Alice Munro has achieved a place of literary prominence, and when a writer has achieved a place of literary prominence, a critic assigned to review that writer’s new book might be tempted to use the assignment as an opportunity to make a big statement about the prominent writer -- and thereby make a big statement about contemporary literature, contemporary literary culture or contemporary literary criticism.
There are two common ways that this kind of big statement reviewing might go wrong -- the sainting and the takedown. The critic of the sainting sort might shower the writer with unqualified praise, declare her a genius, and ignore or explain away the writer’s shortcomings -- or declare them to be virtues. The other kind of critic might decide that the surest path to deflating the balloon of hyperbole isn't merely letting a little air out the bottom. No, it might be more satisfying -- and attention-grabbing -- to spray it with a flamethrower.
Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books, used the 3,000 or so words allotted him for a review of “Dear Life,” Alice Munro’s 14th collection of short stories, as an opportunity to correct what he might rightly have identified as a culture of uncritical sainting that now seems to greet each new book Munro publishes. But his means to correction was a vicious and terribly wrongheaded review, an old-fashioned hatchet job that dismisses, ridicules and cynically misreads a career that has quietly thrived for 45 years.
The review begins with a paragraph worth quoting in full, because it demonstrates clearly Lorentzen’s gift for the skillful manipulation of tone. “There’s something confusing,” he writes, “about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental. She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people – ‘people people people,’ as Jonathan Franzen puts it.”
In a paragraph like this, a sinister note (or at least a hint of unreliability) is attached to all the words of praise — goodness, greatness, majorness, bestness. And any talk of the virtues of Munro’s stories is also immediately undermined. If a critic praises a subtlety of tone or inflection, Lorentzen seems to be saying, or notices that a surface that wouldn’t ordinarily seem a promising source of power (such as the choice to offer plainspoken sentence instead of a pyrotechnic or metaphorically loaded sentence) has been craftily turned in the direction of something powerful, then that critic must be operating out of a spirit of defensiveness. And that would imply that the critic, deep down, knows the thing that Lorentzen knows: We praise Munro in the ways we praise her not because her work invites the praise, but rather because the praise is by now expected of the critic. That critic must then manufacture elaborate strategies that enable shortcomings to be framed as virtues, on the theory that the reader isn’t sophisticated enough not to be dazzled by the critic’s aesthetic gymnastics.
If Lorentzen’s plot sounds familiar, it is because he has appropriated it from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a fairy tale made for children. The problem with Lorentzen’s “emperor has no clothes” thesis is that it overstates in direct proportion to the overstatements it ridicules. If our emperor is Munro, the problem is not that she’s not wearing any clothing. The problem is that she wears clothes less flashy than the ones she could easily afford because she means to communicate the thing the plainer clothing can in some cases communicate more truly, when Lorentzen, in effect, wanted her to don the garment of royal splendor and parade it happily past the war zone.
We’re talking, here, about a series of implicit (and sometimes explicit) value judgments Lorentzen brings as complaints to his reading of Munro. First, her language, which is “perfectly polished” (the observation is pejorative) and “perfectly humorless,” and her sentences, the reading of which Lorentzen describes as “something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: it’s a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet aren’t wet.”
Second, her ostensible preoccupations, the lives of girls and women and rural families, which Lorentzen describes as “the ways life is shabby or grubby,” dismisses as “a slice of sad life in the sticks,” best taken in small doses “between, say, a report on the war in Syria and a reconsideration of Stefan Zweig to provide a rural interlude between current atrocities and past masterpieces.” (He later reduces all of Munro to “Sex and cancer,” subjects whose appeal to those readers unsophisticated enough to be interested and moved by them even now that they are taboos that have “floated away and now we can’t speak of them enough.”) Those preoccupations, Lorentzen suggests, might be explained by way of a “widespread yearning for those clouds and a time of more innocence and more shame — a yearning to be repressed,” which must “explain a lot about Munro’s popularity and acclaim.”
