There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental. She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people – ‘people people people’, as Jonathan Franzen puts it.
Ordinary people turn out to live in a rural corner of Ontario between Toronto and Lake Huron, and to be white, Christian, prudish and dangling on a class rung somewhere between genteel poverty and middle-class comfort. Occasionally they move to the vicinity of Vancouver, only to go back to Ontario again. If this patch of the North Country sounds like a provincial cage, just think of it as a Canadian Yoknapatawpha County, and ignore the ways the plainspoken Munro is otherwise anti-Faulknerian. (‘I didn’t really like Faulkner that much,’ she has said.) It might be too much to call her an anti-modernist, rather than someone on whom modernism didn’t leave much of an impression, but her conventionality – a writer ‘of the old school’ in Anne Tyler’s phrase – won’t quite do. For her admirers it needs to be offset by some kind of innovation. They usually point to her manipulation of time – her tic of adding a coda to a story, marked usually by the words ‘years later’ – as if she were the Doctor Who of upmarket short story writing. Her great theme is said to be memory, and there’s certainly something universal about remembering. ‘That Alice Munro, now 81,’ Charles McGrath, her first editor at the New Yorker, wrote recently in the New York Times, ‘is one of the great short story writers not just of our time but of any time ought to go without saying by now.’ ‘Alice Munro,’ James Wood wrote in the LRB in 1997 on the publication of her Selected Stories, ‘is such a good writer that nobody bothers anymore to judge her goodness … her reputation is like a good address.’
It’s an address I wouldn’t want to move to, and I didn’t enjoy my recent visit. But the impulse to say that makes me wonder whether I’m some sort of big city chauvinist, or a misogynist, or autistic, or a decadent reader deaf to the charms of simple sentences, perfectly polished (‘Alice Munro excites the writer in me,’ A.S. Byatt says, ‘there is something new to learn from her in every sentence’) and perfectly humourless. Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder. I grew attuned to the ways life is shabby or grubby, words that come up all the time in her stories, as well as to people’s residential and familial histories, details she never leaves out. How many rooms are in the house, and what sort of furniture and who used to own it and what is everybody wearing? To ask these questions is to live your life like a work of realism. I saw everyone heading towards cancer, or a case of dementia that would rob them of the memories of the little adulteries they’d probably committed and must have spent their whole lives thinking about. ‘You’re reading them the wrong way,’ someone told me. This too ought to go without saying. Munro’s stories suffer when they’re collected because the right way to read them is in a magazine, where they can be tucked between, say, a report on the war in Syria and a reconsideration of Stefan Zweig to provide a rural interlude between current atrocities and past masterpieces, or profiles of celebrities or sophisticated entrepreneurs. A slice of sad life in the sticks, filtered through an enlightened eye and most likely set ‘in the old days’, as the first line of one of the stories in her new collection, Dear Life, puts it. It’s perhaps her consistency that her admirers cherish: ‘like butterscotch pudding on the boil’.
Munro started out as an epiphany-monger. The stories in her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), build to sentences where the awful sadness of everything suddenly becomes clear. In ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’, a young girl realises that her father must once have been in love with a woman he couldn’t marry because of small-town anti-Catholic bigotry:
So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.
Rhetoric of this sort would soon be purged from Munro’s style, but in a way the ricketiness of her sentences here makes them more interesting than the evenly planed boards that followed. And the slow way the stories make their single-minded march towards precious (if a bit obvious) epiphanies is a relief from Munro’s later tendency to heap on details for details’ sake and load up her stories with false leads. The dourness of Dance of the Happy Shades would be modulated into something easier to call sorrowful, or self-pitying. ‘An Ounce of Cure’ introduces the ‘years later’-type coda: on the last page, a woman, now ‘married several years’, returns home for a funeral and catches sight of a high school crush. Back then, he reminded her of Mr Darcy, and his inattention drove her to an embarrassing alcoholic binge. He’s now a mortician, ‘very nice-looking in those black clothes’. Looking at Darcy the undertaker, she thinks: ‘I am a grown-up woman now; let him unbury his own catastrophes.’ Munro’s retrospective technique isn’t without its score-settling.
A novel in the form of interlocked stories, Lives of Girls and Women, followed in 1971. It’s narrated by a young, bookish girl, living, as Munro did, in a house at the end of a dead-end road at the edge of a ‘half-village’, and its opening episode – about a good-hearted eccentric simpleton who acquires a deranged wife through an ad in the newspaper – establishes the way Munro writes about the ‘freakish’ (her word). She’s often applauded for telling stories from odd angles, but what that usually amounts to is telling the story from the point of view of a timid and awkward but also responsible and perhaps even precocious young person: an authorial stand-in, someone normal and able to understand the misery of one of her freakish characters’ pathetic lives better than they ever could. The title story of her next collection, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), is set around the time of the First World War, when her parents were coming of age, morals were tighter, diseases more malicious, medicine less effective. She has returned to this era again and again.
