Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Alice Munro

The experience of reading Alice Munro is a bit, I think, like studying a painting: each story represents a moment, a scene. They are not series of moments, as a novel might be; instead, they are vignettes, peering into a fixed reality. 

For me, the best of Munro's stories are those like 'Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage' -- stories which lurk in the space between the local and the universal, stories which imagine the impact of the random or unintended on lives and relationships. 'Hateship,' I thought, emerged as the strongest story in Munro's Vintage collection: it was long enough to develop a sense of tension, but short enough to resolve it.

I will admit, however, that some of Munro's pieces struggled, in my reading, to transcend the nagging tendency of short-story writers to leave little crumbs along the way, to propose tangents and distractions when diversion is itself not necessary. The result is an equivalent tendency among readers of short stories to focus too heavily on the red herring, to make every effort not to overlook that one critical word. It's sometimes as if the stories are too delicate. 

Thankfully, Munro engages this habit far less than some of her peers, and her stories, as I suggest, are stronger for it: they are equal measures patient and balanced. And more than that, of course: they address content not often explored in contemporary fiction, including old age and the process of aging. 

Ultimately, I found Munro best when focused on the detail, when describing the smallest of paintings -- or when more expansive, when charting the impact of unintended decisions on life, love, and happiness. Certainly 'Hateship' is a successful exercise in literary expression.  

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