Third, if the place of Munro’s and her characters’ origin, “a rural corner of Ontario between Toronto and Lake Huron,” which is “white, Christian, prudish and dangling on a class rung somewhere between genteel poverty and middle-class comfort,” might sound like “a provincial cage,” it’s probably because it is a provincial cage, a place whose beneath-our-interest inhabitants are trapped in a near-meaningless penny drama of manners and outmoded social codes. It's a place, let’s say, unlike London, the old seat of British imperial power where the reviewer holds a prestigious editor’s chair, or, perhaps, Harvard University, ground zero of the uneasy coexistence of moneyed legacy power and the American meritocracy, where the reviewer studied Classics. Or, who knows?, maybe Manhattan, hub of world commerce including the business of the selling of literature and the proclaiming upon it in the more prestigious newspapers and magazines.
The logic of Lorentzen’s calculus for determining what kinds of places and characters are or aren’t inherently interesting or worthy of pages is simply parsed, an observation made clear by Lorentzen’s own quick adoption of a defensive tone. When considering James Wood’s assertion that Munro’s reputation among readers is “like a good address,” Lorentzen replies: “It’s an address I wouldn’t want to move to, and I didn’t enjoy my recent visit.”
It is an impulse, he says, that “makes me wonder whether I’m sort of big city chauvinist, or a misogynist, or autistic ..." The reader of the review quickly understands that in the same way Lorentzen tonally inverts the hyperbolic language of the critics he doesn’t admire in order to cause their words to begin to mean the opposite of what they ordinarily mean, he also introduces, good and early, words and phrases he anticipates his review will invite. The reviewer is not examining in good faith his own capacity to failures of decency such as big city chauvinism or misogyny (not to mention the bizarre use of “autistic,” a word used to describe people with a developmental brain disability, as a casual self-abasing slur, or a jokey synonym for “sociopath.”) He is attempting to blunt the power of the reader’s likely diagnosis of those prejudices by invoking them in a way that allows them to be briefly considered and discarded, while the reviewer moves away from the relatively unimportant matter of the positional baggage he brings to his response to the work, and on toward the much more important work of studying the ultimate insignificance, triteness and lack of sophistication inherent in Munro’s stories.
“It might be too much to call her an anti-modernist,” Lorentzen says, but what he really means is: It might be too direct a statement to call her the provincial stick-country anti-modernist I am showing her to always have been. But if one were as uncharitable toward Lorentzen as Lorentzen is toward Munro’s characters and the place where they live, one might say, “It might be too much to call him a misogynist or a big city chauvinist …”
But a responsible reviewer ought not say those things, because the statement would reduce the subject of the review to a caricature, an unappealing tic to which Lorentzen, as a reviewer, is too often prone. In another recent review, Kevin Brockmeier’s literary fabulism is reduced to “Magic Feelism.” The more muscular stories in Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” are reduced to “Jewish violence” taken up with “the moral weight of maths problems” by a crude writer—a “soft-core Delmore Schwartz act,” Lorentzen says—whose modus operandi is “shrink wrapping history.” (Weirdly, all critical distance seems to collapse to a lazy fond jokiness whenever the subject is the mumblecore minimalist Tao Lin, a talented but surface-skimming chronicler of instant messaging and Gchats, whose ephemeral and super-flat-inflected fiction avoids risking this kind of ridicule altogether by avoiding inquiry of any kind, be it moral, historical, intellectual or otherwise.)
This sharp satirical pose — all those zingers, all those candy-coated Halloween razors — is pleasurable but ultimately destructive and without offsetting virtue. It is beneath a reader as intelligently clear-eyed as Lorentzen can be when he isn’t simply sharpening his assassin’s knife, such as in his smart mixed-bag assessment of Zadie Smith’s London-set “NW,” which neatly contextualized the “15-year psychodrama” of Smith’s career — her dustup with (and temporary capitulation to) “the prescriptive Englishman” James Wood after his famous “hysterical realism” piece in the New Republic, her flirtations with the prose styles of Saul Bellow and E.M. Forster, her ambitious Harper’s column and New York Review of Books essays (“Was she the second coming of Elizabeth Hardwick or a kinder, gentler James Wood?”) and her newfound embrace of a messy “Joycean pastiche.” Lorentzen doesn’t like everything about the book. He writes that the first movement of “NW” is “thin stuff … a delivery devise for her modernist repertoire” and that the book is full of “pop stuff” that “smacks a bit of Nick Hornby, if not ‘Forrest Gump.’” But the reader admires Lorentzen as he admires Smith’s Nabokovian authorial intrusions, a thing he believes Smith has reclaimed from the “writing teachers and book reviewers” who “have turned into the point of view police.” In the end, he praises Smith for a new maturity-that-comes-with-age, which enables her to “show characters of her own generation through the passage of time. “NW,” he writes, “is full of split selves, people alienated from the very things they thought defined them.”
