Benjamin De Mott
Alice Munro has held high rank among contemporary short story writers since publication of ”The Beggar Maid” (1979), which was admired by Maxine Hong Kingston and John Gardner, among others; ”The Moons of Jupiter,” her fourth collection of stories, is a stronger book than ”The Beggar Maid.” Witty, subtle, passionate, it’s exceptionally knowledgeable about the content and movement – the entanglements and entailments – of individual human feeling. And the knowledge it offers can’t be looked up elsewhere.
It’s true that the heroines Alice Munro usually chooses – women nearing or in their 40’s who are negotiating difficult passages in domestic or sexual life – occupy situations frequently treated in fiction. In ”Dulse” an editor and poet named Lydia seeks ground on which to rebuild a conviction of self-worth, following the end of an affair with a man adept at humiliating her. In ”Accident” Frances, a mother of two who’s obliged by a family crisis to relive the events culminating in the breakup of her present husband’s first marriage, is shaken to discover that for half a lifetime she’s been exaggerating -with harmful effect – the momentousness of these events and the uniqueness of her own person. Text:
In another story Roberta, divorced and living with George, who’s much younger than she, has inklings that her man ”is disgusted by her aging body.” (”What is be done? Now the payment is due, and what for? For vanity. Hardly even for that. Just for having these pleasing surfaces once, and letting them speak for you; just for allowing an arrangement of hair and shoulders and breasts to have its effect.”) In yet another tale Prudence in her late 40’s is informed, in the space of a single minute, that her man thinks he’s in love with a younger woman and that he also thinks he’d like to marry Prudence ”in a few years’ time.” (”After you get over being in love?” ”Yes.”)
Nothing startling here, obviously. The freshness of Mrs. Munro’s literary performance has little to do with situation, everything to do with character. Shrewd, amused, selfaware, each of the book’s heroines is perfectly capable of recognizing and regretting a mistake or indiscretion – a decision, say, to tell a funny story about Duncan, ”a man I used to live with,” while playing cards, on a summer evening in the kitchen of an island inn, with a trio of telephone company workmen. After the event, indeed, a Munro heroine can produce a splendidly competent analysis both of the mistake and its cause: ”Hadn’t she told this (funny story) simply to establish that … she had recently had a man, and an interesting man, an amusing and adventurous man? She wanted to assure (the trio of workmen) that she was not always alone, going on her aimless travels. She had to show herself attached. A mistake. … She shouldn’t even have said that Duncan was a man she had lived with. All that could mean, to them, was that she was a woman who had slept with a man she was not married to.”
BUT Mrs. Munro’s women are also capable of relishing an indiscretion. They’re risk takers at heart, plucky, independent, sexually vibrant. They’re people one knows exist even though, for some reason, they fail to surface at parties, mixed doubles, carol sings or during office hours. One knows they exist in number because one keeps seeing them clearly two rows ahead on airplanes, or way over in the back, on the right, in somebody else’s lecture room. Their intelligence beckons, not merely their recklessness; they’re likable not alone for the dangers they have passed but for their alertness to the pleasure of the passage itself, both the before and after.
To be sure, there are other pleasures in this book. The author, a Canadian by birth, education and residence, is a gifted evoker of place – from suburban Toronto to the hell-and-gone north country wherein each mark of human habitation somehow stands forth as an impenetrable mystery. She’s also an uncommonly powerful summoner of passionate physical encounter. (No hint of the ”sex scene” as doit-yourself plumbing manual pollutes these pages, but lovemaking that’s steamy, furious and magnificent is repeatedly brought to life.) Occasionally the author fails to curb the garrulousness of one of her first-person narrators; occasionally – as in a story called ”Visitors,” about boring relatives – her comic bits seem predictable. But in the main her sense of style and craft is impeccable, and students of short fiction will find that the pacing and freedom of modulation of a half dozen of these 11 tales repay earnest scrutiny.
As does the knowledge of human feeling that I’ve already mentioned. In ”The Moons of Jupiter” moments of feeling are known as favorite rooms are known, undemonstratively but considerately. They’re lived into as views and curtailments of view, as currents in which the warm and the unwelcome, sunlight and drafts, come mixed. A daughter seeks to acknowledge her husband’s kindness to her mother by touching his arm, and the observing mother remarks: ”I knew that touch – an apology, an anxious reassurance. You touch a man that way to remind him that you are grateful, that you realize he is doing for your sake something that bores him or slightly endangers his dignity.” Nice. But this is an Alice Munro story, so for the length of another instant we work in closer to the grain: ”It made me feel older than grandchildren would,” the narrator adds, ”to see my daughter touch a man – a boy – this way. I felt her sad jitters, could predict her supple attentions.”
