Alice Munro

            When I read Alice Munro, I don't get the impression that, like me, she has the need to name things. She writes short stories, and the collection I'm on, Runaway, is called "the synthesizing work of one of literature's keenest investigators into the human soul," according to the back of the book. And while I try to most keenly investigate the human soul in my life, I constantly sweat about figuring out what's going on or what might be going on just beneath the surface of things.

            Munro's primary characters tend to be educated, sexually competent women who are displaced somehow - away from home, but, of course, still in Canada. She builds suspense and arranges her plots around everyday conflict. She captures nuances - or maybe not even nuances but things that are instead, usually, considered to lowly to notice. Things considered feminine or embarrassing or tragic or undignified, those things Cosmo magazine hints at when they make lists like "10 Things You're Doing to Push Him Away." And anyhow, she seems to have these things readily available to put onto the page. I recognize them immediately when she writes, but I can't at all seem to capture them on my own.

            I went home to Colorado a few weekends ago, and I sat at the counter in my parents's kitchen and proclaimed my espoused beliefs to my mother who was making breakfast casserole. "Women disappear after college." I said. "It wasn't until my twenties when I found out that any women were good at cool things - like writing or playing in bands. I got the impression that being female was a great handicap. All that mattered was how I looked." Etc. Etc. My mom looked at me sadly and asked, "What are you fighting against?" At which point, I started to ramble because I don't know, actually; it's so hard to pin down. Being a feminist quickly starts feeling like trying to root out a conspiracy, so I begin talking like a John Berger video. There are academic explanations for what I feel and what I'm trying to express, but they're all pretty dense and I don't usually have the patience for them. And good luck sitting someone down and explaining that they should respect you just as much as a man because there are these things called signs and signifiers and codes and cultural myth that condition your perceptions. (Repent! The end is nigh.)

            Alice Munro, though, does not get so caught up, and she's more soaring than fighting in her prose. Here are two examples:

“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. […] When the teaching offer came they urged her to take it. Good for you. Get out into the world a bit. See some real life.

             “Juliet was used to this sort of advice, though disappointed to hear it coming from these men who did not look or sound as if they had knocked about in the real world very eagerly themselves. In the town where she grew up her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb, and people had been quick to point out the expected accompanying drawbacks—her inability to run a sewing machine or tie up a neat parcel, or notice that her slip was showing. What would become of her, was the question.”
          - “Chance”


                  “Avie never had a job, and nobody expected her to have one, with all those children. But she had more spare time than anybody would have thought, and she spent most of it reading. When the great switch came in women’s lives—when wives and mothers who had seemed content suddenly announced that it was not so, when they all started sitting on the floor instead of on sofas. And took university courses and wrote poetry and fell in love with their professors or their psychiatrists or their chiropractors, and began to say “shit” and “fuck” instead of “darn” and “heck” – Avie was never tempted to join in. Maybe she was too fastidious, too proud. Maybe Hugo was just too much of a sitting duck. Maybe she loved him. At any rate, she was as she was, and reading Leonard Cohen wouldn’t be any help to her.”
-                           - “Axis” 

            Which is why I like fiction - well, one of the reasons. It gets at the same ideas that philosophy does and theology and psychology and sociology and semiotics and cultural criticism, but it does so without having to bludgeon those ideas into a framework. Fiction does not require the author to name the ideas or to prove them. But the story does need to stand up on its own, to make sense, to entertain, and that's hard (maybe impossible) to do without truth, without the author being on to something, being at least somewhat keen in her investigation of the human soul.

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