It’s true that both of these themes — generational intimates seen through the prism of time and split selves alienated from the things they thought defined them — are preoccupations Smith shares with Munro. Lorentzen doesn’t seem to notice how deeply his reading of each author is colored by his predilection toward one and against the other. It’s worth observing: Smith is young. Munro is old. Smith’s characters light up the city. Munro’s characters are rooted in the province. Smith’s language is turned up to 11. Munro, like the Pixies, keeps the volume low in the verses, then cranks it up, briefly and thrillingly, for the chorus, which seems all the larger for dynamic range it has opened up, an authority-bringing (and drama-modulating) tactic Lorentzen doesn’t mention, probably out of an antagonism toward “realism,” which is telegraphed by the way that each time the word is used, it sounds like a curse.
There is one thing in the review that Lorentzen gets right, a thing worth broadcasting far and wide: No writer deserves reverence. A story or novel might earn a kind of reverence, but if the critical starting point is reverence, then it is impossible to describe what in the work prompted the reverence, because if the starting point is reverence, then reverence is a state of mind the reader brought to the work before the work did anything to the reader, so it’s not any more at issue whether or not the writer made anything to inspire reverence, because it’s not the thing the writer made that inspired the reverence. It is, instead, the reader’s idea of the writer as genius or master or fount of wisdom or great artist, which precedes the reading of the writing, which inspires the reverence. Too often, this means that every move the writer makes is seen as a manifestation of said genius or mastery, rather than being taken on its own terms, sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter — a strategy that better honors the great writer, anyway, because the great writer’s hardest true labor was always in the direction of the thing that was being made, not the abstract offering of the personal myth of the great writer. If this is true, then Lorentzen’s grievance is projected in slightly the wrong direction. The trouble doesn’t arrive when a writer is “overpraised.” The trouble arrives when a story or a novel can no longer be read, because the reader is too busy reading his or her own preexisting idea of the writer.
Munro is not the only writer who could be better honored by being read absent the distorting filters of genius and mastery, either. A short list of her honorable comrades in this cohort might include Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Anton Chekhov, Marilynne Robinson and Charles Baxter: writers, all, of extraordinary talent for whom some of their novels or stories are given to a greater power than others of their novels or stories, and about whom it could be said that their strengths and weaknesses were in close proximity, and that the pleasures they offer are different in kind from the pleasures offered by other good writers, which doesn’t mean that their pleasures ought to be declared the superior pleasures.
This is something Lorentzen has claimed to know in the past. In his New York Observer review of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84,” he led with a similar observation: “The pleasures of reading Haruki Murakami could easily be mistaken for a list of his vices.” Another bit of wisdom can be found in a complaint he levels against Murakami in that review, during a discussion of “1Q84's" sex scenes: “There’s little in the way of mixed feelings, which are to many of us the stuff of life.”
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Munro’s characters, in sex and love and family and all other things, are nothing if not cauldrons of mixed feelings, of tentative and often unspoken understandings and not-understandings, of the pursuit of wants at the expense of needs, of the pursuit of needs at the expense of the wants that turn out to be more needed than the needs. Lorentzen’s failure to recognize Munro’s extraordinary accomplishment in these areas is puzzling, but perhaps sarcastic derision can distort the reading of a book the same as reverence.
Martin Amis, in a New Yorker review of a story collection by Don DeLillo, said: "When we say that we love a writer's work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.”
Lorentzen, to his credit, put in the reading work required to figure out which half might be which — “ten of her collections in a row,” he says. One wonders, though, whether the nature of that assignment, no doubt under the pressure of time, might have contributed to his sourness. Munro’s stories, especially in middle- and late-career, demand more of the reader than most stories will, because they often compress a novel’s worth of events into 30 to 60 pages, which means they aren’t breezy in the way short stories can sometimes be. They are simultaneously expansive (in length and event) and radically compressed in structure so that they work the way poems sometimes work, packing secrets into the seams between juxtaposed scenes, or puzzling over the relationships between things in the present and things half-remembered. These are slow-burn pleasures, and for the reader attuned to their power, the slow-burn continues long past the white space that ends the story, which is one reason why most Alice Munro aficionados of my acquaintance seldom read her better stories only once. In their peculiar roominess, they invite multiple readings.