It’s the same when this writer, seldom sentimental yet never mean, takes us inside the experience of letting go – accepting the end of a human connection: ”When you start really letting go this is what it’s like. A lick of pain, furtive, darting up where you don’t expect it. Then a lightness. The lightness is something to think about. It isn’t just relief. There’s a queer kind of pleasure in it, not a self-wounding or malicious pleasure, nothing personal at all. It’s an uncalled-for pleasure in seeing how the design wouldn’t fit and the structure wouldn’t stand, a pleasure in taking into account, all over again, everything that is contradictory and persistent and unaccommodating about life. I think so. I think there’s something in us wanting to be reassured about all that, right alongside – and at war with – whatever there is that wants permanent vistas and a lot of fine talk.”
QUOTING these words as though an extraordinary and instantly detachable wisdom resided in them is of course silly. The passage occurs close to the end of a story in which, for 20 pages, we’ve lived inside the stages of a uniquely individual letting-go cycle; the resonance of the words is incrementally earned through incident, observation, concern focused not only upon the ”I” character but upon an attractive and interesting Other as well. The point is simply that, in their context, the words do in fact resonate. One comprehends the feeling they seek to evoke and one doubts that its nuances have hitherto been as precisely registered. Alice Munro at her best is an engrossingly truthful ”taker into account”; rewards await readers unacquainted with her work.
‘Runaway’: Alice’s Wonderland
Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership. At the risk of sounding like a pleader on behalf of yet another underappreciated writer — and maybe you’ve learned to recognize and evade these pleas? The same way you’ve learned not to open bulk mail from certain charities? Please give generously to Dawn Powell? Your contribution of just 15 minutes a week can help assure Joseph Roth of his rightful place in the modern canon? — I want to circle around Munro’s latest marvel of a book, ”Runaway,” by taking some guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.
1. Munro’s work is all about storytelling pleasure. The problem here being that many buyers of serious fiction seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux-literary stuff.
2. As long as you’re reading Munro, you’re failing to multitask by absorbing civics lessons or historical data. Her subject is people. People people people. If you read fiction about some enriching subject like Renaissance art or an important chapter in our nation’s history, you can be assured of feeling productive. But if the story is set in the modern world, and if the characters’ concerns are familiar to you, and if you become so involved with a book that you can’t put it down at bedtime, there exists a risk that you’re merely being entertained.
3. She doesn’t give her books grand titles like ”Canadian Pastoral,” ”Canadian Psycho,” ”Purple Canada,” ”In Canada” or ”The Plot Against Canada.” Also, she refuses to render vital dramatic moments in convenient discursive summary. Also, her rhetorical restraint and her excellent ear for dialogue and her almost pathological empathy for her characters have the costly effect of obscuring her authorial ego for many pages at a stretch. Also, her jacket photos show her smiling pleasantly, as if the reader were a friend, rather than wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent.
4. The Swedish Royal Academy is taking a firm stand. Evidently, the feeling in Stockholm is that too many Canadians and too many pure short-story writers have already been given the Nobel. Enough is enough!
5. Munro writes fiction, and fiction is harder to review than nonfiction. Here’s Bill Clinton, he’s written a book about himself, and how interesting. How interesting. The author himself is interesting — can there be a better qualification for writing a book about Bill Clinton than actually being Bill Clinton? — and then, too, everybody has an opinion about Bill Clinton and wonders what Bill Clinton says and doesn’t say in his new book about himself, and how Bill Clinton spins this and refutes that, and before you know it the review has practically written itself.
But who is Alice Munro? She is the remote provider of intensely pleasurable private experiences. And since I’m not interested in reviewing her new book’s marketing campaign or in being entertainingly snarky at her expense, and since I’m reluctant to talk about the concrete meaning of her new work, because this is difficult to do without revealing too much plot, I’m probably better off just serving up a nice quote for Alfred A. Knopf to pull — ”Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America. ‘Runaway’ is a marvel” — and suggesting to the Book Review’s editors that they run the biggest possible photograph of Munro in the most prominent of places, plus a few smaller photos of mildly prurient interest (her kitchen? her children?) and maybe a quote from one of her rare interviews — ”Because there is this kind of exhaustion and bewilderment when you look at your work. . . . All you really have left is the thing you’re working on now. And so you’re much more thinly clothed. You’re like somebody out in a little shirt or something, which is just the work you’re doing now and the strange identification with everything you’ve done before. And this probably is why I don’t take any public role as a writer. Because I can’t see myself doing that except as a gigantic fraud” — and just leave it at that.
