Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro

I've been reading exalted reviews of Alice Munro's short stories for years and have finally gotten around to reading one of her collections. I would certainly have done it sooner, but the short story has never been one of my favourite genres. And much as I appreciated Munro's work, that hasn't changed. Short stories are, well... just too short for my taste. I can be content with a novella, like those of Thomas Mann, but I nearly always finish a short story with a sense of being dumped out of a bus before reaching my destination.  I can think of a few exceptions -- some of Saki's short stories and Shirley Jackson's classic, "The Lottery", for instance.

I did love Alice Munro's good women. I only wanted to spend more time with them than she allowed me. I want her to weave whole, rich novels around them. I don't mean to suggest that her short stories are lacking in substance, depth or atmosphere.  She puts her women in brilliantly detailed settings, and she takes them from Point A to Point B, sometimes over the course of their lifetimes. I don't finish these stories and feel that Munro has left anything undone. Rather, she draws me into a world that has all the makings of a delicious novel, and I'm not ready to leave it after such a brief visit.

In the title story, a trio of young boys goes out along a dirt track to a river in the early Canadian spring. The river is swollen with melt-water, and in it they spot the light blue Mini belonging to the local optometrist, Dr. Willens. The car is mostly submerged, but they crowd as close as they can to look inside, openly curious as only children can be.
They could picture Mr. Willens' face as they knew it -- a big square face which often wore a theatrical sort of frown but was never seriously intimidating. His thin crinkly hair was reddish or brassy on top, and combed diagonally over his forehead. His eyebrows were darker than his hair, thick and fuzzy like caterpillars stuck above his eyes. This was a face already grotesque to them, in the way that many adult faces were, and they were not afraid to see it drowned. But all they got to see was that arm and his pale hand. They could see the hand quite plain once they got used to looking through the water. It rode there tremulously and irresolutely, like a feather, though it looked as solid as dough. And as ordinary, once you got used to its being there at all. The fingernails were all like neat little faces, with their intelligent everyday look of greeting, their sensible disowning of their circumstances.
"Son of a gun," these boys said. With gathering energy and a tone of deepening respect, even of gratitude. "Son of a gun."
An adult might be too squeamish to look, or would at least scold himself that he should try to disguise his fascination. I'd almost forgotten how matter-of-factly I reacted to death when I was a child. Alice Munro clearly hasn't. I picture her right there, leaning over the bank, all agog and peering into the Mini with the boys.

Many of these stories take place in small towns, where urban people might assume nothing much happens. Well, life happens. For someone who enjoys observing people, a bustling city provides only quantity. Munro immerses us in the faces and speech of rural Canadians.
Like her brother Rupert, she had a round-snub nosed, agreeably wrinkled face -- the kind that Enid's mother called "potato Irish". But behind Rupert's good-humoured expression there was wariness and withholding. And behind Mrs. Green's there was yearning. Enid did not know for what. To the simplest conversation Mrs. Green brought a huge demand. Maybe it was just a yearning for news. News of something momentous. An event. 
In another story, two young women meet to spend the day at a beach in British Columbia. Although both are married and one has a baby, they aren't comfortable with the wife and mother labels, nor any of the accoutrements that seem to go along with them. They sit far removed and observe the pack of women they've dubbed "the Monicas", since that happens to be the name of the only one to whom they've actually spoken.
These women aren't so much older than Kath and Sonje. But they've reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the bright water, the perfect small cove with the red-limbed arbutus trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. Kath feels their threat particularly, since she's a mother now herself. When she nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as not to sink into a sludge of animal function. 
Alice Munro's women are quirky and unpredictable, but each is, at her core, very strong. Maybe like those cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. And it's better, I have to concede, to have met them briefly than never to have met them at all.

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