Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro

I was discussing abridged audio books with a blind friend recently. I avoid them. I don't see how an editor can prune 40-60% of a book without expunging its soul. Nicholas disagreed, citing John le Carre's novels as an example of books that could do nicely with some ruthless editing. "There's just too much description," he grumbled. "All this description of places and people..."  I suppose I should read one of le Carre's novels first in abridged then in unabridged form and then reconsider my stance that description is the flesh over the bones of the plot.

This conversation popped back into my head as I read this collection of Alice Munro's stories.  I am not a fan of the short story, and it's not for lack of trying. I've dutifully listened to umpteen episodes of public radio's  'Selected Shorts'. The New Yorker publishes a podcast of one of its published short story writers reading the work of another. Rave reviews led me to buy a collection of Tobias Wolff's short fiction, which I set aside after the first piece with a sense of personal failure.

My problem? I too often feel that I'm reading an abridged novel.  Or an excerpt of a novel. When the story wraps up, I want the rest of it.

Alice Munro's short stories are the exception to this gripe. I don't come away hungry. Her characters are fully developed, photographically vivid. They go through all the pivotal life changes -- hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage and death -- in a dazzlingly efficient word count. (The title, by the way, refers to the more nuanced Canadian version of plucking the petals off a daisy. The simplistic American version is "He loves me, he loves me not.")

The title story features two malicious teen-aged girls having a bit of fun with the domestic helper in one of their households. They forge letters in her name and send them to a roguish male relative in western Canada, then forge responses from him. Before boarding the west-bound train to meet her "beau", the maid visits a dress shop to buy one fine dress. Perhaps she might even be married in it. She chooses one of fine woollen fabric, in dark brown. This is a practical woman, who is not going to waste money on white taffeta yet who is going to the opposite side of the continent to meet a man she's met only once. It is the teen-agers' letters that convince her that this man wants and needs her. As it turns out, he actually does. He needs all her strength and practicality, and she does, after all, look stunning in that elegant brown woollen dress.

Munro's stories remind me of that dress:  they are supremely well-tailored. Not an extraneous ruffle or pleat. They are a deep, earthy brown rather than garish colours and patterns. I think Alice Munro is among the greatest authors of the short-story-as-abridged-novel. Her tales still have plenty of flesh and bones -- description and plot -- but they are lithe and compact.

At the moment, I am marching through an 800-page history of Prussia. That's one downfall of e-books, I've realised:  the page count is not immediately evident. I might have been happy with (horrors!) an abridged version, but it's too late. This is a fine book, worth reading. After every century or so, however, I feel the need for a break. It occurs to me that one of Alice Munro's stories would provide the perfect intermission between the episodes of Prussian history. As soon as Napoleon relinquishes his grasp, I think I'll dart back to Canada for a brief respite.

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