6. Because, worse yet, Munro is a pure short-story writer. And with short stories the challenge to reviewers is even more extreme. Is there a story in all of world literature whose appeal can survive the typical synopsis? (A chance meeting on a boardwalk in Yalta brings together a bored husband and a lady with a little dog. . . . A small town’s annual lottery is revealed to serve a rather surprising purpose. . . . A middle-aged Dubliner leaves a party and reflects on life and love. . . .) Oprah Winfrey will not touch story collections. Discussing them is so challenging, indeed, that one can almost forgive this Book Review’s former editor, Charles McGrath, for his recent comparison of young short-story writers to ”people who learn golf by never venturing onto a golf course but instead practicing at a driving range.” The real game being, by this analogy, the novel.
McGrath’s prejudice is shared by nearly all commercial publishers, for whom a story collection is, most frequently, the distasteful front-end write-off in a two-book deal whose back end is contractually forbidden to be another story collection. And yet, despite the short story’s Cinderella status, or maybe because of it, a high percentage of the most exciting fiction written in the last 25 years — the stuff I immediately mention if somebody asks me what’s terrific — has been short fiction. There’s the Great One herself, naturally. There’s also Lydia Davis, David Means, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel and the late Raymond Carver — all of them pure or nearly pure short-story writers — and then a larger group of writers who have achievements in multiple genres (John Updike, Joy Williams, David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson, Ann Beattie, William T. Vollmann, Tobias Wolff, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, Tom Drury, the late Andre Dubus) but who seem to me most at home, most undilutedly themselves, in their shorter work. There are also, to be sure, some very fine pure novelists. But when I close my eyes and think about literature in recent decades, I see a twilight landscape in which many of the most inviting lights, the sites that beckon me to return for a visit, are shed by particular short stories I’ve read.
I like stories because they leave the writer no place to hide. There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it. I like stories because they’re usually set in the present or in living memory; the genre seems to resist the historical impulse that makes so many contemporary novels feel fugitive or cadaverous. I like stories because it takes the best kind of talent to invent fresh characters and situations while telling the same story over and over. All fiction writers suffer from the condition of having nothing new to say, but story writers are the ones most abjectly prone to this condition. There is, again, no hiding. The craftiest old dogs, like Munro and William Trevor, don’t even try.
HERE’S the story that Munro keeps telling: A bright, sexually avid girl grows up in rural Ontario without much money, her mother is sickly or dead, her father is a schoolteacher whose second wife is problematic, and the girl, as soon as she can, escapes from the hinterland by way of a scholarship or some decisive self-interested act. She marries young, moves to British Columbia, raises kids, and is far from blameless in the breakup of her marriage. She may have success as an actress or a writer or a TV personality; she has romantic adventures. When, inevitably, she returns to Ontario, she finds the landscape of her youth unsettlingly altered. Although she was the one who abandoned the place, it’s a great blow to her narcissism that she isn’t warmly welcomed back — that the world of her youth, with its older-fashioned manners and mores, now sits in judgment on the modern choices she has made. Simply by trying to survive as a whole and independent person, she has incurred painful losses and dislocations; she has caused harm.
And that’s pretty much it. That’s the little stream that’s been feeding Munro’s work for better than 50 years. The same elements recur and recur like Clare Quilty. What makes Munro’s growth as an artist so crisply and breathtakingly visible — throughout the ”Selected Stories” and even more so in her three latest books — is precisely the familiarity of her materials. Look what she can do with nothing but her own small story; the more she returns to it, the more she finds.
This is not a golfer on a practice tee. This is a gymnast in a plain black leotard, alone on a bare floor, outperforming all the novelists with their flashy costumes and whips and elephants and tigers.
