Review of Alice
Munro’s Selected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/22/06
Canadian prosist Alice Munro is not a particularly bad writer, but she’s not a particularly good nor engaging one either. Terms such as mundane, dull, and ho-hum come to mind. While she is certainly not the worst writer published, she’s only a passable writer, at best, and vastly overrated. I recently read her Selected Stories not long after reading a similar collection of Doris Lessing’s best known short fiction, and it’s possible that there was a residual feeling of letdown after Lessing’s superb collection. But, I’m too good a critic for that. The truth is that for all her overhype Munro’s stories are merely ok, at best- at least the twenty-eight collected herein. That she has gotten so much hype for her short stories, along with the spurious comparisons to Anton Chekhov’s best works, is due to what I might call the ‘little country’ factor. Yes, Canada is larger than the USA in terms of square miles but it’s only about a tenth the size in population and often writers get reputations or awards due to their coming from small nations, where they have been granted demigod status due to their being the only writer known outside of their country. Think of Nobel Prize winners like novelist J.M. Coetzee, or poet Wislawa Szymborska, among a far too long list. The comparison to Chekhov is absurd, both qualitatively and innovatively. She even pales besides someone like Doris Lessing, who also trumps her in quality and daring.
In a sense, Munro shares some of the insular ‘regionalism’ that infects the work of American writers like Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner- although she is not as heavy-handed as O’Connor. She’s more like Canada’s Eudora Welty, although her tales are less brocaded and ornate. Yet, they are dull, as she seems to be obsessed with her own ideas of her past, like too many workshop writers of the present, but her biggest flaw is that she simply is predictable. As is too often the case, many readers mistake dull writing for realism, rather than understanding artistic realism’s heart is the ability to distill banalities from the few peaks of incidental poesy that occur daily.
There is also a definitive Alice Munro short story template, and she rarely, it seems, has ever veered too far from it. Here it is, and yes- the word is formulaic:
A female protagonist has a hard rural childhood in impoverished Great Depression era Ontario, in the country around Lake Huron. A tragedy occurs, usually offstage, but there are loads of wacky or weird relatives- molesters, drunks, suicides, lunatics, and general eccentrics. She perdures, makes it to college, marries, then has kids, and often moves to Western Canada. The marriage falters- it’s usually his fault, according to the POV of the tale’s narrator. She strays, usually with a blue collar sort, and lives a life of artistic decadence and emotional weakness. She has travails with her own kids- usually daughters that are as headstrong as she, and then refuses to age gracefully. Munro is no proto-Feminist. The tale then goes on narcoleptically for over twenty pages, with occasional shifts in time that serve little purpose, and characters who seem to serve a purpose only to disappear. Then you get the supposed ‘surprise ending’, which is usually not a surprise to an astute reader, nor anything worth the stupor the prior pages have induced. Not much occurs, plotwise, and there is no compensation via rich descriptions, poetic insights, nor interesting internal lives of the characters, who are so forgettable as to almost make one wish for a Flannery O’Connor stereotype.
This syllabus is followed in tales like Differently, Dulse, Simon’s Luck, and others, with only slight variances in the plot and larger ones in the character names. Where any critic has ever gotten the notion that she is innovative can only be attributed to the fact that they were probably playing the blurbery game, or they simply have read no more than, say, three or four books of short stories. Interestingly, there seems to be an almost tacit admission from Munro that she is very delimited in her approach and range, for in one of the stories within this collection, Differently, she starts the tale off with this admonition from a creative writing instructor:
‘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.’
In a Munro tale, what is to be thought of is hammered home again and again, ad nauseam, to the point of being surfeited by the obviousness of it all. The more you read of her the more limited you see her tales are. Unlike Lessing, she no has tales of roofers who curse and get horny peeping at women sunbathing on rooftops, nor of African diplomats engaged in verbal parries of oneupsmanship. Munro never dares to take that step outside of herself. Her range is alarmingly narrow, and her tales do nothing to let outsiders in to the isolated spaces her characters inhabit, so that the reader who is not a white Canadian woman from the mid-20th Century can easily identify with. Even worse, her dialogue is very stilted, and the flood of eccentric characters seems to have been a noxious harbinger of the coming David Lynchization of much contemporary published fiction, even as this harbinger lacks any of the fun and campiness that later devotees of that take on life have had- if nothing more. This contributes to her failure in dealing with social issues in her work. Unlike Lessing, her tales on the classes plod, far more akin to the emotionless failures of a writer like William Trevor, than the structural successes of a Lessing.
Munro’s tales almost always leave a reader feeling cheated, that they were promised something more, and Munro reneged on the deal. In The Progress Of Love a woman rebels against social restraints….only to become a real estate agent with an anomic love life. This sort of disappointment is typical of Munro- possibly intriguing tales that crash of their own lack of energy and ideas. In one of her most famous tales, Walker Brothers Cowboy, a girl accompanies her salesman father to work, selling through rural Ontario in the 1930s. A visit to an old girlfriend reveals his hidden past, and the girl ponders why her mother sees only the worst in him, while the ex sees only the good. Yet, that’s it- there is no moment that changes the girl, and her observation is merely one destined to be forgotten. So, what was the point of the tale? It certainly was not to wow the reader with plot nor poetic language, save for near the very end:
….I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.
