Oct 16, 2013
10 Min read time
Members of Boston Review's extended family meditate on the legacy of Alice Munro, in light of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Legions have already praised her ability to portray “inner life” and human relations: the tentative, the reversals, the banal. Others have talked of her dedication to the short story form, to what that form has done in the past—the epiphany, the reversal—and today—the microcosm of life and thinking, the tentativeness of human being, the fragment.
What I most identify with in Munro, over time, is her constant and renewed evocation of that razor edge of discomfort on which women are still and ever obliged to live their lives. The dangers women face—cultural, historical, local, and momentary—mean that the straightforward always bears with it something of the oblique, the hidden.
Yet there’s something else I truly love: her ability to evolve, in subtle and layered fashion, the relationship between inner life and outer landscape, whether that landscape be an interior or an exterior. Inner life finds its nourishment in a texture or tissue with what lies outside. The tissue, and resulting “scene,” moves in time, evoking not just the anxiety (and disgust at times) at being a girl or woman, but the ways (multiple) of living productively with that tension.
This effect is not, in a Munro story, simply tied to the semantic level, to the level of the content of an enunciation. It is topological; the surfaces of her stories, built up from a tissue of declarative sentences, are always rippled, like the bedspread when it’s me making the bed, a ripple that when pushed flat, ripples up elsewhere. As such, the very structure of the story, in direct sentences, laced discreetly, enables and exposes contradiction and ambiguity—those great disrupters of inner harmony that at the same time (paradoxically) subtend any possibility of it.—Erín Moure Edmonton, Canada
People have trouble figuring out what they want a lot of the time, but give them a work of fiction and most apparently know: they’re looking for immersive experiences. The fiction reader wants to be drawn into another world and to be allowed to settle in for a while. Novels typically provide this experience, and stories, their epiphanies discrete as integers, typically don’t. Very few living writers have made names on short stories. Alice Munro’s was foremost among them even before her Nobel award. How, other than by being ingenious, have her stories bucked the trend? What are they ingenious at doing?
In “The Beggar Maid,” the title story of one of Munro’s best-known collections, Rose, a poor university student on scholarship, gets romantically involved with a history graduate student named Patrick. Patrick is high-minded; he is also self-righteous and judgmental; but mainly he is rich. Patrick takes Rose home to meet his family, and she takes him. These visits allow us to see not only where each has come from but also each person’s embarrassment in the other’s eyes. Rose’s awareness of the social class difference between them alters her view of Patrick’s attachment to her: she comes to see his love as a kind of condescension and admits to herself that she doesn’t love him. Yet she accepts his marriage proposal, then breaks it off, then changes her mind again and goes through with it.
The narration jumps to the aftermath of Rose and Patrick’s ten-year marriage. The details of the courtship suddenly appear to be background:
When Rose afterward reviewed and talked about this moment in her life—for she went through a period, like most people nowadays, of talking freely about her most private decisions, to friends and lovers and party acquaintances whom she might never see again, while they did the same—she said that comradely compassion had overcome her, she was not proof against the sight of a bare bent neck. . . .
What she never said to anybody, never confided, was that she sometimes thought it had not been pity or greed or cowardice or vanity but something quite different, like a vision of happiness. In view of everything else she had told she could hardly tell that. It seems very odd; she can’t justify it . . . Sometimes, without reason or warning, happiness, the possibility of happiness would surprise them.
The story jumps again to nine years after the divorce. Rose sees Patrick standing with his back to her at a coffee bar in the middle of the night at the Toronto Airport. At the sight of him, she stops, struck by the same sense of a possible happiness together. He turns and sees her:
He made a face at her. It was a truly hateful, savagely warning, face; infantile, self-indulgent, yet calculated; it was a timed explosion of disgust and loathing. . . .
She hurried away then, down the long varicolored corridor, shaking. She had seen Patrick; Patrick had seen her; he had made that face. But she was not really able to understand how she could be an enemy. How could anybody hate Rose so much, at the very moment when she was ready to come forward with her good will, her smiling confession of exhaustion, her air of diffident faith in civilized overtures?
Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could.
We are given Rose’s and Patrick’s views of their childhoods from the perspective of their courtship, the courtship from the perspective of the marriage, the marriage as Rose recalls it first from the recent divorce and then later, and, finally, as Patrick sees Rose, with an enduring spite that at once testifies to the intensity of his former love for her and to how unlovable he is. On the occasion of their telling, the actions in the story are no longer at issue. Their significance lies instead in retrospect. Its receding perspectives are the essential material of the story, a recession conventionally identifiable with the novel form. In the interplay of action, reaction, recollection, and revision, Munro’s characters take on a temporal fullness, give the reader an immersive experience, that in anyone else’s hands would have required hundreds of pages to impart.
