NOVEMBER 6, 2013
When I had walked for over an hour, I saw a drugstore that was open. I went in and had a cup of coffee. The coffee was reheated, black and bitter — its taste was medicinal, exactly what I needed. I was already feeling relieved, and now I began to feel happy. Such happiness, to be alone. To see the hot late-afternoon light on the sidewalk outside, the branches of a tree just out in leaf, throwing their skimpy shadows. To hear from the back of the shop the sounds of the ball game that the man who had served me was listening to on the radio. I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida — not of that in particular — but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories. 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.
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.
— From “Family Furnishings”
On Alice Munro
SHORT STORIES have long been looked down on as the redheaded stepchild of fiction. For a long time it seemed, sadly, that the highest acclaim the great Alice Munro would ever garner would be the mantle of “our Chekov.” So, the news that she’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature (an honor Chekov never received) was a glorious surprise not only for Munro’s millions of fans and the writers and brave publishers of short stories, but for women writers all too often passed over for such prizes.
Here’s the lie: short stories are inferior to novels because, unable to contain the breadth and scope of a novel, they can’t be nearly as satisfying. Ha. As every Munro reader knows, her stories can easily span decades, move swiftly through space and time, pivot between points of view, and take on any number of forms. That she is able to pull all this off in the mode of conventional realism with unwavering authority is a marvel. She is an impeccable craftsman. There is never a thread in a Munro story, which, if pulled, will expose a hole in her universe. Never do you feel that Munro, as god of her fictive world, is playing favorites or that she seeks to judge or punish her characters; she is simply unwilling to change their destinies.
While I am continually struck by the tightness of Munro’s stories, one of the things I most admire, and for me what makes them so enduring, is that often the ending is left open. Even when the door shuts, there is light coming through the windows. The characters continue to breathe and live, just as we do.
I read her collection of linked stories, “Lives of Girls And Women,” in my early 20s. It was a revelation, Here, I thought, is my form — the novel in stories. The way Munro so skillfully connected the pieces of her main character’s life, deftly interweaving it with the lives of others, felt completely organic and necessary. It was one of the books that gave me the courage to write my first book, Use Me. In addition to its revelations about form, the ugly behavior of Munro’s female characters, particularly the discontented wives and mothers, struck a chord. After a lifetime of reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Melville and Roth, I discovered in Munro’s stories that the lives of girls and women — who appear unremarkable to the world, their lives dismissed as frivolous and unworthy of exploration — are just as vast, dark, and complicated as those of men.
Here were stories I wanted to read, stories where ordinary women — mothers, wives, daughters — experienced bouts of jealousy and rage, lied and cheated, felt great pain and inflicted it. They were also capable of mercy and tenderness and joy. These were the women I knew, these were the characters I wanted to write about.
While it is not my favorite Munro book, the title of her collection “Who Do You Think You Are?” is my favorite title. It’s a question I’ve not only asked but been asked my entire life. It’s a question that the culture puts to girls and women who get too big for their britches or color outside the lines: how dare you? But “Who Do You Think You Are?” can also be read, as this book demands, as a call for serious self-examination, Who do you think you are? Because that is what really matters: who you think you are. Your life matters. This is what Munro says to me, says to all readers, book after book.
That Munro should take home the Nobel, literature’s biggest prize, for writing about the richly complicated lives of ordinary people, and women specifically, honors not only Munro, but the value of those lives, too.
The Influence of Alice Munro
Recently, a friend of mine gave me a story of hers to read. The story was very nearly good: sensitive, quietly observant, perceptive about the compromises, fault lines, and foibles that make up a human life. But a pall hung over it. The language was timid and clipped. Abrupt jumps in time gave the narrative an aimless, desultory drift. All the action had been pushed offstage, to the white spaces, the gaps. A few bland sentences of summary heralded the end of a marriage; an offhand remark alluded to a baby’s death, now 30 years past. The prose rounded and smoothed and equalized where it should have been jagged and rough. The story, every word of it, had been detoothed.
“I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Munro,” my friend said, but her confession was unnecessary; I’d recognize the symptoms anywhere. We all love Alice Munro; we all want to write like her. Her Nobel Prize thrilled us; it was as if our team had won, as if we had won. Yet in reading my friend’s story, and reviewing the many poor drafts of stories I’ve written, I’ve realized that this strong sense of identification obscures the radical nature of Munro’s fiction. Her gifts are a tricky inheritance, catastrophic for a writer who blindly imitates, who fails to understand the sensibility behind her techniques.
Tom Perrotta, in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2012, writes, “The fact that it’s no longer considered risky, or even especially noteworthy, to tell a story from multiple perspectives — or to range freely across the expanse of a character’s life […] owes a lot to Munro’s formal daring, her insistence on smuggling the full range of novelistic technique into the writing of her short fiction.” As evidence, Perrotta cites two stories from his anthology, George Saunders’s “Tenth of December” and Edith Pearlman’s “Honeydew,” both stories I greatly admire, which nonetheless are not heirs to Munro as Perrotta claims. Superficially they may borrow from Munro’s “novelistic techniques,” but they do not share her deep, and deeply strange, approach to storytelling.
“The Tenth of December” flips between a man who has come to the winter woods to die and the sweet, dorky boy intent on saving him. The story says something small and true about courage and love; it is beautiful and profound. But it is not, as Perrotta claims, indebted to Munro. Munro does not change perspective simply to show two sides of the same dilemma. Her characters are not tethered to the main conflict, but rather adjacent to it. In “The Love of a Good Woman,” for instance, we have the three boys who discover the murdered man’s body, and then the nurse to the wife of the man who may or may not have committed the murder. The logic governing the multiple perspectives of a Munro tale is not as simple as a “he-said, she-said” split screen. Rather, the characters in a Munro story all live at perpendicular angles to each other.
