DO WE EXPERIENCE life as a continuum or as a series of disconnected shocks and accidents? Alice Munro started writing at a time when novelists, at least, were preoccupied with coherence, with motivation, with the unseen grip of repeating compulsions, or the ineluctable effect of social conditions on human aspirations. Munro’s short stories, as I have written before, are extraordinary in that they contain whole lives (which should have taken whole novels) in the brief spaces of tales. She is the great describer of quotidian rhythms – food, embarrassment, clothes, ageing, sex, child-bearing and child-rearing. All lives, and all great fiction, have elements of the probable combined with disruptions and disasters. Munro was always interested both in the texture of the ‘normal’ and the shears that slit it. She still sees and records terrestrial dailyness with precision and glitter. But she seems to be looking from further away. The lovingly described human lives come and go in flashes, punctuated by disaster.
These stories contain several violent deaths, and, balancing them, several violent births and a precisely described, terrifying and touching abortion. In the title story three boys find an ophthalmologist drowned in his car. They return home to their very different family tensions and eat their minutely described suppers, saying nothing, before meeting to go to the police. On the way, the dead man’s unknowing widow gives them armfuls of cut forsythia for their parents, which they have to dump. The tension created by what they have to tell and have not told, in the midst of their own persisting dailyness, works dreadfully on the reader. This is only the beginning. The story shifts to a good woman nursing a trivial woman who is dying slowly of kidney failure, a ‘natural’ death, with discernible causes. But this death turns out to be part of a possible act of violence (or a terrible, wicked lie), whose revelation will tear apart other lives, including that of the watching good woman. It is melodrama. It is real life with all its knots and decisions. The woman’s problem – to tell or not to tell what has been confided to her – is shaped in our minds by what we have read about the insouciant boys and the widow offering forsythia.
In ‘Cortes Island’ a typical Munro first-person narrator – newly married, secretly writing, working in a library, brooding on the unimaginable inevitability of the decision to have a child – ends up earning small sums by sitting with her landlady’s paralysed husband. He requires her to read his scrapbooks which include newspaper cuttings of violence – a burned house, a dead man, a pair of escaping lovers, a lost child. The story is the landlady’s story, and she is lost in endless gruesome social niceties of table-settings and perms. Which is ‘real’? It gives the narrator glorious bad dreams, which are also part of the whole story. Then there is the girl who, after a personal disaster, goes home and finds her fierce father is a secret abortionist, and the girl who almost burns to death making an entry in someone else’s old wedding veil – one of the best descriptions of fire and air, the swift change from ordinary to terrible, that I’ve read.
Words in these stories are, as we experience them in life, decisive acts of violence also. They break bones just as surely as sticks and stones. Two of the titles, ‘Rich as Stink’ and ‘The Children Stay’, are themselves phrases which, once uttered, change the lives of the characters for ever. A young girl suddenly understands that her rich mother’s lover is using her mother because she’s ‘rich as stink’. A young mother makes one of those driven, impetuous, sex-besotted decisions to leave her husband for her lover, calls her jolly husband from a motel and hears him say, blunt and final, ‘the children stay’. In both cases the phrase is brisk, colloquial, and perfectly natural. In both cases, as part of Munro’s precise and subtle writing, the phrase resonates, morally and aesthetically, throughout its story. The rich stink permeates the girl’s innocent memories of her mother’s hippy existence. ‘The children stay’ is a perfect example of ambiguity. This story, too, though it is not a long one, surveys a whole life, from the first marriage to the negotiations with the abandoned children as grown-ups. Sexual passion is transient; the love affair doesn’t last; the children are lost; but the telling of the story – the memory of the weight of the baby on a hip, of the way she walks in diapers – shows that the children are what stays, what is finally perceived as important. That description makes the story sound more of a moral fable than it is. Accommodations are also made, as they are in life.
Munro’s skill and daring with technical matters like time-shifts and narrative point of view are so complete that they are not always immediately remarkable. The relatively simple ‘Save the Reaper’ is told from the point of view of a grandmother whose daughter and grandson were conceived through fleeting, impulsive encounters. The mother, like many of Munro’s women, has a taste for danger which is allied to a desire to escape the quotidian. The grandson is obsessed with a game about dangerous, invasive aliens. The daughter is trying to be rooted. The story runs, completely naturally and constantly surprisingly, through the grandmother’s anxieties on a car journey, backwards and forwards in time, in and out of boredom and disaster. Only another writer, perhaps, could know how difficult that pace was to direct and control. ‘Jakarta’ starts with potential narratives formed by young people out of convention, reading books, and biological urges. Kath and Sonje are friends, partly because Kath, happily married with a baby, likes Sonje’s alternative way of life – communism, bohemianism, the shared sex of the commune. They discuss D H Lawrence’s ideas of the union of man and woman, the loss of self. We see Kath’s fear that her husband is ordinary; we see that she is happy in bed with him. We are immersed in momentary embarrassments and the empty projected future. And then, suddenly, we are seeing the same people at the other end of their lives, from the perspective of the conventional husband – now on his third wife, still conventional, but eating pills for heart trouble and somehow substantial. (There are also flashbacks. The story is not a simple diptych.) Sonje says, ‘Young people seem unimportant to me. As if they could vanish off the earth and it wouldn’t really matter.’ ‘Just the opposite,’ Kent says. ‘That’s us you’re talking about. That’s us.’
And, finally, there is the story of the young woman violinist, widow of a brash ‘war hero’ (killed in a training crash), whose baby is taken over by her dotty sister-in-law, whose life is turned upside down by the same mix of impulsive sex and everyday disaster. She gives the baby a mere sliver of a sleeping pill. It could have killed the baby. Consider the effect, as you read this comic, moving and wild tale, of the choice of the baby herself as narrator, describing the dead show-off and the obsessed artist stopped in her tracks. Who but Alice Munro could have made the moral and the drama of a tale turn on the choice made by a speechless infant lost under a sofa, and made the reader feel that something had been achieved and understood, against the odds?