At the halfway point of her career, in the opening paragraph of a story titled “Differently,” Munro more or less announced how her work would change and what it would demand:
“Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.”
What that creative writing teacher wanted, and what Munro and her characters were beginning to push back against, was the short story in one movement, with one narrator-protagonist, with a linear forward motion that demanded one carefully placed scene carry the story’s weight, and with an ending, like the endings of many American short stories, then and now, reminiscent in some ways of the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the story widely credited (or railed against) as the source of the idea that stories ought to end with an epiphany, something transformative, the visitation of some keen insight or realization.
Lorentzen dismisses the stories from the first six books as the work of “an epiphany-monger,” but it is worth noting that in 1968, the year Munro’s debut collection “Dance of the Happy Shades” was published, it wouldn’t have been an act of glib conformity to publish a quietly fierce volume of shapely domestic stories that resolved after a traditional pattern. The Vietnam War was at its height, the Cuyahoga River was on fire, Apollo 8 was circling the moon, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, and after the brief promise of the Prague Spring, Soviet tanks were rolling into Czechoslovakia to halt reform. The Beatles, fresh from the disillusion of their Maharishi Mahesh Yogi visit to Rishikesh, India (the guru made an ill-advised sexual advance on Mia Farrow), were finishing “The White Album,” their least coherent album and one of their most thrilling. Among the popular books published that year was “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead and the Merry Pranksters and their LSD-fueled cross-country bus ride with Beat Generation holdover Neal Cassady in the driver’s seat. Even John Updike was publishing uncharacteristically weird experimental stories in the New Yorker, perhaps in an effort to compete with the ascendancy of Donald Barthelme, whose newly released second book, “Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts,” was composed in “strings of language [that] extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.”
Munro’s project, even this early in her career, was not divorced from the concerns of the counterculture. Already, the provocations of feminism and the sexual revolution had made their way even to rural Ontario, where they crashed hard against the prevailing Protestantism no less than they did in the United States. In “Dance of the Happy Shades,” which traffics, like many first books, in what Lee K. Abbott once called “the unfinished business of childhood,” the prevailing political questions are left implicit, but they peek around the corners of page after page in which a young woman must navigate a culture whose rigid and unjust terms aren’t set by young women.
Munro’s second collection, “Lives of Girls and Women,” makes this concern explicit by placing it in the title — a political expression of no subtlety. As a cycle of interconnected stories, it also marks the beginning of the formal restlessness that would later mark the path to the great triumph of her career. Along with “The Beggar Maid,” Munro’s fourth collection, “Lives of Girls and Women” can be seen as a founding document of the contemporary revival of the novel-in-stories, its echoes apparent in contemporary books such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth,” Edwidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker” and Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge.”
Lorentzen holds up “The Beggar Maid” for special derision. The title of his review, “Poor Rose,” is lifted from his own show of mock sympathy for the book’s protagonist. “Poor Rose!” Lorentzen writes. “For the rest of the book her assignations and affairs are either botched by snowstorms or cut short because the man dies of cancer without calling her back …”
It’s a strange complaint, because these are the kinds of trouble — assignations, affairs, wanting things one can’t have, love, sex, death, mystery — that lie at the center of almost every work of fiction I have ever read. Anecdotally, it is also a strangely common complaint from male readers of my acquaintance who are looking for a little more action, and who don’t see what could be interesting about the domestic life.
Neither of these complaints hold up well against a reading of “The Beggar Maid.” For one thing, Munro gets her heroine on a train to Toronto in “Wild Swans,” a story that proceeds in a white heat from its first sentence: “Flo said to watch for White Slavers.” As the story goes, they would drug you, bind you, keep you “a prisoner in the White Slave place,” until “such time as you were thoroughly degraded and in despair, your insides torn up by drunken men and invested with vile disease, your mind destroyed by drugs, your hair and teeth fallen out.”