Along with changes in perspective, the other signature Munro move is an abrupt and often large leap in time. Perrotta cites Edith Pearlman’s “Honeydew” as another example of a story evincing Munro’s influence: in the final paragraph of Pearlman’s story we leap forward in time. Yet the tone of this conclusion is one of judgment:
Richard eventually replaced Alice with an undemanding pathologist who already had a husband and children. The baby born to Alice had Paolo’s dark brows and golden eyes — surprising, maybe, until you remember that all humans look pretty much alike. And when Caldicott’s old fashioned housekeeper discovered Wolife and Adele embracing naked in Emily’s little room, and failed to keep her ancient mouth shut, Alice summoned a meeting of the trustees…
The tone is witty. It distances; it closes and resolves the story by revealing everyone’s fate. Contrast this with the final sentences of Munro’s “Carried Away”:
The town was full of the smell of horses. As evening came on, big blinkered horses with feathered hooves pulled the sleighs across the bridge, past the hotel, beyond the streetlights, down the dark side roads. Somewhere out in the country they would lose the sound of each other’s bells.
Specificity — smells, sights, sounds — and geography live here, rather than verdicts, and in that final phrase, what a lovely lift into poetry, the description of diminishing bells both apt for the sleighs and resonant with the arc of the preceding pages.
One of Munro’s great themes is courtship. Many of her stories follow a young woman as she nearly ends up with one man, but instead falls for another; or returns, after a flirtation or accident, to the first; or, most usually, whether she remains with the first or leaves him for the second or lives the rest of her life alone, finds that there is a difference among these choices, but not as much as she once thought. In the penultimate section of “Carried Away,” Louisa, confronted by the man she once wanted to marry, thinks, “Love dies all the time, or at any rate it becomes distracted, overlaid — it might as well be dead.” Confronted with the man she once so desperately wanted, she feels only impatience with his sentimentality. Love gets overlaid with life.
Similarly, in the final pages of “Axis,” Avie travels by train to visit her daughter. By chance Royce, an old boyfriend of an old friend, is sitting across from her. Delicately, they begin to discuss the past. As they talk — as he tells her that he saw her from a bus once, and wanted to ask her for a date, and she says, without hesitation, that she would have said yes — we sense what might have been.
“Wake me up before we’re into Kingston if I’ve gone to sleep,” Royce says, and Avie thinks to herself, “Not so far off from giving her automatic orders, like a husband.” With these lines Munro overturns the wistful regret of the previous paragraphs. Mooning over life’s ineffable conditionality is foolish, she seems to say. Men are men. Marriage is marriage.
But another reversal is still to come. Tentatively, Avie asks Royce if he ever tried to get in touch with Grace after their falling out. No, he says; “Not a good idea.” Avie realizes: “She has disappointed him. Prying. Trying to get at some spot of live regret right under the ribs. A woman.” The live regret, the prying, the wondering, are all part of what it means to be fully human in Munro’s fictional universe. Foolish though it may be, better to poke at the ribs like “a woman” than steer clear of live regret like self-satisfied, pompous Royce.
This equivocation, this note of wistful counterfactual balanced by a clear-eyed sense that such speculating is, at Royce would have it, “not a good idea,” points directly to why Munro returns again and again to courtship: not from any girlish interest in romance, but rather because the dance of desire and coincidence reveals the radical contingency of our lives. We see more clearly in mating what is in fact true for every situation: what could have been always exceeds reality.
This interest in the multiplicity of stories, the way that what is is always undergirded by a thousand might-have-beens, drives Munro’s leaps in time and perspective. In other authors’ hands, these techniques are employed to show what is: two characters in the immutable winter woods, or a serial adulterer and his pregnant mistress. Munro leaps to the end of a life not to reveal what happened to her heroine, but to illuminate the alternate realities as they cast their shadowy light over decades. Her story “Accident” ends thus:
If he had not gone out in the snow that day to take a baby carriage across town, Frances would not live in Ottawa now, she would not have her two children, she would not have her life, not the same life. That is true […] What difference, thinks Frances. She doesn’t know where the thought comes from or what it means, for of course there is a difference, anybody can see that, a life’s difference. She’s had her love, her scandal, her man, her children. But inside she’s ticking away, all by herself, the same Frances who was there before any of it.
Not altogether the same, surely.
I’ll be as bad as Mother when I get old, she thinks, turning eagerly to greet somebody. Never mind. She has a way to go yet.
In her Paris Review interview, Munro explains that she tried to write a novel, but she “never saw things hanging together any too well.” The comment is self-deprecating, and yet also a sly brag. Life doesn’t hang together very well, but most writers write as if it does. They believe in beginnings and endings, causes and effects, stories as we conventionally understand them. But Munro, master of the short story, does not believe in these kinds of stories. She shifts her angles and time periods in order to illuminate all the ghosts that crowd every story, all the other beginnings and endings that cry out for legitimacy.
Most writers copy Munro’s technical tricks without absorbing the particular worldview that generates these tricks. Hers is a singular vision, and the true way that she has shaped literature will not be apparent now, with her rather literal imitators, but rather in the decades to come, when we recognize in some other young genius an analogous relation to time, chance, and fate. In the meantime, we may copy her moves, but the dance is entirely her own.