Helen (Helena/Nell)'s Reviews > Selected Stories

Selected Stories by Alice Munro
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it was amazing

Alice Munro is one of the best contemporary short story writers. I know this because everybody says so. Some of them say she is the best.

I love short stories but although I have read Munro before, I have never quite clicked with any of hers. And I love that ‘click’ that comes with the short story, that feeling as you get to the end that you intend to go right back to the beginning again, and that this will be a great pleasure, and that you will do it again and again and again.

I’ve been reading this Selected all summer and as I’ve worked my way through, I have marveled at the cool, clean style, at the author’s superb way with words. Here is Lydia in ‘Dulse’, after she has finally parted with the man she has been living with:

“She had to remember directions, and the order in which do things: to open her checkbook, to move forward when it was her turn in line, to choose one kind of bread over another, to drop a token in the slot. These seemed to be the most difficult things she had ever done. She had immense difficulty reading the names of the subway stations, and getting off at the right one, so she could go to the apartment where she was staying. She would have found it hard to describe this difficulty. She knew perfectly well which was the right stop, she knew which stop it came after; she knew where she was. But she could not make the connection between herself and things outside herself, so that getting up and leaving the car, going up the steps, going along the street all seemed to involve a bizarre effort.”

This seems to me to be remarkable writing. I think it’s something to do with the simplicity of the phrasing combined with the way the looping syntax mirrors the processes that are so difficult. Then the simple sentence “But she could not make the connection between herself and the things outside herself” sums it all up so neatly and so beautifully. This sort of thing, in another context, would be called poetry.

She is stunningly good at visual description too, photographically good. I would quote more if I had more space.

But what about my ‘click’. It did happen at last. It was in a story called ‘Fits’ (and in another, too, called ‘Vandals’ but ‘Fits’ suits my purposes better here).

The first line of this story might be in one of those exercise books that trains you how to start a short story well: “The two people who died were in their early sixties”. We’re talking about an accident, but two deaths, not one. Maybe a car accident? Read on to find out.

Munro sets the scene in the first 8-paragraph section, and the main characters are laid on the canvas: the two who died (nameless at this point), Peg and Robert (their neighbours) and Clayton and Kevin (Peg’s sons). It’s a second marriage for Peg. Rob, (a middle-aged store keeper) has married her late after a series of affairs with married women.

The focus of the story seems to be the deaths, since they are violent (murder/suicide). An ordinary story teller might have picked up the idea of what runs under the surface in apparently ‘normal’ relationships, since the deaths are unexpected. Or perhaps focused on the way you just don’t know what’s going on next door . . .

But that’s not what Munro does. It is Peg who finds the couple (dead) and the focus of this story is her reaction to their deaths, and the effect of her reaction on Robert. They’ve been married only a few years and she behaves neither as he expects, nor as the reader would expect.

The news of the violent incident is, to most people in the town, an enjoyable possession: “It was true that most people valued and looked forward to the moment of breaking the news”. And yet Peg, who finds the bodies and reports the deaths to the police, tells neither her friend Karen about it, nor her husband Robert.

Karen, on the other hand, tells her mother in hospital and her friend Shirley. Friend Shirley’s sister has got there first with the news, however, and Karen is “annoyed at Shirley’s sister, who didn’t work and could get to the phone whenever she wanted”. Still, Karen was bound to tell her because she “knew she wouldn’t want not to know”. And that was true, says, Munro. “Nobody would want not to know.”

But Peg hasn’t told them. Karen says, “I always believed Peg and me to be friends, but now I’m not so sure.” Robert feels “troubled, even slightly humiliated, to think that he hadn’t known; Peg hadn’t let him know”. Fourteen-year-old Kevin also thinks Peg “should have let him know”.

But she didn’t.

Is she in shock? Nope. Later that evening, at dinner “Robert was watching her, from time to time. He would have said he was watching to see if she was in any kind of trouble, if she seemed numb, or strange, or showed a quiver, if she dropped things or made the pots clatter. But in fact he was watching her just because there was no sign of such difficulty and because he knew there wouldn’t be. She was preparing an ordinary meal, listening to the boys in her usual mildly censorious but unruffled way. The only thing more apparent than usual to Robert was her gracefulness, lightness, quickness, and ease round the kitchen.”

Finally, Peg tells him about her experience of finding the bodies. Robert has heard most of it already from the local gossip-mongers. There is, however, one thing he’s aware of which she doesn’t tell him (but we don’t know that yet).

Clayton comes back. He talks casually about what causes violent events and this is where the story title comes in: “It’s a kind of fit,” says Robert. “People can take a fit like the earth takes a fit. But it only happens once in a long while. It’s a freak occurrence.”

Clayton observes that married people often have those kind of ‘fits’ but feels compelled to make an exception of Peg and Robert because of the way his mother looks at him, the only point in the story where there is an indicator of the emotional undercurrents she is experiencing: “. . .Peg was looking at Clayton. She who always seemed pale and silky and assenting, but hard to follow as a watermark in fine paper, looked dried out, chalky, her outlines fixed in steady, helpless, unapologetic pain.”

What a wonderful simile – that watermark! But I don’t want to give away the end of the story, where there is a subtle twist. Robert goes out for a walk alone, thinking about what he knows she hasn’t told him. And it is in what she hasn’t said (or what she has left out) and what he will choose to share with her that the elegance of this story lies.

It is, at heart, a relationship piece, I think, and it is beautifully handled. At the end you want to go back to the start, to Peg’s background, her previous marriage, to the clues about what has been going on. It is all about her. The dead next-door neighbours are incidental.

This, it seems to me, provides a kind of insight to Munro’s writing in general. Her stories often open in a way that provides a focus of interest – a character, or an event – something that seems part of the commonground of stories. But in fact, the obvious focus is never what she is interested in. The events that inform the narrative are also not of especial interest to her, so much so that sometimes you feel a sense of flatness or disappointment that the happenings have become sidelined and unimportant compared to a single aspect the author is pursuing. To me, these stories are like seeing a detail from a huge painting, with the main canvas simply there for background.

Yes, she is a marvelous writer. Even with the stories that don’t ‘click’ for me, the quality of language is second to none. I must get more of her for next summer. She benefits from slow reading, like a very good wine.
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Reading Progress

July 29, 2009 – Shelved
July 29, 2009 –
page 278
Started Reading
August 9, 2009 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Mabel (new)

Mabel thanks for reminding me how much i had always enjoyed short stories,off to bed now with selected stories best regards mabel

Helen (Helena/Nell) They are the BEST bedtime reading! Sweet dreams.

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