Flo is Rose’s stepmother, and even as she offers this smotheringly motherly advice, the reader can detect the prurience in it. People repressed by their culture can take great pleasure in cautionary tales about the evils in the world that need avoiding. It is a way to get close to the flame, and the reason why the Sunday evening visits from the traveling preachers of my Southern Baptist childhood, the ex-Satanists and the burners of rock ’n’ roll records, were always uniformly well-attended. And Rose — a likable yearner in my estimation — pushes back hard enough that Munro allows herself a rare adverb: provokingly. “There’s the police, anyway,” Rose says, and Flo replies: “Oh, them! They’d be the first ones to diddle you!”
But they’re not the first ones to diddle Rose. A traveling minister reaches his hand between her legs and rubs her to orgasm, and it’s unclear — to the reader, and to Rose as well — whether the act is consensual. By today’s standards, it wouldn’t be. Rose is not quite an adult, and she never quite says yes, nor is she asked, nor do either she or the preacher acknowledge that the thing that is happening between them is happening at all. She thinks of saying, Please don’t, but she can’t, out of embarrassment, and also out of curiosity, and an arousal that rises up alongside her revulsion.
“This was disgrace,” Rose thinks. “This was beggary.” Then Munro’s narrator, her own version of the Nabokovian intruder Lorentzen praised in Zadie Smith’s “NW,” intrudes to pronounce thrillingly upon the moment: “But what harm in that, we say to ourselves at such moments, what harm in anything, the worse the better, as we ride the cold wave of greed, of greedy assent. A stranger’s hand, or root vegetables or humble kitchen tools that people tell jokes about; the world is tumbling with innocent-seeming objects ready to declare themselves, slippery and obliging ... Victim and accomplice she was born past Glassco’s Jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries. They glided into suburbs where bedsheets and towels used to wipe up intimate stains, flapped leeringly on the clotheslines …”
These are lines one could imagine John Updike or F. Scott Fitzgerald being proud to have written, and they rise up with such force that the reader has the impression of a lifting, up off the page, a transport to mirror Rose’s sexual transport. This effect that couldn’t be any further from the dull constancy Lorentzen accuses Munro of evidencing “like butterscotch pudding on the boil,” a line he borrows from a description of the deadly Peregrine River in the title story from “The Love of a Good Woman.” I suppose he means to deliver it as an insult, but the metaphor doesn’t hold. There is nothing of dull constancy in the Peregrine River, which is at the moment “barely back within its banks” after the destruction of the yearly flood, and which, if you fell into it, “would freeze our blood and fling you out into the lake, if it didn’t brain you against the buttresses first.” These, I suppose, are the sorts of sentences that are “perfectly polished” and “perfectly humorless,” but, if so, many other writers might say: Let me be shiny and let nobody laugh.
For many writers, a book like “The Beggar Maid” would represent an unassailable high point, but as even Lorentzen must acknowledge, the consensus best of Munro’s work can be found in a series of four books (“Friend of My Youth,” “Open Secrets,” “The Love of a Good Woman,” and “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”), published between 1990 and 2001.
It is with his discussion of “Friend of My Youth” — the volume in which “Differently” appears — that Lorentzen does the greatest disservice to Munro and her would-be readers. During this period, Munro moved out of an explicitly personal register and into a public discourse that showed, in a manner similar to the postwar poetry of the Polish masters, that the daily lives of human beings were, as Wislawa Szymborska said, perhaps of more interest than “wars, preferably large ones … the odd ascent above our clump of Earth … major migrations from point A to B.”
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Then, in the eight stories of “Open Secrets,” she demonstrates that the short story can operate out of a formal dexterity no less expansive in its possibility than the novel’s. She finds new ways to use letters, invents narration strategies in which the main character is the only opaque character in the story, allows one character to create an alternative ongoing life for a dead character, sends a character into myth and Albania, and titles a story “Spaceships Have Landed.” She employs intelligent, single-use juxtapositional structures that allow her to cram as much as a hundred years into 30 or 50 pages. In stories such as “Meneseteung” and “Friend of My Youth,” she demonstrates an expansion of first person narration in a manner that Philip Roth used in almost the same way a few years later in the triumphant second run of Zuckerman novels (“American Pastoral” and “The Human Stain,” especially), which came to constitute his own best work. (Could Roth have been reading Munro?)
