Alice Munro: Selected Stories 1996

When I think of Alice Munro, I think of maps. The most obvious map is a map of North America, with a line going from where I am to where she is, in Canada. Maybe there's another line coming from the American South since William Faulkner and Eudora Welty are Munro's closest literary relatives. Then, a globe with lines that represent plane flights going all over the world, showing Munro's real range and connection with the world's greatest writers. Finally, a couple of maps I can't quite describe: a map of the human heart and a map of what passage of time and change of city or country or social class can do to a person. Maybe there is even a map for how one comment, made long ago, can color many years. Reading Munro may be like holding an ordinary globe in your hands and feeling, momentarily, the flurry of great forces.

A general statement might be made about Alice Munro's characters: they travel--mainly to interior space. One of Alice Munro's best lines, from "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You" describes a bus driver: "He had a gentle and laughing but ultimately serious, narrowing look . . . . that made him seem to want to be a deep-sea diver diving down, down through all the emptiness and cold and wreckage to discover the one thing he had set his heart on, something small and precious, hard to locate, as a ruby maybe on the ocean floor." But like the bus driver, Blaikie Noble, they rarely travel a physical distance; instead they dive into their lives, looking for the things they've set their hearts on.

Some of the characters are only vaguely aware or just beginning to understand those impossible things they've set their hearts on. Et, another character from "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You," is plagued with ambivalence and a kind of passive aggression (she still wants to sabotage any potential relationship her sister might have with Blaikie). In "The Ottawa Valley," the narrator tries to write a story that is a portrait of her mother, and her mother's family and generation but finds that she cannot: "The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did. She is heavy as always, she weighs everything down, and yet she is indistinct, her edges melt and flow. Which means she has stuck to me as close as ever and refused to fall away, and I could go on, and on, applying what skills I have, using what tricks I know, and it would always be the same."

The world of Alice Munro's fiction is ordinary from the surface, but pushes these boundaries: she explores the territory outside a salesman's range, deep in the woods, forgotten places in the heart, "distances you cannot imagine," outside the realm of "good taste," outside the world of manners, "places our judgment could not follow." Literary critics like to highlight Munro's emphasis on "the paradox of the familiar and the exotic," the opposing forces of "the true and the real," her "double worlds." Her use of double worlds expands to include worlds of adult and child, town and country, and reality and fantasy.

In "Dance of the Happy Shades," an oppressive, anxious, and dutifully attended piano recital is interrupted by a group of disabled children described by one attendee as "quite musical . . . but not all there." A girl plays "Dance of the Happy Shades," beautifully, musically, feelingly, with no sense of the performance and duty that pervades the others' attitudes. This interruption interrupts the distance and sureness of the suburban mothers and children, their sense that they were doing their piano teacher, Miss Marsalles, a favor by attending. However, Munro writes, Miss Marsalles' inclusion of the disabled children "is that one communiquŽ from the other country where she lives."

Many of Munro's stories are about "communiqués" from other countries, that is, other manners, other, sometimes larger or more generous, ways of viewing the world. In "Postcard," a woman finds out that her lover, who claims to have been vacationing in Florida, has gone away to marry someone else. The discrepancy between the words on his postcard to her and what she finds out spurs her to verbally confront him outside his house. The story is pretty funny, but her need for honesty and face to face communication is real. She doesn't even need an answer from Buddy--just to communicate herself, to get her two cents in. As in "Dance of the Happy Shades," the Welty influence in "Postcard" is there in bright strokes. "Postcard" ends in a distinct voice that echoes "Why I Live at the P.O.": "Oh, Buddy Shields, you can just go on talking, and Clare will tell jokes, and Momma will cry, till she gets over it, but what I'll never understand is why, right now, seeing Clare MacQuarrie as an unexplaining man, I felt for the first time that I wanted to reach out my hands and touch him."

Munro has typically used one region as the base for over forty years' and nine books worth of fiction. In her early fiction, especially, action centers on the communities around Lake Huron. This southern Canadian setting is a backdrop for the lives of her country and town characters who work constantly to reconcile contradictions in their lives to survive a world that is hostile and beautiful.

Some of the stories in this collection are about Rose, a repeat protagonist from her earlier collection, "The Beggar Maid," which is subtitled, "Stories of Flo and Rose." I'm glad a series of Rose stories was kept in the collection. "Simon's Luck," is about how Rose has always perceived herself as powerless and finds out that, all along, she has been the one in charge. And this imposed perception has tragically guided the course of her life. She had the wrong map! Rose doesn't end up suddenly awake and empowered, but empty-handed, as this knowledge has come too late. At the same time, I know that Rose will soon be tilting at other windmills; she is not an artist who will kill herself, but someone who will go on, surviving, making other attempts at knowing herself and finding love.

There are no happy endings in Alice Munro's fiction, only potential, only small and partial redemptions. And the sole reward is having survived the hardest trip--the one to the interior.