But, this is the exception, not the rule. In Material, the ex-wife
of a famed writer and professor reads a short story of his that affects her
deeply. Having doubted he would ever become a good writer, she envies his
ability to take her ‘useless baggage’ of memories and create art from them,
after she sacrificed her own writing for him. Yet, again, the tale ends on a
downer- not a Chekhovian zero ending, but just an end, without insight nor a
compelling reason why the reader needed to know of this person. Postcard is perhaps the best tale in the book, and the only one that seems to
show anything of what Munro’s apologists claim for her whole corpus. In it, a
woman finds out her fiancé, whom she does not care for, who was vacationing in
Florida, has married someone else. She confronts him outside his house, and
realizes she cared far more than she ever admitted to herself. It ends with this
Oh, Buddy Shields, you can
just go on talking, and Clare will tell jokes, and Momma will cry, till she gets
over it, but what I’ll never understand is why, right now, seeing Clare
MacQuarrie as an unexplaining man, I felt for the first time that I wanted to
reach out my hands and touch him.
There are other tales, with similarly mundane plots, such as Carried Away, where a dead character appears to a librarian. Miles City, Montana is about a child’s near-drowning but has little else top offer, save a well-phrased end:
So we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that had first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous- all our natural, and particular, mistakes.
The problem is that the art of the words is undermined by the very contrived dramatic nature of this would-be epiphany. In The Turkey Season a girl learns to gut turkeys and wonders of a gay dalliance between her boss and an employee. The Albanian Virgin is about the kidnapping a young woman, within the larger tale of a divorced female bookstore owner who ends up living outside of Trieste. Labor Day Dinner is a horrid tale that distills all of Munro’s worst tendencies. Carried Away is about the sexual history of a librarian, that ends in a hallucinatory collage of moments. White Dump, about a biscuit factory sugar dump, follows yet another weak-willed Munrovian heroine and her romantic travails. The Ottawa Valley finds a mother refusing to promise she will recover from Parkinson’s Disease, as a daughter struggles to write about her:
The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did. She is heavy as always, she weighs everything down, and yet she is indistinct, her edges melt and flow. Which means she has stuck to me as close as ever and refused to fall away, and I could go on, and on, applying what skills I have, using what tricks I know, and it would always be the same.
In Royal Beatings, a daughter, father, and stepmother participate in bizarre rites of physical punishment. In Dance Of The Happy Shades a bad piano recital is interrupted by disabled children, to the dismay of many. There are a series of tales that follow a character named Rose, such as Simon’s Luck, which is about her will to power. Wild Swans is about a teen Rose’s travels on a train, and The Beggar Maid follows Rose at a university, where she meets and, of course marries a rich man, who tries to change her. They move to Vancouver, and, well, guess what happens? Of course, like a typical Munro character, Rose shows no depth:
Girls she hardly knew stopped and asked to see her ring, admired it, wished her happiness. When she went back to Hanratty for a weekend, alone this time, thank God, she met the dentist’s wife on the main street.
‘Oh Rose, isn’t it wonderful! When are you coming back again? We’re going to give a tea for you, the ladies in town all want to give a tea for you!’
This woman had never spoken to Rose, never given any sign before of
knowing who she was. Paths were opening now, barriers were softening. And Rose-
oh, this was the worst, this was the shame of it- Rose, instead of cutting the
dentist’s wife, was blushing and skittishly flashing her diamond and saying
yes, that would be a lovely idea.
Did I mention that Munro was no Feminist, despite claims to the contrary? Yes, there are some nice moments, and there is no doubt that Munro, at least, compared to some of the dreck published today- from PoMo banalities to books filled with email lingo- actually has some good formal skills. But, the truth is I was really hoping she would be that rare writer that lives up to their hype. Alas! She is, at best, a journeyman writer. The touch of the infinite, the Muse, whatever you would want to call that special ability only the great artists have, is not present in her writing. She goes on too long, too predictably, with too little development of characters, and with no poetic framing of any of it. Her wordsmanship is pedestrian, not exalted, and the claims of her experimental nature are overblown. As I said, Doris Lessing blows her away qualitatively and experimentally. The truth is, that by the third or fourth story in the book I knew exactly what to look for in each tale, and never got the pleasant shock of being wrong.
Artistically, I would have to state that Munro’s work reflects much of the dull, mutedness of her tales’ countryside settings. They are arid, lifeless, and stifling, almost like the great bleak paintings of Andrew Wyeth, save for one crucial difference. In his best paintings he utterly captures, and more so, distills a moment in time that is frightening and intense in its diurnal dullness. Munro’s inner landscapes are merely dull, lacking all vivacity. There is no emotion that seeps through, and their very formula blurs the whole book into one long, distended gray mist- or perhaps, dried and leached dirt. And we all know how difficult it is to grow anything in such soil, especially great art.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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