By 1998, the year of the publication of “The Love of a Good Woman,” Munro had begun to mute the way the new kinds of stories wore their form like an exoskeleton, and created a series of stories in which the freedom the previous two books had opened could now be stretched out into in more organic ways, a development that reached its crescendo in “Hateship, Friendship’s" “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a novel compressed into 40-some pages in which, as Lorentzen tells it, “a woman with dementia forgets her husband and directs her affections toward another resident.” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is Munro’s crowning achievement, a story in which a writer is operating without a net, in absence of constraints, offering in greatest fullness a character for whom ordinary consciousness has been transmuted into some other thing, a story whose only rival in this regard is “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter’s novella of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.
Throughout the years she was writing “Friend of My Youth,” “Open Secrets,” “The Love of a Good Woman” and “Hateship, Friendship,” Munro was making history, culture, power and time her subjects. Lorentzen complains that “people’s residential and familial histories” come up “all the time in the stories … details she never leaves out,” without understanding that these are the details that accumulate, that the characters gnaw on until they explode like fireworks at story’s end, where, as in Chekhov’s best story, “Gusev,” we realize that the story is an avatar of all the world’s other stories, and that the song of the individual is given to grandeur in part because of the way it connects to all the music that came before and all the music that will come after. In this regard, sometimes Munro seems to have made a single dyspeptic organism of the whole universe.
How can Lorentzen be deaf to these pleasures? He describes them, instead, as the working out of “her tic of adding a coda to a story, marked usually by the words ‘years later’ — as if she were the Doctor Who of short story writing,” and speaks dismissively of how “her great theme is said to be memory, and there’s certainly something universal about remembering,” especially the deep kind of remembering in which characters must imaginatively reconstruct, as fiction writers do (and as all human beings probably do in daily life), the question of what another person must have been thinking, or what they were doing during the parts of the story we’ll never know. Often, “the endings of stories call into question their whole manner of telling.” To Lorentzen, all of this adds up to a kind of sad sack mostly realism nonlinearism, for which as “a nod to postmodernism, it’s pretty feeble.”
But it is not feeble. It is robust and intentional and, despite the smooth clarity of its surfaces, a close kin to the literature described and imagined by Gaston Bachelard in “The Poetics of Space,” or to Robert Coover’s card catalog method of text rearrangement, or to Julio Cortazar’s “Hopscotch.” Although Munro rarely proclaims upon her own work, these were the matters on her mind when she wrote the introduction to the Vintage paperback edition of her “Selected Stories.”
“I don’t always,” she wrote, “or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction. So it appears I’m not reading — at least in an efficient way — to find out what happens. I do find out, and I’m interested in finding out, but there’s much more to the experience. A story is not like a road to follow, I said. It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”
All of which is true, but the extraordinary thing about the better stories of Alice Munro is that they do come around to beguile you, and if they don’t give you shelter, it is because they are too busy taking up residence inside you. If the reader is willing to provide them a good address, they offer in return not only companionship, not only pleasure, not only a deepening acquaintance with the mysteries, but also the kind of wisdom that Munro’s mid-to-late-career reflective intelligence can teach profitably, before old age imposes it roughly and too late.
As in the ending to “Friend of My Youth,” in which the narrator realizes, for the first time, that her story is not just about the confinements of Ontario’s provincial cage, but is, rather, about a long and unbroken chain of connection among generations of ancestors and progeny during four centuries on two continents separated by an ocean — the way, as it turns out, most of our stories might be:
“The Cameronians, I have discovered, are or were an uncompromising remnant of the Covenanters — those Scots who in the seventeenth century bound themselves, with God, to resist prayer books, bishops, any taint of popery or interference by the King. Their name comes from Richard Cameron, an outlawed, or ‘field,’ preacher, soon cut down. The Cameronians — for a long time they have preferred to be called the Reformed Presbyterians — went into battle singing the seventy-fourth and seventy-eighth Psalms. They hacked the haughty Bishop of St. Andrews to death on the highway and rode their horses over his body. One of their ministers, in a mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world.”