplate on the present. She focuses on the intricate effects that a childhood event can have on adult life.
The story begins with a father’s dramatic rejection of his newly born son because of a birthmark covering the right side of the baby’s face. The boy grows up facing the extreme polarity of his father’s resentment and his mother’s devotion. However, this potential psychological trauma is not the focus of the narrative. As the story progresses, the narrator gives a rather standoffish tale of his whole life, which appears to be an ordinary life of an actor. Yet, the dramatic turn in the story does not involve anything from his family-life, nor his career. The narrative energy is concentrated in a freakish event that occurs in the middle of a serious game acted out with a neighbor playmate. Even though the boy does not understand the full meaning of this event it has a remarkable significance for him as an adult.
Munro uses emotionally restrained language to deals with heart-breaking revelations. For long temporal stretches, the story is restricted to the surface details of things, but when the narrator starts talking about the event, what he has “come to think of as the Great Drama” of his life, he becomes vulnerable to his own romantic interpretation of it, and even to an excessive dramatization. Since this is ultimately a story about the possibility of love, Munro balances the implausible illusion of being destined for a romantic love with the uncanny and uncontrollable accidents, which pattern behavior with a strong sense of fate. As a reader, you may choose to be vulnerable to the protagonist’s way of handling his sense of fate, or you may not.
Read “Face” in The New Yorker, September 8, 2008.
A note on the contributor: Ulrica Skagert is a Swede currently finishing her PhD on Munro’s short stories.