Review: Alice Munro’s “Selected Stories”

by Miles Raymer

Selected Stories

Having now read more than 1,000 pages of Alice’s Munro’s prose, it is clear to me that she is a once-in-a-generation kind of talent. This woman appears to produce beautiful phrases with the readiness and ease with which average humans produce carbon dioxide. Her fictional examinations of the human condition are simultaneously plainspoken and impenetrable; each seems infused with a secret that only Munro can clearly see, but that the reader may glimpse fleetingly in a moment of hard concentration or blind luck.

Selected Stories: 1968-94 is a deep dive into Munro’s early writings. It contains stories of varying quality, ranging from merely excellent to shockingly brilliant. Given that I read Family Furnishings––a collection of stories from 1995-2014––prior to this volume, I personally have experienced the evolution of Munro’s career in reverse order. While Munro has clearly perfected her craft over time, her earlier works prove that her starting point was far beyond where most writers could hope to arrive at the end of a long and successful career.

There were several themes that struck me this time around, ones that hadn’t caught my attention in Munro’s later works. Someone seeking a catalogue of the subtle and quotidian cruelties visited on mid-20th-century Western women will find themselves hotly rewarded here. Munro provides a keen record of the inexcusable pressures and judgments patriarchy foists upon females, doing so without ever once descending into the histrionics that often despoil contemporary feminist writings. One protagonist describes her father teasing a live-in nurse:

His teasing of Mary was always about husbands. ‘I thought up one for you this morning!’ he would say. ‘Now, Mary, I’m not fooling you, you give this some consideration.’ Her laughter would come out first in little angry puffs and explosions through her shut lips, while her face grew redder than you would have thought possible and her body twitched and rumbled threateningly in its chair. There was no doubt she enjoyed all this, all these preposterous imagined matings, though my mother would certainly have said it was cruel, cruel and indecent, to tease an old maid about men. In my father’s family of course it was what she was always teased about, what else was there?  And the heavier and coarser and more impossible she became, the more she would be teased. A bad thing in that family was to have them say you were sensitive, as they did of my mother. (52, emphasis hers)

Munro shows us not only how cruelty and oppression masquerade as comedy and good-humor, but also how Mary’s unchosen but necessary complicity in her own torment can produce a sense of perverse enjoyment. Munro’s stories brim with such complex interpersonal dynamics, all without falling prey to needless prolixity.

Munro exhibits a tense preoccupation with women who are toyed with by men of means––those chosen first and then rejected for a more “suitable” mate, or subjected to seductive acts of courtship that never come to fruition. These women always face a world in which they have little power to direct their fates, but persist with a quiet strength that subverts––sometimes successfully and sometimes not––the tragedy of their cultural and economic relegation. The story “Friend of My Youth” invites us into the life of Flora, a woman bested in love by her sister, Ellie, and who fails to receive her just deserts even after compassionately nursing Ellie to her death:

Never a moment of complaint. Flora goes about her cheerful labors, she cleans the house and shovels out the cow byre, she removes some bloody mess from her sister’s bed, and when at last the future seems to open up for her––Ellie will die and Robert will beg forgiveness and Flora will silence him with the proud gift of herself––it is time for Audrey Atkinson to drive into the yard and shut Flora out again, more inexplicably and thoroughly the second time than the first. She must endure the painting of the house, the electric lights, all the prosperous activity next door…She must see them drive off to the dance––her old lover and that coldhearted, stupid, by no means beautiful woman in the white satin wedding dress. She mocked. (And of course she has made over the farm to Ellie and Robert, of course he has inherited it, and now everything belongs to Audrey Atkinson.) The wicked flourish. But it is all right. It is all right––the elect are veiled in patience and humility and lighted by a certainty that events cannot disturb. (469)

Without a hint of didactic condescension, this passage lays bare (1) the acute harshness of Flora’s situation, (2) the way a world ordered according to male whims can cause women to despise each other, and (3) the soggy, ineffectual justifications that purport to make injustice bearable. For readers seeking storytellers capable of rescuing the modern world from its relentless stripping down of human experience to the simplest possible narrative explanation, Alice Munro will intrigue and satisfy.

To complement her exploration of mid-century femininity, Munro offers many fascinating portraits of men and manhood, slyly slaying most of them with her unparalleled female gaze:

Will people really go, will people who could be swimming or drinking or going for a walk really take themselves out to the campus to find the room and sit in rows listening to those vain quarrelsome men? Bloated, opinionated, untidy men, that is how I see them, cosseted by the academic life, the literary life, by women…

The wives of the men on the platform are not in that audience. They are buying groceries or cleaning up messes or having a drink. Their lives are concerned with food and mess and houses and cars and money. They have to remember to get the snow tires on and go to the bank and take back the beer bottles, because their husbands are such brilliant, such talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come from them. (99-100)

Any shortcomings of my experience with this book were due entirely to my lack of focus. Similar to my previous experience with one of her long collections, I think Munro’s style is better digested in short, two-or-three-hundred-something-page books than in six-hundred-plus-page ones such as this. Her stories sometimes have a lot of characters, and the nuances of the relationships will easily escape the scattered mind. I did not bring my best brain to each of these stories, and I am worse off for it. But I also managed to grab some good stuff along the way:

I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine. (18)

And just as there is a moment, when you are drugged, in which you feel perfectly safe, sure, unreachable, and then without warning and right next to it a moment in which you know the whole protection has fatally cracked, though it is still pretending to hold soundly together, so there is a moment now––the moment, in fact, when Rose hears Flo step on the stairs––that contains for her both present peace and freedom and a sure knowledge of the whole down-spiralling course of events from now on. (135)

Robert is a stocky, athletic-looking man, with curly, graying hair and bright brown eyes. His friendliness and obligingness are often emphatic, so that people might get the feeling of being buffeted from all sides. This is a manner that serves him well in Gilmore, where assurances are supposed to be repeated, and in fact much of conversation is repetition, a sort of dance of good intentions, without surprises. Just occasionally, talking to people, he feels something else, an obstruction, and isn’t sure what it is (malice, stubbornness?) but it’s like a rock at the bottom of a river when you’re swimming––the clear water lifts you over it. (431)

People are curious. A few people are. They will be driven to find things out, even trivial things. They will put things together. You see them going around with notebooks, scraping the dirt off gravestones, reading microfilm, just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing things from the rubbish. And they may have got it wrong, after all. I may have got it wrong. (497)

Sometimes our connection is frayed, it is in danger, it seems almost lost. Views and streets deny knowledge of us, the air grows thin. Wouldn’t we rather have a destiny to submit to, then, something that claims us, anything, instead of such flimsy choices, arbitrary days? (602)

She felt the first signal of a love affair like the warmth of the sun on her skin, like music through a doorway, or the moment, as she had often said, when the black-and-white television commercial bursts into color. She did not think that her time was being wasted. She did not think it had been wasted. (637)

Unsurprisingly, Munro is even capable of articulating what it feels like to read her own writing: “Often these sentences seemed so satisfying to me, or so elusive and lovely, that I could not help abandoning all the surrounding words and giving myself up to a peculiar state” (585).

I am grateful for, and endlessly baffled by, the inimitable flavor of Alice Munro’s peculiarity.

Rating: 9/10