By now, Alice Munro has established a territory as her own so completely, you wonder that the Canadian Tourist Board doesn’t run bus tours there.
Perhaps they do, even though it presents an appearance more characteristic than inviting. To think of her world is to think of lonely houses at the edge of bleak, small towns; of unsatisfied backrooms looking over muddy fields; of suburbs, making do; of institutions imposed on half-made landscapes, and human disappointment reflected in the world about her characters.
It is classic short-story territory, and over the years Munro has carved a substantial reputation without venturing very far from what she does best; the classic short story of disappointment and epiphany, in the landscape she knows and understands. She now says she has written only one novel, as long ago as 1971, but one exercise in interlinking stories in a volume, The Beggar Maid, convinced the Booker judges in 1980 that here was a new sort of novel. (She won the International Booker Prize, for an entire oeuvre, earlier this year). In reality, she is an expert in the shorter form and is wise not to stray.
This collection is (mostly) as strong and vivid as ever. A woman is bound by a sense of duty to her insane and incarcerated husband, the murderer of her children, until one day a random accident on her journey to visit him seems to free her from obligation. We are free to conclude, as she bends over a stranger lying in the ditch, that what fulfils her nature is a Magdalen-like need to serve, and it hardly matters who benefits from her charity. In another story, the memory of her collapsed marriage in early life returns to the much-remarried wife, many years later, in the form of the daughter of her first husband’s mistress. The woman, a music teacher, hardly noticed her at the time; she becomes aware of her when the girl, now grown up, writes a whole book about the music teacher’s kindness, how central she was to the girl’s life. The brilliantly Munrovian development is that, in reality, the girl writer is posturing about her emotional debt; when the older woman queues to get her book signed at an event and tries to talk to the girl, she gets the brush-off, hardly recognised. Gestures of kindness, again, are seen as fulfilling enough, or, at any rate, as much as anyone can expect.
Children are some of Munro’s most rewarding subjects, and she has an acute eye for how tiresome, as well as how nasty — a rather easier subject — they can be. In ‘Deep Holes’, a boring, nasty show-off of a little boy gets a horrible come-uppance, which shapes his entire life. Several of these stories cover a substantial stretch of time, and one of Munro’s gifts is for creating a convincing adult out of childish beginnings. The adult Kent, who disappears for years before coming back into his mother’s life, full of thick mystical spoutings, is boring and nasty in a completely different way to his childhood nature; we see how an accident both brings out and changes a fundamental nature. It is quite something, on the part of the writer, to have succeeded in withdrawing so much sympathy for a difficult and carefully described life.
Such long stretches of time in the shorter form require some formal virtuosity. Munro, though devoted to the classical form and subjects, is a long way from the familiar five-episodes-and-a-coda structure of the routine short story. The story about the music teacher is sharply divided in two, and the second half embarks on a wonderfully joyous description of a family party; it reminds me somewhat of that great masterpiece, Chekhov’s ‘Doctor Startsev’ in reverse formation. Other stories unspool in a single movement, lightly punctuated by memory. Always, it is a gift for the humane observation and the specific, plausible detail which keeps the story alive. There is, too, a commitment to class distinctions, which are often, as much as anything, intellectual distinctions. ‘Face’ culminates in an act of childhood cruelty, but it derives much of its energy from an understated but never unquestioned division between the narrator’s pampering, anxious mother and the slapdash housekeeping of the place from which the act of cruelty emerges.
She and Nancy ate peculiar foods at irregular hours, and when she went into the kitchen to fix herself a snack, she never came back with cocoa or Graham crackers for us. On the other hand, Nancy was never forbidden to spoon vegetable soup, thick as pudding, out of the can, or to grab handfuls of Rice Krispies straight from the box.
All of this is saved from any suggestion of snobbery by Munro’s unmistakably cheerful fascination in human nature, even at its most moronic and vulgar:
Edie did not believe in evolution. Why not? ‘Well, it’s because in those Bible countries … they have a lot of monkeys and the monkeys were always swinging down from the trees and that’s how people got the idea that monkeys just swung down and turned into people.’
Munro’s reputation among the cognoscenti is now all but unquestioned. (Susan Hill, in her forthcoming and very amiable account of a year’s reading at home, does say that she finds a ‘sameness’ about her stories, and I must say in partial agreement that I wouldn’t read a Collected Munro from cover to cover, in the way that one could a Collected William Trevor or a V. S. Pritchett). There is some unevenness here, however; one story about the murder by two girls of a mentally handicapped classmate is excellently done, but the subject is a favourite one of American writing, and has an inevitably routine aspect. And the final story is a disaster, venturing from recent Canada to historical Russia. It falls completely flat, is utterly lifeless and undistinguished. The characters just sit there: Munro’s fine gift for dialogue completely deserts her — ‘He still thinks of you as the little girl on our doorstep, even though he gives great credit to your achievements and takes pride in your great success.’ All right: she is permitted to do something like this once. But never again: and, please, Chatto, persuade her to remove this blot on a fine volume before the paperback comes out.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 22, 2009Tags: Fiction, Short story