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Short Story Month: Addicted to Alice Munro

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In honor of the last week of Short Story Month, a series of short story posts.

Appropriately (though by no means intentionally) for short story month, in the past weeks I've been consumed by an addiction to short stories that is unprecedented for me. I have always preferred to immerse myself in long stories -- and if they are very good, then really, the longer the better. With time I have come to appreciate the value of escapism for its own sake; having a wonderful story winding its continuous thread through my day to day life somehow makes it all much more bearable and occasionally even meaningful.

But then I came under the spell of Alice Munro. Introduced to me by a generous coworker who has so far lent me Friend of My Youth, Open Secrets, The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway, Alice Munro seems to me to be a short story writer for novel readers; someone whose stories are so densely packed with character depth, rich settings and psychological nuance that they create an effect similar to many novels. To emerge from one of Munro's short stories is often an experience akin to breaking the surface after a dive into deep water.

One of the ways in which she achieves this is by creating complex characters with swift, deft brushstrokes right from the start. In "Jakarta," a story appearing in The Love of a Good Woman, we meet the central characters of the story on a beach, and their horrified perception of "the Monicas" -- the other women on the beach with their boisterous children and ruined figures -- lets us know immediately that these characters are on a path that diverges from the traditional expectations of women in that time and place, even before the orgies start. (And if that doesn't make you want to read it, I don't know what will!)

Another characteristic of many of Munro's stories is an involved and complex plot with surprising twists. One of my favorites that falls into this category is "Friend of My Youth," which operates within a frame narrative: the narrator is recollecting a bizarre episode from her deceased mother's past, while at the same time struggling with her own feelings for her mother. The story within the story tells of an enigmatic woman who was either a victim or an architect of the tragedies around her, with evidence pointing equally in both directions. The enduring ambiguity of the character may be thematically connected with the narrator's memories of her mother, whom she loved and resented and ultimately never wholly understood -- and death has rendered the mystery permanent.

Probably the most common characteristic of the stories -- which usually take place in rural Canada but otherwise span every possible time period from the nineteenth century on -- is their focus on the interior lives of women; women who are usually following the dictates that a narrow, rural society has decreed, yet in subtle ways are exploring and testing the boundaries, sometimes with explosive results.

These explorations are articulated with unusual vehemence in "Passion," when the protagonist reacts with disgust to the female character in the movie Father of the Bride, because,

"That was what men -- people, everybody -- thought [girls] should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with. Then she would become a mother and she'd be all mushily devoted to her babies. Not selfish anymore, but just as pea-brained. Forever." (Runaway, 164)

Yet this is more overtly feminist in tone than Munro usually gets; for the most part, the impression conveyed in these stories is that the reason we are so often with the women is because in their multiplicity of struggles, internal and external, they are simply more interesting.

But I think what is most compelling about Alice Munro's stories is the sense we have of peering into the darkest recesses of people's hearts, eavesdropping behind closed doors, learning their tortured secrets. In an age of reality TV this may seem passé, but imagine if you could actually enter the mind and emotional state of a person, and through understanding them, better understand yourself. That is something that only literature can give us, no matter how many cameras TV may place in "private" areas (thereby transforming them into exhibitions). In her sublime A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf wrote, "There is a spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head which one can never see for oneself. It is one of the good offices that sex can discharge for sex -- to describe that spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head."

She was speaking of how women and men may enable one another to understand themselves by depicting the opposite sex in literature, but this principle can also be applied more generally: with her powers of insight and intimate depiction, Alice Munro shows us that part of our nature which we may not have even realized, or only admitted to in our dreams.