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo & Rose (1978) follows a woman, Rose, whose life trajectory bears similarities to Munro’s: a hardscrabble childhood in Ontario; devotion to schoolwork and high social anxiety at school; a scholarship to a provincial university; a romance there that leads to an early marriage, decampment to the suburbs of Vancouver, and immediate motherhood; a middle-class existence that renders the husband stiff, even a bit right-wing; a yearning for a more bohemian milieu; adultery of an unsatisfying sort with an artsy fellow; rupture, divorce, squabbles over child custody; temporary self-imposed exile to some snowbound outpost in the middle of Canada where the singles scene isn’t exactly hopping and desperate loneliness ensues; a return to Ontario, more bad love affairs, and the caretaking of an ageing parent; a lucky break that leads to an exceptional career and something like fame. There are differences between Munro and Rose: Rose’s mother died in her infancy and Flo is her stepmother and, it’s hinted, a lower-class person than either Rose’s birth mother or Munro’s real mother, a teacher who put on airs that alienated both her in-laws and her own family; Rose becomes, in the end, an actress on stage and television, not a distinguished author. But questions of autobiographical lifting are beside the point; Munro’s always been upfront about using ‘bits and pieces’ from real life, and who would care about the specifics aside from the gossip columnists on the local paper?
What’s significant about The Beggar Maid, an advance on the epiphanies of the first book, is the hardening of Munro’s most trusted story-generating procedure: Rose observes something, then experiences something else herself, and years later another thing happens that connects the two incidents and imbues them with meaning. In ‘Royal Beatings’, a local man, rumoured to have impregnated his crippled daughter and then killed the baby, is horsewhipped and run out of town, to die in Toronto. This is juxtaposed with Rose’s own beatings at the hands of her father, which are encouraged by Flo, who immediately regrets it. ‘Years later, many years later’ Rose hears one of the horsewhippers, now 102, being interviewed on the radio: ‘It was a different kind of place in our day. Yes it was. It was all horses then. Horses and buggies … Used to be a-plenty of accidents. Fellows was dragged along on the gravel and cut their face open. Wouldna matter so much if they was dead. Heh.’ In other words, Rose grew up in a brutal place at a brutal time, and that’s the way she should understand the beatings. She wants to tell Flo about the interview, but Flo is confined to an old people’s home, where she no longer speaks and occasionally bites the nurse.
‘Mischief’ is the adultery story in The Beggar Maid: in the maternity ward Rose, whose husband, a former graduate student in history, is now running his family’s department store, befriends a woman called Jocelyn who is connected to the university scene in Vancouver. One of their jokes involves starting sentences with the phrase ‘I’m no prude but …’ Clifford, Jocelyn’s husband and a musician, kisses Rose at a party, and they start an affair that involves snogging in cafés and a logistically awkward rendezvous in a town where Clifford is playing in a concert. He gets cold feet and the affair is never consummated. Years later, Rose is divorced and living in rural Ontario, and Jocelyn and Clifford have moved to Toronto. They’re all in their forties and their children have grown up. Jocelyn and Clifford invite Rose over for occasional long nights of drinking; they also have it out in front of her about their marital dissatisfactions. One night after a party:
‘What can we do?’ said Rose. ‘We shouldn’t drink anymore.’
‘We could make love,’ Clifford said.
Jocelyn and Rose said, ‘Really?’ at exactly the same time. Then they linked their little fingers and said, ‘Smoke goes up the chimney.’
Following which, Clifford removed their clothes. They didn’t shiver, it was warm in front of the fire. Clifford kept switching his attention nicely from one to the other. He got out of his own clothes as well. Rose felt curious, disbelieving, hardly willing, slightly aroused and, at some level she was too sluggish to reach for, appalled and sad. Though Clifford paid preliminary homage to them both, she was the one he finally made love to, rather quickly on the nubbly hooked rug.
Poor Rose! For the rest of the book her assignations and affairs are either botched by snowstorms or cut short because the man dies of cancer without calling her back. She sees her ex-husband in an airport and he looks shrivelled and full of hatred for her. ‘At some level’, sex will always appal her: she can’t help it – it’s her prudish upbringing. The emotional authenticity of Rose’s travails is undeniable, but heaped one on top of the other, they turn maudlin. And Munro’s incessant reworking of the material in The Beggar Maid has had the odd effect of diluting the original; later versions of the first sexual encounter story (Rose is molested by a minister on a train; she’s disgusted but also likes it, ‘victim and accomplice’), or the adultery story, or the stale marriage story, or the lonely single mother story, don’t so much enhance the originals as point up their flaws, making them seem even more schematic.
The next two collections, The Moons of Jupiter (1982) and The Progress of Love (1986), continue in the vein established by The Beggar Maid. The heroines get a bit more judgmental about male indecency. The narrator of ‘The Progress of Love’ takes a friend to her childhood home, now for sale, which in the meantime had been rented to hippies as a commune. ‘I guess this was where they carried on their sexual shenanigans,’ the narrator’s friend Bob says. ‘Why is it?’ she asks.
