shining the spotlight on short story collections
“Mason Williams was one of the heroes of the school; he played basketball and hockey and walked the halls with an air of royal sullenness and barbaric contempt. To have to dance with a nonentity like me was as offensive to him as having to memorize Shakespeare”
Like all lovers of short fiction, I punched the air when I heard Alice Munro had been awarded the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime’s work. At last, I thought, some proper recognition that Munro, who has concentrated on short stories throughout her writing career, is as worthy of literary plaudits as much better known (but not better) novelists. It’s been interesting, then, to re-read recently her first published story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades.
The book was published in 1968, and may at first glance appear to be out of step with its time. After all, this was the year of the May events in Paris, student uprisings across Europe, massive anti-Vietnam war protests on both sides of the Atlantic. In music, Jimi Hendrix spent months reworking Bob Dylan’s bleakly minimalist All Along the Watchtower into his stunning, apocalyptic version of the end of things, and everywhere Dylan’s prescient words about the overthrow of the old order – in politics, culture, society – seemed to be acquiring the force of prophecy. From Munro’s home country of Canada Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were all emerging at this time.
And here was Alice Munro, writing about an apparently circumscribed world in southern Canada, peopling her fiction with characters whose lives seem never to have been touched by Elvis Presley, let alone Dylan, Hendrix or Young. In most of these stories the turbulent world outside seems completely shut out, as the characters go about their business working in shops, running farms, bringing up children.
This isn’t entirely true, of course. In a few of the stories key social concerns of the late 1960s find an echo. The first person narrator of The Office, a writer who finds it hard to work at home with her husband and family in the background, yearns for a room of her own, a private space where she can do her creative work, reflecting a major theme in feminist thinking of this period. In The Shining Houses the main character takes a quiet stand against the snobbery and intolerance of the new suburban community where she lives, while the title story of the collection satirises a similarly small-minded attitude towards youngsters with learning difficulties.
In the main, though, the stories are set in a slightly earlier time, the 1950s or even 1940s, and must have had a faintly archaic air to readers even in 1968. This is small-town Canada with a vengeance. The context for many of these stories is beautifully encapsulated in these lines from The Peace of Utrecht:
“the whole town, its rudimentary pattern of streets and its bare trees and muddy yards just free of the snow… dirt roads where the lights of cars appeared, jolting towards the town, under an immense pale wash of sky.”
And yet this apparently mean, pinched, old-fashioned setting provides Munro with the framework she needs to explore wide themes: love and sex, family relationships, class tensions, growing up and growing old. Like Faulkner before her, restricting her canvas geographically seems to liberate Munro’s imagination.
Some of the descriptive writing in these stories is breathtakingly good. Unobtrusively, Munro often slips an image into an a quiet, unremarkable description, casting a whole new light on a scene, character or object:
“the sky was pale, cool, smoothly ribbed with light and flushed at the edges, like the inside of a shell.”
From the same story (A Trip to the Coast) this description of the main character’s grandmother tells us all we need to know about her:
“She was dressed for the day in a print dress, a blue apron rubbed and dirty across the stomach, an unbuttoned, ravelling, no-colour sweater that had once belonged to her husband, and a pair of canvas shoes… She had knobbly fleshless legs and her arms were brown and veined and twisted like whips.”
It’s not just in describing characters or scenes that we see Munro’s wonderfully precise observational skills. This is as good a description as you are likely to find of the feeling of getting drunk, very fast, for the first time:
“I did not have in mind the ceiling spinning like a great plate somebody had thrown at me, nor the pale green blobs of the chairs swelling, converging, disintegrating, playing with me, a game full of enormous senseless inanimate malice.”
This capacity to look, quietly but unflinchingly, at people, places and events, informs all the stories and is possibly Munro’s greatest strength as a writer. Most of the stories involve a girl or young woman as the main protagonist, often seen at a key moment in her life when she is becoming aware of the powerful, chaotic potential of sex and the complexity of gender roles and relations in the society she lives in. This is usually combined with a merciless dissection of family relationships.
In Boys and Girls the young first-person narrator likes to think of herself as her father’s natural helper, much more suited to the “masculine” tasks associated with farming and fox-skinning than her younger brother. She describes the mechanics of skinning foxes in loving detail, and comments about the pervasive smell left behind “I found it reassuringly seasonal, like the smell of oranges and pine needles.” Gradually, though, as she grows towards adolescence, this sense of herself as a tough, unladylike individual is brought into question by the expectations of her family and the society she lives in. Eventually it is her younger brother who is taken with his father, as a rite of passage, when one of their old horses is shot, and the narrator is dismissed with the phrase “She’s only a girl.”
What makes Boys and Girls such a memorable story – apart from the vivid, unsentimental, precise quality of the prose, of course and the intelligent use of symbolism to illustrate the dilemma faced by the main character – is the complexity of her development. In one sense, she is indignant at the way she is gradually frozen out of the masculine world, but at the same time Munro shows how she begins to grow, almost in spite of herself, into her mysterious role as a “girl”. We see her standing in front of the mirror, “wondering if I would be pretty when I grew up.” At the end of the story, she doesn’t even protest the way she is belittled as “only a girl”, commenting “maybe it was true.”
Like all great writers, Munro, though she writes superbly crafted stories, will often break the “rules” of short fiction writing. Some of the stories take a while to get going: more often than not the opening of a story gives little indication of where it will end up, either in terms of plot or theme. This is not because Munro indulges in cheap twists, but in many of the pieces there occurs what I can only term a “swerve”, as the story quietly moves off in an unexpected direction. There are few neatly tied-up endings here: the reader is usually left with something to ponder, or a sense that the world is messy and complicated.
For me, the most haunting ending comes in The Peace of Utrecht (yet another broken rule: this title gives absolutely no inkling of what the story is to be “about”), a story showing the complex relationships between two sisters and their mother, who has a degenerative disease. The story ends with the accidental smashing of a fruit bowl, which seems to symbolise the fractured life of the sister who stayed behind to look after her mother, and her inexplicable inability to move on with her life even after the mother’s death.
The truth is that there are many treasures here for lovers of short fiction. Even a story like A Trip to the Coast, which is not the most successful, for me, contains wonderful snatches of dialogue and description. I can easily forgive Munro for the uncharacteristically melodramatic nature of the “swerve” in the story for lines like this: “In the close afternoon she could smell the peculiar flesh smell of her grandmother who stood over her; it was sweetish and corrupt like the smell of old apple peel going soft.”
Readers who know Munro’s later work will find much to admire and enjoy in this collection, while anyone who isn’t acquainted with her writing could very well start the journey of discovery here.
Read a story from this collection in The New Yorker
About the reviewer: Brian George (1951 – 2012) was born in South Wales. He studied French and English at University, and has a Ph.D in contemporary French literature. He wrote articles on French theatre and pop music. His poetry and short fiction appeared in literary journals, and he was a prizewinner in the 2001 Rhys Davies Competition.