Selected Stories, by Alice Munro

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The twenty-eight stories (four each from Alice Munro’s first seven volumes) in this massive 660-page collection cover the period from 1961 to 1994, and as the stories are in roughly chronological order it is possible to see her powers mature over their course.  While most are set in Ontario, there is never any sense of monotony for those willing to immerse themselves in her universe.  Concentrating on a fairly compact geographical area gives the stories coherence, and makes them feel like elements of a longer single work; one set partly in the Balkans is particularly noteworthy for moving outside her usual stamping-ground.  Many have a contemporary setting, but some are set, at least partly, in the past, and a major theme of the collection is how the past influences the present, and how present tries to cover over and sanitise past.

The narrative arcs are deceptive, appearing simple, even languorous, yet each story feels like a novella, without a wasted word.  The cool, accomplished technique obscures just how clever the construction can be, moving backwards and forwards effortlessly across time and situations.  Munro is a master at subverting expectations and, with her subtle narrative hooks, the reader has to work hard to keep the threads together.  She often uses a collage technique, making a connection between subplots and then following those in their different directions, until it becomes impossible to distinguish what is plot and what is subplot.  This is not a classical approach to the tight short story form, but an exploration of the human psyche that is not afraid to wander into narrow pathways and head off in unexpected directions, as life does.

The stories get longer over time, some of the later ones run to forty pages, yet they have a concentrated feel, and are always full of surprises.  Many of them have a complexity that warrants rereading.  The emphasis tends to be on women’s experience, the kaleidoscopic relations between friendship, education, sex, class.  She is very good at delineating the disappointments of middle age, and the ease with which one can sabotage happiness, and also on the feel of insular rural communities, how unforgiving they can be.  A large number of her women lead unfulfilling lives and experience failed relationships; on this evidence you worry for Canadian womanhood.

Munro contributes an introduction to the collection in which she discusses her writing, and the origins of some of the stories.  She describes a memory that seems to have been a key to her career, meditating on which she sees “a story which is hidden, and now, for a moment, carelessly revealed.”  That seems to sum up her approach, small snippets of broader narratives that are briefly illuminated, and seized before they disappear once more.  That accounts for the elegiac tone which is so often present.  She also provides valuable advice which must apply to any fiction writer, warning that when a story appears finished is the most dangerous time, as it may become lifeless and inert without further interrogation.

As with all short story collections, a benefit of the form is that the reader can dip in and out.  With these though, I would recommend reading straight through and seeing a world viewed from different perspectives.  The range may appear restricted, but Munro turns the limitations to her advantage.  To those wishing she displayed greater variety, this minimalism might seem monotonous, but you could see her as a versatile jazz musician playing variations, demonstrating just how many there are in a simple motif.  A warning, though: do not expect to speed through the book.  To gain the full benefit of Munro’s artistry requires careful reading.  If you think the style is effortless, you are not penetrating the surface, and are missing the richness of her prose.  These are stories to be savoured, and the rewards of doing so are considerable.

First posted on Goodreads website 17 December 2012.

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