”The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless,” Munro told her interviewer. ”I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
SHE was stating the fundamental axiom of literature, the core of its appeal. And, for whatever reason — the fragmentation of my reading time, the distractions and atomizations of contemporary life or, perhaps, a genuine paucity of compelling novels — I find that when I’m in need of a hit of real writing, a good stiff drink of paradox and complexity, I’m likeliest to encounter it in short fiction. Besides ”Runaway,” the most compelling contemporary fiction I’ve read in recent months has been Wallace’s stories in ”Oblivion” and a stunner of a collection by the British writer Helen Simpson. Simpson’s book, a series of comic shrieks on the subject of modern motherhood, was published originally as ”Hey Yeah Right Get a Life” — a title you would think needed no improvement. But the book’s American packagers set to work improving it, and what did they come up with? ”Getting a Life.” Consider this dismal gerund the next time you hear an American publisher insisting that story collections never sell.
7. Munro’s short stories are even harder to review than other people’s short stories.
More than any writer since Chekhov, Munro strives for and achieves, in each of her stories, a gestaltlike completeness in the representation of a life. She always had a genius for developing and unpacking moments of epiphany. But it’s in the three collections since ”Selected Stories” (1996) that she’s taken the really big, world-class leap and become a master of suspense. The moments she’s pursuing now aren’t moments of realization; they’re moments of fateful, irrevocable, dramatic action. And what this means for the reader is you can’t even begin to guess at a story’s meaning until you’ve followed every twist; it’s always the last page or two that switches all lights on.
Meanwhile, as her narrative ambitions have grown, she’s become ever less interested in showing off. Her early work was full of big rhetoric, eccentric detail, arresting phrases. (Check out her 1977 story ”Royal Beatings.”) But as her stories have come to resemble classical tragedies in prose form, it’s not only as if she no longer has room for inessentials, it’s as if it would be actively jarring, mood-puncturing — an aesthetic and moral betrayal — for her writerly ego to intrude on the pure story.
Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.
But suspense and purity, which are a gift to the reader, present problems for the reviewer. Basically, ”Runaway” is so good that I don’t want to talk about it here. Quotation can’t do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it.
In fulfillment of my reviewerly duties, I would like to offer, instead, this one-sentence teaser for the last story in Munro’s previous collection, ”Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” (2001): A woman with early Alzheimer’s enters a care facility, and by the time her husband is allowed to visit her, after a 30-day adjustment period, she has found a ”boyfriend” among the other patients and shows no interest in the husband.
This is not a bad premise for a story. But what begins to make it distinctively Munrovian is that, years ago, back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the husband, Grant, had affair after affair with other women. It’s only now, for the first time, that the old betrayer is being betrayed. And does Grant finally come to regret those affairs? Well, no, not at all. Indeed, what he remembers from that phase of his life is ”mainly a gigantic increase in well-being.” He never felt more alive than when he was cheating on the wife, Fiona. It tears him up, of course, to visit the facility now and to see Fiona and her ”boyfriend” so openly tender with each other and so indifferent to him. But he’s even more torn up when the boyfriend’s wife removes him from the facility and takes him home. Fiona is devastated, and Grant is devastated on her behalf.
And here is the trouble with a capsule summary of a Munro story. The trouble is I want to tell you what happens next. Which is that Grant goes to see the boyfriend’s wife to ask if she might take the boyfriend back to visit Fiona at the facility. And that it’s here that you realize that what you thought the story was about — all the pregnant stuff about Alzheimer’s and infidelity and late-blooming love — was actually just the setup: that the story’s great scene is between Grant and the boyfriend’s wife. And that the wife, in this scene, refuses to let her husband see Fiona. That her reasons are ostensibly practical but subterraneanly moral and spiteful.
And here my attempt at capsule summary breaks down altogether, because I can’t begin to suggest the greatness of the scene if you don’t have a particular, vivid sense of the two characters and how they speak and think. The wife, Marian, is narrower-minded than Grant. She has a perfect, spotless suburban house that she won’t be able to afford if her husband returns to the facility. This house, not romance, is what matters to her. She hasn’t had the same advantages, either economic or emotional, that Grant has had, and her obvious lack of privilege occasions a passage of classic Munrovian introspection as Grant drives back to his own house.
Their conversation had ”reminded him of conversations he’d had with people in his own family. His uncles, his relatives, probably even his mother, had thought the way Marian thought. They had believed that when other people did not think that way it was because they were kidding themselves — they had got too airy-fairy, or stupid, on account of their easy and protected lives or their education. They had lost touch with reality. Educated people, literary people, some rich people like Grant’s socialist in-laws had lost touch with reality. Due to an unmerited good fortune or an innate silliness. . . .