Just tell me, why is it that no man can mention a place like this without getting around to the subject of sex in about two seconds flat? Just say the words ‘hippie’ or ‘commune’ and all you guys can think about is screwing! As if there wasn’t anything at all behind it but orgies and fancy combinations and non-stop screwing! I get so sick of that – it’s all so stupid it just makes me sick!
Ageing becomes a central concern, as parent after parent is dispatched to the nursing home, while ex-husbands, like the one in ‘Lichen’, show up with younger girlfriends: David in that story has two, one he brings along, and another shown only in a nude snapshot he presents to his ex-wife; it fades in the sun, so that the pubic hair resembles lichen, a metaphor for the pointlessness of male questing after youthful female beauty. Some stories make use of sensational material, as with the murder/suicide of the couple next door in ‘Fits’, but the pleasures of pulp fiction are withheld in favour of registering the tremors that spread to otherwise humdrum lives. The prose by this middle period has been sanded to an uncommon smoothness, but you never get, say, the sinuosity of Marilynne Robinson or the snap of Mary McCarthy. The stories are always filled out, where an elliptical strategy might have proved useful to a writer churning over material she’s used before, as in the case of Lydia Davis. I started to think of reading Munro’s sentences as something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: it’s a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet aren’t wet.
A new turn comes with Friend of My Youth (1990). In it the endings of stories call into question the whole manner of their telling. In the title story, a man is engaged to one woman, then makes her sister pregnant and marries her; after a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, taken as a form of divine punishment, she dies of cancer, then the man marries her nurse. The couple continue to live in a divided house with the original sister, the story’s ostensible victim until she later resurfaces as a cheerful old lady. The narrator admits that she and her mother, the one who actually knew the characters, would have written the story differently, according to their respective notions of sex, each determined by the progressive ideas of their times. As a nod to postmodernism, it’s pretty feeble. By Open Secrets (1994), Munro was ready to toss the rules of realism out of the window, raise a character from the dead and give him an entirely different biography, as she does in ‘Carried Away’. A higher degree of fictitiousness also shows in many of the stories from the past two decades in the New Selected Stories (2011). ‘My Mother’s Dream’ is narrated by a baby, though the point of view actually seems to be the mother’s – only the pronouns are switched. ‘The Bear Came over the Mountain’ returns to the nursing home, where a woman with dementia forgets her husband and directs her affections towards another resident; she gets blue when his own wife takes him home. Her husband, who feels guilty about cheating on her during the 1970s, asks the man’s wife to return him to the home. She protests, then asks him on a date; the senile woman is reunited with her new man. The effects of her dementia turn out to be malleable in Munro’s hands. ‘The Children Stay’ (i.e. with the husband) returns to the theme of a young wife’s adultery with an artistic man who proves an insufficient husband substitute. No matter: years later her children still love her.
So too does ‘Gravel’, in Dear Life, only the consequences are different: a child drowns. There are several more pathos-delivering tales of male abandonment, a story about dementia from the dementee’s point of view, and two stories of asexual men in flight from intimacy. A coda of four sketches presented explicitly as autobiography picks up tropes recognisable from the early books: the house at the end of the road; the beatings; village prudery; a childhood operation that removed Munro’s appendix as well as a growth the size of a turkey egg that might, in retrospect, have been cancer. Her mother wouldn’t bring that up:
The only way I can explain our failure to speak of it was that there must have been a cloud around that word like the cloud around the mention of sex. Worse, even. Sex was disgusting but there must be some gratification there – indeed we knew there was, though our mothers were not aware of it – while even the word cancer made you think of some dark rotting ill-smelling creature that you would not look at even while you kicked it out of the way.
Sex and cancer: the taboos have floated away and now we can’t speak of them enough. A widespread yearning for those clouds and a time of more innocence and more shame – a yearning to be repressed – seems to explain a lot about Munro’s popularity and acclaim. But another fictional variation on marital rupture, ‘To Reach Japan’, is worth noting. A young poet and housewife in the Vancouver suburbs goes to a magazine party where she unwittingly gets drunk on Pimm’s which she takes to be fruit juice. A newspaper columnist visiting from Toronto takes her home but doesn’t kiss her, and for months she longs for him. A teaching job draws her back to Toronto. She and her daughter board a train and leave the husband behind. She has a tryst with a travelling performer, and emerges from his cabin feeling ‘like some gladiator’: shades of ‘The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt’. But as if on cue, the daughter, left sleeping, is missing from her cabin, though she is soon enough found weeping but safe between the carriages. The man gets off at Saskatoon, and the woman, now sad, writes a letter to her husband, omitting the tawdry aspects of her trip. Then the train pulls in to Toronto and – ta-da! – the newspaper columnist is waiting to give her a kiss. Sad woman gets happier. After so many stories it was inevitable.
Years later …