Friday, December 01, 2006

Alice Munro

I finished Runaway last night and have decided, much to nobody's surprise, that Alice Munro is a genius. I will agree that too much Munro might not be a good thing, but too much of anybody is probably not a good thing.

There are eight stories in this collection, all of them with a woman as their main character, at all different stages of life. Often Munro will cover decades in one story, so we might see a young woman as she meets a man and gets engaged, and then we see her as a widow, and we learn how the marriage turned out. Munro gives long stretches of time and she does it gracefully, the information on what happened in intervening years worked into scenes so that it doesn't feel like summary.

I particularly liked a sequence of three stories about the same character, Juliet. She's off to her first teaching job in the first story, in the second, she's returning home to visit her parents after a long absence, and in the third she's an older woman and the story is about her relationship with her daughter. Each story is fairly focused in time, but together they give a sense of Juliet's entire life. I like this scale; the stories show both how much Juliet gets wrapped up in each event in her life and what the events mean in the larger picture. We get the emotions of the moment which we can place in the context of an entire life.

I've read criticisms of Munro's work that claim she's too narrowly focused on the personal and private and doesn't let larger world events into her fiction. This may be a valid point, but one important social and political event that does inform her stories is the women's movement. Juliet, for example, is a graduate student whose male professors do not take her intellect and her job prospects seriously:

Her professors were delighted with her -- they were grateful these days for anybody who took up ancient languages, and particularly for someone so gifted -- but they were worried, as well. The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married -- which might happen, as she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, she was not bad-looking at all -- she would waste all her hard work and theirs, and if she did not get married she would probably become bleak and isolated, losing out on promotions to men (who needed them more, as they had to support families). She would not be able to defend the oddity of her choice of Classics, to accept what people would see as its irrelevance, or dreariness, to slough that off the way a man could. Odd choices were simply easier to men, most of whom would find women glad to marry them. Not so the other way around.
As she ages, however, and as her society becomes a little more open to ambitious women, she finds ways to take on a public role. The public world -- the world outside the family and the self -- does have a place in Munro's fiction; it's just indirect and muted. It's not the focus. But this strikes me as realistic, in its own way; many of us deal with significant world events in indirect and muted ways.

I remember somebody calling Munro's stories "novelistic," in the sense that are so rich with emotion and complexity that they could fill the space of a novel -- this makes sense to me, although I wouldn't want to sound like I'm denigrating the short story genre by calling excellent stories "novelistic." Perhaps I should just say that these stories are satisfying in the way they capture whole worlds and lives and minds and emotions.

I enjoyed my experience of reading a book of short stories, which I have rarely done, and I think I would like to read more. The trick, for me, is to read them fairly slowly, meaning only one at a time, and to read them in one sitting if I can. To read a whole series of stories at once would confuse me (just as reading a whole series of poems would), but to sit down and read one an evening or every other evening works well.

This book, as you can see in the sidebar to the left, is my second book in the Winter Stacks challenge -- three more to go!