For us devoted readers, this is what Alice Munro does: On the first page of a story she introduces us to a character who by the third page has aroused our curiosity and by the last has become an intimate. Her characters live in small town or rural Canada, places where Munro seems to warn us not to move to. The people we become close to are not beautiful or brilliant or particularly talented or sexy or good, at least not very good.
They are putting up with wearying and often disappointing lives; and they seize small moments of triumph. In “Family Furnishings” Munro points out: “If you have something to tell that will stagger someone, and you’ve told it, and it has done so, there has to be a balmy moment of power.” Munro’s own power derives partly from the surprises she springs on characters who feel increasingly trapped by circumstance and on the readers sharing their helplessness.
The natural world is often bleak, but the language devoted to it is as careful as needlepoint, and prophetic as well. In “Wood,” oak trees seem “just as legendary when their leaves are off and you can see so well the thick corky bark with its gray-black color and intricate surface, and the devilish curling and curving of its branches.” Devilish? The devil will soon be doing his work.
Architecture is undistinguished, sometimes derelict, but occasionally, as in “Post and Beam,” there is something arresting in a setting, “ . . . the building behind the Cathedral. The small high Gothic windows and varnished woodwork (to give things a churchy feeling), the hat rack and umbrella stand (which for some reason filled him with deep melancholy).” Melancholy? She mines our own inexplicable melancholy.
The characters’ lives remain diminished even when private passion makes their heads spin. “Well, it would be the same old thing if we ever met again,” thinks the unnamed heroine in “Nettles.” “Or if we didn’t. [This was] love that was not usable, that knew its place.”
Munro presents tragedy obliquely, as when in “The View From Castle Rock” a child dies on shipboard and is buried at sea, and a passenger thinks “of the weighted sack falling down through the water . . . [W]ould the sack fall straight down to the very bottom of the sea . . . [or might] some ferocious fish . . . come along and rip the sack and make a meal of the body.” Deathbed scenes have nothing on this.
And without breaking your heart, only making it sore, she speaks on behalf of the lovelorn. “She doesn’t want to get her hopes up too much, she doesn’t want to make a fool of herself.” That’s the blighted heroine in “Meneseteung.”
For us devoted readers who are also writers, struggling with our own stories (our apprenticeships, however lengthy, never end), this is what she does as well — she teaches, by example. She is sparing and exact with figures of speech. A revelation can take three words. The withholding doctor in “What Is Remembered” will deftly seduce but will not kiss farewell. “’I never do,’” he cruelly says, shocking his lover-for-an-afternoon, shocking us — we too want to be kissed, to bring the adventure to a conventional close or a conventional continuance. Munro rejects both paths. Now it will not end; it will not continue. In “Family Furnishings’’ Munro reveals an illegitimate birth to character and reader at once, in a single casual insight: “Maybe they had never said ‘playing.’ ’’
Surprises can be the rare happy ending. After falsification, cruelty, and theft, the title story of the collection “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” soars in its next-to-last section: “such a warm commotion, such busy love.” Two adjectives only, each in context a perfect match for its noun. Again in “Hateship” (one of my own favorites), she shows that a tale need not be chronological to be interesting — it is often more intriguing if time moves here and there in a complicated way, so that the reader, deprived of passivity, is expected to do some work herself; and the elliptical story becomes a kind of collaboration between the author and unseen companion.
In “The View from Castle Rock,” Walter, the protagonist, refuses a rich man’s offer of his tubercular daughter. But he will find that his memory of her “is a source of happiness, available to him till the day he dies. Sometimes he will even entertain himself with thoughts of what might have happened, had he taken up the offer. Most secretly, he will imagine a radiant recovery, Nettie’s acquiring a tall and maidenly body, their life together. Such foolish thoughts as a man may have in secret” — but not in secret, really: guessed and shared by the writer and the reader together.
It is often remarked that Munro writes whole novels in 20 pages — people’s birth-to-death biographies, the history of generations of families, the rise and fall of a community. John Updike devoted his generous attention to this quality. “[S]hort story writers, called upon less often, seem to be trying to get more and more into each opportunity to perform. Alice Munro, ever more panoramist, gets into ‘Meneseteung’ an entire later-Victorian Ontario town, and a woman’s entire life with it.” She does this with a device that seems at first to be a coda. Many of her stories end with a page or a paragraph separated by a line break from the body of the story. Here’s one from “Hateship,” which, after its joyful penultimate section, chills us with a translated Latin quote. “You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know . . . what fate has in store for me, or for you.”
A coda in music is a summing up. The Latin quote is more than a summing up — it is a sly prediction, opening a narrow portal, carrying the tale forward, not on the page but in our minds. This artistic construction is particular to Munro and may have been invented by her. So far she alone has mastered it. The rest of us are still working to get it right.