Small Worlds

ImageThis summer, looking for something to read and with a few minutes to spare before an appointment, I popped into the Powell’s Books on Lincoln in Chicago to pick something up.  I had no clear idea of what I wanted, so I browsed the fiction shelves for something interesting.  About midway through I came across a clutch of Alice Munro books, and I immediately plucked one off the shelf.  I’ve never read an Alice Munro story I didn’t like, a streak kept intact through my reading of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  When, a few months after I bought the book, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was delighted, particularly because the type of fiction she writes is so infrequently rewarded appropriately: Munro writes only short stories deeply focused on the interior lives of her characters, most of the them women, without literary pyrotechnics or dramatic plotlines.  Yet her stories are some of the most moving and satisfying works of fiction I’ve ever read.

This collection was made famous (or what passes for famous among the cultural elite) by the filmmaker Sarah Polley, who adapted the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the award-winning 2006 film “Away from Her.”  The story is in many ways representative of Munro’s work (although, interestingly, the protagonist and main consciousness in “The Bear” is a man): it has few characters, minimal dialogue, is focused on the interior lives of its characters and in particular on the secrets and mysteries inherent in human relationships.  The story focuses on an aging, childless couple who have moved to a rural area to escape a scandal related to the husband’s affair with a young student of his at the university where he once taught.  Though relatively young, Fiona, the wife, begins to exhibit symptoms of dementia, and her husband places her in an assisted-living facility nearby.  There, losing her memory, she develops a relationship with another resident, a mute and brain-damaged man who dotes on her in a way her husband did not.  Her unfaithful husband finds himself in the unfamiliar position of the jealous spouse, experiencing a kind of karmic payback for his years of infidelity.  At the same time, the story gently and tenderly dissects their decades-long relationship, exposing to light the kinds of feelings and desires that often remain hidden, even to the most devoted of spouses.

There is rarely, if ever, an uncomplicated or unmessy relationship in a Munro story.  She tends to explore the underside of love: the forbidden desires, repressed resentments, concealed infidelities (large and small), and petty jealousies that are inescapable for human couples.  My favorite Munro stories tend to be her classic type, in which we follow the consciousness of a young woman in rural Canada, usually in the 1950s or 60s, as she navigates her way toward becoming her own person in a world that demands far less of her than that.  Perhaps that’s because these seem closest to Munro’s heart as well, and follow the details of her own life in some of their particulars: the dissatisfaction with young wife- and motherhood, the longing for meaningful experiences, the battle against low expectations for women.  The lives and experiences of these characters couldn’t be further from my own, yet I nearly always identify with them personally; even when I don’t, I am always, invariably, rooting for them to succeed, or persevere, or simply be who they want to be.

Not long before she won the Nobel Prize, Alice Munro announced that she was going to stop writing, because she has been writing and publishing since she was 20 years old (she’s now 82) and she was ready to retire.  Although she intimated that after winning the prize she might reconsider her decision, I’m glad that I haven’t even come close to making it through her entire oeuvre, so there are still many new Alice Munro stories for me to stumble across and savor.

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