Estado: nuevo (tapa dura/encuadernado)
Editorial: Alfred A. Knopf
Road Map Not Included
By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
IN the introduction to the Vintage edition of her ”Selected Stories,” Alice Munro notes that over the years since 1968, when she published her first collection, they have ”grown longer, and in a way more disjointed and demanding and peculiar.” These adjectives couldn’t have been better chosen: ”disjointed,” to mark the way an individual story moves, not in a linear, temporal progression but by fits and starts, from a remembered past to something in the present and vice versa (for her and her protagonists, time is nearly always out of joint); ”demanding,” by way of putting the reader on notice that the sequences of the storytelling will not be obvious or predictable; and ”peculiar” because Munro has made certain fictional places — and a fictional voice — unmistakably and distinctively her own.
In one of my favorite stories from an earlier collection, ”Miles City, Montana,” a mother, sitting with her husband out of sight of a swimming pool (where her small children are, presumably, being watched by the pool attendant), has a sudden panicky premonition. In fact, her little daughter, who can’t swim, has slipped into the deep end of the pool. The mother alerts her husband, who pulls the child out unharmed, then later compliments his wife on manifesting the ”kind of extra sense that mothers have.” The story could have ended there but doesn’t, as the woman warns her husband ”never to count on” that maternal instinct. Instead, Munro concludes with the ”trusting” children in the back seat of the family car and their parents ”trusting to be forgiven” for ”whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous — all our natural, and particular, mistakes.” This demanding formulation is appropriate to the ”mistakes” that make up the human landscape of these nine new stories.
The long opening one, for which the collection is titled, concerns a spinster housekeeper named Johanna who is victimized — by an epistolary joke perpetrated by two teenage girls — into believing she is the object of love for one of the girls’ fathers, a down-and-outer living on his own in western Canada. Rashly, Johanna moves herself and a load of furniture her employer has been harboring to a forsaken spot in darkest Saskatchewan where the (unknowing) suitor has purchased a derelict hotel. There he lies in a seedy room, choking with bronchitis, surrounded by stale air and cigarette butts, and surprised to meet his determined rescuer.
If the story were by Flannery O’Connor — whose touch is evident at moments in ”Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” — it would have ended in a comedy of the grotesque, with the deluded spinster brought face-to-face with her folly. Instead, the cruel trick turns into marriage, as Johanna’s barren life takes on ”such a warm commotion, such a busy love,” which eventually produces a child. Munro resists the doctrinaire satirist’s temptation to humiliate and deprive her seemingly hapless protagonist: Johanna’s story is other than the story of pride brought low.
In the most powerful of these new pieces — four or five of which seem to me to belong with the best of Munro — the central figure, usually though not always female, begins with a harsh hand dealt to her: in ”Floating Bridge” it is cancer; in ”Comfort” a husband suffering from a debilitating illness who commits suicide; in ”The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a wife with Alzheimer’s disease who winds up in a nursing home. Perhaps Munro’s advancing age (she is 70) has heightened her awareness of life’s precariousness, yet in none of these stories do things go from very bad to worse.
As a writer, Munro takes on the challenge of seeing what can be said for, what can be made of, ”life,” even — or perhaps by virtue of — its darkest circumstances. And whatever resolution each story enacts is formulated in language that zealously guards itself against too consolatory, too memorable a formula. (”We must love one another or die”; ”Do not go gentle into that good night.”) In ”Floating Bridge,” the woman, having completed her chemotherapy with little expectation of recovery, receives — as it hesitatingly emerges over the story’s course — the cautious good news from her oncologist that there has been ”significant shrinkage. . . . A favorable sign.” So the ”low-grade freedom” that accompanied the expectation of death has been suddenly pulled away. Allowing herself, through a train of odd events, to be kissed by a young man, she feels ”a swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.” There is an active struggle in Munro’s language that inoculates the woman against anything more resolute than a ”swish . . . for the time given”: both character and reader are aware of the momentary, if pleasing, deception.
In an interesting comment about her own fiction (also in the Vintage introduction), Munro claims that she doesn’t always read stories from beginning to end but can start anywhere and proceed in either direction. ”A story is not like a road to follow . . . it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.” If this reminds us of Henry James’s ”house of fiction,” with different pairs of eyes peering out the windows, it is a shade more wayward, more interested in how the inside parts of the house relate to one another. In the powerful story called ”Comfort,” Nina returns home after a tennis game and calls out to her husband, ”I won. I won. Hello?” There follows a double space (one of the 15 such spaces that mark the divisions of the story) and then: ”But while she was out, Lewis had been dying. In fact, he had been killing himself.”
The move from one room in the story house to another is often oblique and surprising, but also reasonable once you register the change of voice and time. Something like that old critical term ”spatial form” rears its head, complicating the work’s progression (”a story is not like a road to follow”) and demanding that we keep looking back as much as moving forward. In this aspect, Munro’s art less resembles O’Connor’s than Eudora Welty’s.
But it would be wrong to promote such technical matters, important as they are, ahead of the ring of individual sentences that behave with a witty toughness that is the equal of either O’Connor’s or Welty’s. In ”The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” an employee at the nursing home ”was a heavy young woman who looked as if she had given up in every department except her hair” and a weeping inmate manages to dry his tears with ”a few awkward but lucky swipes at his face.” Another woman’s determination is brought out by seeing her as ”able to take the shoes off a dead body in the street”; while in the title story, a girl who ”had gone to sleep with the blanket between her legs” is warned of another girl’s fate who ”did things like that all the time and had eventually been operated on for the problem.”
What’s impressive is that such vivid, external perceptions are complemented and balanced by a more exploratory, inwardly poetic kind of writing, which is especially evident in the three first-person stories, ”Family Furnishings,” ”Nettles” and ”Queenie.” The best of these, ”Family Furnishings,” is so partly for its portrayal of a young woman’s discovery of her writerly vocation. Yet that is to name it too bluntly, even as the story, as much as any of Munro’s, has an extremely moving autobiographical resonance.
A young girl, growing up in a small Ontario town, mildly oppressed by her kindly parents and the relatives who come for long midday dinners and boring talk (”who had a tumor, a septic throat, a bad mess of boils”) is entertained and even liberated by the occasional visits of her father’s cousin, Alfrida. This eccentric, humorous woman once offered the girl a cigarette after a family meal, making her feel ”as free as a visitor at the table.” But when the girl goes off to college in the city where Alfrida lives, she doesn’t return Alfrida’s calls and invitations until, her final exams over and about to leave town, she goes to Sunday dinner at the cousin’s apartment. Years later, at her father’s funeral, she hears that Alfrida is in a nursing home. The story ends in the aftermath of that earlier Sunday afternoon when, walking about the city, the ”I” begins to feel things with extraordinary clarity and intensity. She is not thinking, in particular, of the story she ”would make about” her father’s cousin, but of ”the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories.” At once everything flows together as the ”cries of the crowd came to me like big heartbeats, full of sorrows. Lovely, formal-sounding waves, with their distant, almost inhuman assent and lamentation.” The story ends with a one-sentence paragraph that is wholly right: ”This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this was how I wanted my life to be.”
The lovely formal-sounding waves that fill this collection, surely Munro’s best yet, are in their wise sadness the product of such attention paid.
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