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Editorial: Alfred A. Knopf.
Crossing the Threshold
By MICHAEL GORRA
HER subject has always been the lives of girls and women: their schooling and passions and troubles, their coming-of-age and the coming of age, the beginnings and more often the ends of their marriages, the raising of children and the ambiguous hold of the past. Men are, of course, a part of those lives, and yet she almost always presents her men as seen by women, an Other defined by the possibility of betrayal or violence or maybe by a simple stolid incapacity. But though she is no more interested in the lives of men than Conrad was in those of women, I would hesitate to call her a feminist writer. For she has the kind of creative androgyny that Virginia Woolf longingly evoked in ”A Room of One’s Own”; she writes ”as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman,” and this gives her pages ”that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.” Her work never feels as though it has had the question of gender thrust upon it, and in this she differs from writers like Doris Lessing or Angela Carter or Toni Morrison or indeed from Woolf herself. Though not perhaps from her acknowledged master, Flannery O’Connor, whose achievement she may now have outstripped.
That comparison is perhaps unfair. O’Connor died before she was 40, and Alice Munro has written richly on into her 60’s, into a time when she stands as the only living writer in the English language to have made a major career out of short fiction alone. Munro is aware of her debts: ”Save the Reaper,” one of the best stories in this characteristically superb collection, both pays homage to and cunningly revises O’Connor’s story ”A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Yet if the Ontario-born Munro shares the Georgian writer’s powerful sense of regional identity, her work is nevertheless governed by a radically different formal imperative. O’Connor cracks her own Roman Catholicism across her characters’ lives with a speed and ferocity for which not only they but the story itself often seems unprepared; and her endings always have the loud finality of a pistol shot. Munro’s feel for her own characters is, in contrast, as pure as Chekhov’s and as unviolated by any appeal to an external system of thought. Her early stories had conclusions as quietly sharp as the click of a pocket-watch lid, but she has long since abandoned that tidiness. With each book her stories have grown longer — this volume’s 340 pages hold just eight stories — and their endings have become correspondingly open, even unruly, and yet somehow not inconclusive.
I say unviolated — but very far from unaware. ”There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come.” So a woman says to her daughter in the line that gave Munro’s best-known early book its title. Munro published those words in 1971, when that change had just begun to take hold, but her character speaks in the years immediately after World War II, and that gap or split is characteristic of her work as a whole. She writes from after the change about the world that was before. So the ”little bride” narrator of ”CortesIsland” notes that both she and her husband ”came from homes where unmarried sex was held to be disgusting and unforgivable. . . . We were right at the end of the time of looking at things that way, though we didn’t know it.”
Another story describes how ”30 years ago, a family was spending a holiday together on the east coast of Vancouver Island.” But that family’s young mother, Pauline, feels walled up by her schoolteacher husband and still more by his blustery parents. At home, she has begun an affair with the director of the local community theater, and when he now shows up she goes off with him, even though it means, as the story’s title puts it, that ”the children stay” behind. ”So her life was falling forwards; she was becoming one of those people who ran away.” And Munro’s triumph lies in the force with which she suggests not only the inner logic of Pauline’s decision but also its cost, the pain she must ”carry along and get used to until it’s only the past she’s grieving for and not any possible present.”
One can’t say that Munro has opened new territory for herself here. These stories may stand on the same high plateau of achievement as the finest pieces in such early collections as ”The Beggar Maid” and ”The Progress of Love,” but the moral geography of her fiction remains as familiar as its physical one. Nevertheless, ”The Love of a Good Woman” does clarify one’s sense of Munro’s work as a whole. Only one of these stories is rooted in the present, and though an element of retrospection has always been prominent in her work, never before has she seemed so autumnal, so concerned with mediating between the way we live now and the way we lived then.
Most of these stories look back to the years around 1960. Read together, they so reinforce one another as to amount to nothing less than the portrait of a generation: a generation that came to adulthood with one set of rules and then found it could live with another; a generation of women through whom the great turn of our times first quickened into life. Not that Munro often makes such explicit public claims; it seems uncharacteristically blunt of her to call one of these stories ”Before the Change.” Nevertheless, that title works for her account of a harrowing liberation, the story of a young woman who doesn’t realize that her doctor father is also an abortionist until she herself has had a child and given it up for adoption.
The dates tell me that this is Munro’s own generation. But her stories never feel autobiographical. And yet nothing here looks like a performance, either, a voice put on or ventriloquized. Her work has a motion that seems as natural as walking. As natural? Better say as complicated, and then add that these stories walk not only forward but backward and sideways as well. They are never just about one character, one situation. They open out, always, into other lives and other moments. These are stories marked by shifts in time or point of view that one barely notices, so unforced do they seem, until one reads the last pages and realizes that the story hasn’t taken the path it had at first appeared headed for, that its ostensible subject is not at all its real one.
The narrator of ”CortesIsland” turns away from her own circumstances to describe the mystery in the lives of the elderly couple who live upstairs, the secrets contained in an old newspaper account of a fatal house fire. But then she casually and briefly evokes her own later married life — ”the first house we owned, the second house. . . . Until the last . . . which I entered with inklings of disaster and the faintest premonitions of escape” — and so makes us understand that the old people’s marriage says something about her own, about the scenes of ”disaster” that she won’t in fact describe.
At such moments, Munro’s work has the dazzling but utterly illusory simplicity of the Wordsworth who, in lyrics like ”The Two April Mornings” and ”I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” could collapse one moment, one memory, into another with an unrivaled combination of clarity and subtlety.
”Jakarta” starts with a cold war friendship between two women, one wed to a pharmacist and the other, a would-be ballerina, to a radical journalist. Both marriages end, and decades later the pharmacist and his young third wife visit the dancer at her Oregon home. Munro will not, however, allow us to see one moment as the background to the other, to say that the story is about one and not the other. She gives both times equal weight, and it is indeed the skill, the combination of boldness and delicacy, with which she manages such narrative counterpoint that makes her ”material” seem so rich and historically resonant.
Yet at her best — her greatest — Munro can shuck off that formal balance. Nothing in this volume is finer than its long title story. On a Saturday morning in 1951, three boys discover the drowned body of the local optometrist, Mr. D. M. Willens. But it’s lunchtime, and instead of going directly to the police, the boys first return to their separate homes to eat; and in presenting the complicated reasons for their delay, Munro manages to articulate the entire social structure and moral history of the town in which they live. We then move to Enid, a practical nurse tending a certain Mrs. Quinn, a young farm wife whose ”kidneys were failing . . . drying up and turning into hard and useless granular lumps.” But the woman knows something about the optometrist’s death. Or, rather, she says she knows something, and at the end of the story Enid must decide what to do with what the now-dead Mrs. Quinn has told her — must decide how to respond to ”an entirely different possibility from the one she had been living with.” We never make it back to the boys on whom Munro spent the story’s first 30 pages. But that structural dissonance, that enormous loose end, is precisely what makes the story’s conclusion seem so large and enigmatic.
In one way or another, nearly all of Munro’s protagonists face the kind of decision that Enid does, a moment of choice before their lives harden into form. But every choice has its cost, a price that in Munro’s world one must forever pay, a price whose pain is ”chronic. . . . You won’t feel it every minute, but you won’t spend many days without it.” Long ago, Woolf described George Eliot as one of the few writers ”for grown-up people.” The same might today, and with equal justice, be said of Alice Munro.
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