Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Alice Munro

I find it hard to say anything original about Alice Munro's latest outstanding short story collection, Too Much Happiness - except that it is excellent and that you should immediately go out and read it. Anything more than this is likely to sound like those tiresome critical cliches which always seem to get thrown around when Munro is the topic. Yes, as a short story writer she's up there with Chekhov and Henry James. Yes, her short stories are as powerful, dense and memorable as novels. And yes, she deals with the big themes - death, marriage, love, adultery, etc. I just don't have anything big, fresh or important to say about her writing. I liked her book. I liked it a lot. But I got nothing. Some writers don't really give one a lot of opportunities for scintillating critical activity. I have the same problem with Guy de Maupassant. I once had to write an essay on one of his short stories and, for the life of me, I couldn't come up with a single interesting thing to say about it. It was so true to life, so realistic and seemingly transparent, that there was nothing I felt that I could add to it. And I seem to be in a similar predicament now with Munro. So since I can't seem to come up with fascinating and insightful things to say about her book, here are some random thoughts concerning it.

- There are a lot of killers in this collection. Three of the ten stories involve murder or attempted murder. In "Dimensions" a woman's three young children are murdered by her insane husband. An elderly women deftly manages to evade being murdered in "Free Radicals." And in "Child's Play" two young girls drown a special ed girl who won't leave them alone.

- Many of these stories are about the power of story-telling. Often the characters are transformed by the process of telling a story. In the aforementioned "Free Radicals" the old lady evades being murdered by convincing her would-be killer that she is herself a murderess. In "Fiction" a woman recognizes that her life has served as basis for a novel by an old acquaintance's daughter.

- Munro is no sentimentalist. Like Dawn Powell, her view of family relationships is clear-eyed and free of hokum. In real life, parents and children don't necessarily like - let alone love - each other. In "Deep-Holes," for instance, a young man's accident early in life sets him on a path which leads to poverty, mental illness and homelessness. When he finally reconnects with his mother many years later their meeting leaves both of them disappointed and vaguely angry at each other.

- A word should be said about Munro's writing style. It is very flat. She is a great literary craftsman but not a great literary stylist. If you're looking for flowery prose which charms the reader you won't find it here. She is, in this regard, the opposite of a writer like Haruki Murakami who can change literary styles as easily as the rest of us change shirts. I once read a reviewer who described Munro's prose as "luminous." No, it is not luminous. It is precise and exact. If her stories are as dense as novels it's because there is a quiet starkness in her language - every word, every idea counts.

In "Child's Play," for instance, the narrator and her friend Charlene are young girls on a Summer camp outing. All the girls have been taken to a public beach, including Verna a harmless mentally retarded girl who has taken a liking to the narrator, Marlene. Marlene and Charlene, though, regard Verna with hate and dread - her very presence, though completely innocent, is perceived by the two girls as menacing. One day, as all the girls in the camp are frollicking away in the water at a local beach events come to a head. Marlene and Charlene are playing together in the water when Verna begins to make her way towards them. Suddenly a speed boat passes and sets off big waves which sets all the girls tumbling. Marlene and Charlene seize the opportunity.

At the moment we tumbled, Verna had pitched towards us. When we came up, with our faces streaming, arms flailing, she was spread out under the surface of the water. There was a tumult of screaming and shouting all around, and this increased as the lesser waves arrived and people who had somehow missed the first attack pretended to be knocked over by the second. Verna's head did not break the surface, though now she was not inert, but turning in a leisurely way, light as a jellyfish in the water. Charlene and I had our hands on her, on her rubber cap.

This could have been an accident. As if we, in trying to get our balance, grabbed on to this nearby large rubbery object, hardly realizing what it was or what we were doing. I have thought it all out. I think we would have been forgiven. Young children. Terrified.

Yes, yes. Hardly know what they were doing.

Is this in any way true? It is true in the sense that we did not decide anything, in the beginning. We did not look at each other and decide to do what we subsequently and consciously did. Consciously, because our eyes did meet as the head of Verna tried to rise up to the surface of the water. Her head was determined to rise, like a dumpling in a stew. The rest of her was making misguided feeble movements down in the water, but the head knew what it should do.
This is masterful writing, subtle and revealing. Not a word or a phrase is wasted. From the narrator's ellipses and evasions ("It is true in a sense that..." - can you tell the narrator grows up to become an academic?) to the chilling description of Verna as little more than a head struggle to rise ("like a dumpling in a stew") it's obvious we're dealing with a writer whose control of her craft is total.