”What a jerk, she would be thinking now.
”Being up against a person like that made him feel hopeless, exasperated, finally almost desolate. Why? Because he couldn’t be sure of holding on to himself against that person? Because he was afraid that in the end they’d be right?”
I end this quotation unwillingly. I want to keep quoting, and not just little bits but whole passages, because it turns out that what my capsule summary requires, at a minimum, in order to do justice to the story — the ”things within things,” the interplay of class and morality, of desire and fidelity, of character and fate — is exactly what Munro herself has already written on the page. The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself.
Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro! Except that I must tell you — cannot not tell you, now that I’ve started — that when Grant arrives home after his unsuccessful appeal to Marian, there’s a message from Marian on his answering machine, inviting him to a dance at the Legion hall.
Also: that Grant has already been checking out Marian’s breasts and her skin and likening her, in his imagination, to a less than satisfying litchi: ”The flesh with its oddly artificial allure, its chemical taste and perfume, shallow over the extensive seed, the stone.”
Also: that, some hours later, while Grant is still reassessing Marian’s attractions, his telephone rings again and his machine picks up: ”Grant. This is Marian. I was down in the basement putting the wash in the dryer and I heard the phone and when I got upstairs whoever it was had hung up. So I just thought I ought to say I was here. If it was you and if you are even home.”
And this still isn’t the ending. The story is 49 pages long — the size of a whole life, in Munro’s hands — and another turn is coming. But look how many ”things within things” the author already has uncovered: Grant the loving husband, Grant the cheater, Grant the husband so loyal that he’s willing, in effect, to pimp for his wife, Grant the despiser of proper housewives, Grant the self-doubter who grants that proper housewives may be right to despise him. It’s Marian’s second phone call, however, that provides the true measure of Munro’s writerly character. To imagine this call, you can’t be too enraged with Marian’s moral strictures. Nor can you be too ashamed of Grant’s laxity. You have to forgive everybody and damn no one. Otherwise you’ll overlook the low probabilities, the odd chances, that crack a life wide open: the possibility, for example, that Marian in her loneliness might be attracted to a silly liberal man.
And this is just one story. There are stories in ”Runaway” that are even better than this one — bolder, bloodier, deeper, broader — and that I’ll be happy to synopsize as soon as Munro’s next book is published.
Or, but, wait, one tiny glimpse into ”Runaway”: What if the person offended by Grant’s liberality — by his godlessness, his self-indulgence, his vanity, his silliness — weren’t some unhappy stranger but Grant’s own child? A child whose judgment feels like the judgment of a whole culture, a whole country, that has lately taken to embracing absolutes?
What if the great gift you’ve given your child is personal freedom, and what if the child, when she turns 21, uses this gift to turn around and say to you: your freedom makes me sick, and so do you?
8. Hatred is entertaining. The great insight of media-age extremists. How else to explain the election of so many repellent zealots, the disintegration of political civility, the ascendancy of Fox News? First the fundamentalist bin Laden gives George Bush an enormous gift of hatred, then Bush compounds that hatred through his own fanaticism, and now one half of the country believes that Bush is crusading against the Evil One while the other half (and most of the world) believes that Bush is the Evil One. There’s hardly anybody who doesn’t hate somebody now, and nobody at all whom somebody doesn’t hate. Whenever I think about politics, my pulse rate jumps as if I’m reading the last chapter of an airport thriller, as if I’m watching Game Seven of a Sox-Yankees series. It’s like entertainment-as-nightmare-as-everyday-life.
Can a better kind of fiction save the world? There’s always some tiny hope (strange things do happen), but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul. If you’re unhappy about the hatred that’s been unleashed in your heart, you might try imagining what it’s like to be the person who hates you; you might consider the possibility that you are, in fact, the Evil One yourself; and, if this is difficult to imagine, then you might try spending a few evenings with the most dubious of Canadians. Who, at the end of her classic story ”The Beggar Maid,” in which the heroine, Rose, catches sight of her ex-husband in an airport concourse, and the ex-husband makes a childish, hideous face at her, and Rose wonders ”How could anybody hate Rose so much, at the very moment when she was ready to come forward with her good will, her smiling confession of exhaustion, her air of diffident faith in civilized overtures?”
She is speaking to you and to me right here, right now.
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