You may say that Munro’s Nobel is a triumph for the story or that her stories are a triumph over the novel. Depends how you see it.—James Wallenstein
I remember first hearing Alice Munro's name during my junior year of college. I was in an expository writing class, and the professor spoke her name with reverence, mentioning her story, “Royal Beatings.“ I’d watched too many Matlock and CHiPs reruns as a kid and so wasn't ready, yet, for the slower pace Munro, like Proust, demands. Still, it wasn't too many years later that I joined the devotees of Munro, always thrilled to see a new story of hers in The New Yorker or Harper's. It's hard to say anything new about Munro's fiction—but her use of structure is pure mastery, and deserves repeated reverence. I use the story “Axis” sometimes in my fiction workshops. When the story, suddenly, leaps decades forward, pivoting from one point of view to another, I'm always stunned. Where are the story's hinges? You can work back through the story, find them, but that doesn't rob it of power. Nor does it mean that you yourself, mortal that you are, can pull off such magic. Even so: one of the glorious things about reading Munro with a writer’s eye is that she's not the kind to pose limits. Rather, she opens up oceans of possibility.—Ben Stroud
In a literary market where the novel reigns as absolute and often absolutist monarch, the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Alice Munro comes as a fair recognition of the cultural value of the short story and Munro’s mastery of this genre. But she is also a key figure in the consolidation of the short story cycle in Canada, a genre that plays with the creative conventions of both the short story and the novel. Pressed to conform to market forces as a young author beginning her career, Munro described her first short story cycle, Lives of Girls and Women (1971) as “an autobiographical novel” soon after its publication. Both this volume and Who Do You Think You Are? (1978, published outside Canada as The Beggar Maid) were circulated as novels, though critics would often point out their peculiar “not quite” nature, adding adjectives like disjointed, episodic, or even “loosely episodic” to describe their structure.
Anyone interested in why and how Alice Munro came to be a writer should read the Lives cycle. It offers a feminist and postcolonial parody of Joyce’s classic A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, representing what Linda Hutcheon called postmodern “genre paradoxes” (in The Canadian Postmodern), but both cycles also fully belong in the tradition of the Künstlerroman: a writer in Lives, and a female actor in Who Do You Think You Are? While Lives was described by Margaret Atwood as “the portrait of the short-story writer as a young girl,” the metafictional traits of the collections are not anecdotal; the narrator is located in “The Flats Road, Jubilee, Wawanash County, Ontario, Canada, North America, The Western Hemisphere, The World, The Solar System, The Universe.” The “Epilogue” includes a literary manifesto that helps understand Munro’s artistic endeavor: “People's lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum. . . . What I wanted [to write down] was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting.”
Following the path trod by her admired Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, Munro has greatly contributed to the development of the short story cycle genre in North America. Her cycles, together with Margaret Laurence’s groundbreaking A Bird in the House (1970), which preceded Munro’s Lives by a few months, inaugurated what has become a tradition of feminist short story cycles in Canada, which includes Mavis Gallant, Edna Alford, Sandra Birdsell, Gertrude Story, Isabel Huggan, Katherine Govier, Makeda Silvera, Nalini Warriar, Shree Ghatage, and Nila Gupta, among others.—Belén Martín-Lucas Universidade de Vigo (Spain)
Alice Munro’s “White Dump” ends parenthetically, with a line in translation from an Old Norse saga: “(It is too late to talk of this now: it has been decided.)” In some ways, this is the last sentiment one would expect from Munro. So many of her stories are shaped by the broad revisionary powers of time and memory, and meaning is never so settled that it cannot be reinterpreted, even reversed, in light of subsequent events. Knowledge tends to be contingent; what feels central and certain on one page may become, by the next, peripheral, doubtful, even untrue. It has been decided—by whom? A few pages earlier, a character realizes that she is the author of a life-changing decision she might otherwise ascribe, like a lightning strike, to chance or fate: “But it isn’t like lightning, it isn’t a blow from outside. We only pretend that it is.” The ownership of this act undercuts the detached passive voice of the final line.
Christian Lorentzen faulted Munro for these “false leads.” But more than any writer I know, Munro honors the caprices of her characters’ memories through the form of her fiction, molding it to the demands of their consciences, matching the tricky, stumbling work of sifting through the mess of felt experience. Munro’s stories document and dramatize the act of seeking out narratives. This can be thrilling. “I may have got it wrong,” the narrator of “Meneseteung” admits at the end, and suddenly everything that has come before spins and wobbles on the tilted axis of that uncertainty.
It is never too late to talk, Munro’s stories argue, though sometimes the only “talk” available is the pillorying self-analysis practiced by so many of her narrators. For the space of a parenthesis, perhaps, it might be possible to affix understanding and tell the kind of story a reader like Lorentzen would expect. But it’s worth noting that the ending to “White Dump,” so certain in its finality, occurs some fifteen to twenty years before the scene on which the story opens. The parenthesis of certainty always closes. Life, ever revisionary, moves on.—Greg Schutz
October 16, 2013
10 Min read time