Alice Munro is the latest and best proof that a provincial literary imagination can be the most expansive kind of imagination there is. Fixated on lives in out-of-the-way Canadian places and dedicated to the short story rather than to what she has called “the mainstream big novel,” she finds pioneering energy in the “feeling of being on the margins”: it inspires the desire and the power to remake boundaries. For Munro, marginality has nothing to do with isolation, and everything to do with “connection. That was what it was all about,” she writes in The Moons of Jupiter (1983). In seven collections of stories and one novel, she has shown fate, and also fiction, to be a rather miraculous matter of unexpected linkages and leaps.
“When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people,” Munro once explained. “In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people.” And when those towns abut on farms, which are edged by woods, you have very different worlds constantly colliding, within and between families. In Munro’s unillusioned vision, the contrasts don’t harmonize bucolically. They are jarring, and her vigorously supple style registers the prosaic details and the poetic depths of the jumble. “Stars and flowers and birds and trees and angels in the snow and dead children at twilight—that is not the half of it,” a small-town poet realizes in “Meneseteung,” a story in Munro’s previous collection, Friend of My Youth (1990). “You have to get in the obscene racket on Pearl Street and the polished toe of Jarvis Poulter’s boot and the plucked-chicken haunch with its blue-black flower.”
The models for Munro’s brand of regional consciousness have been, she has said, the writers of the American South. Especially the women among them—Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers—have helped to embolden her to claim the far corners of her rural enclaves as literary territory, to elevate “the freakish, the marginal” as major figures in her fictional universe. And the Southerners have also plainly helped to confirm Munro’s conviction that such remoteness from the ever more deracinated, commercial commotion of this century offers a special vantage on it. She betrays no trace of the defensive insecurity about her region’s place on the map that Margaret Atwood has called “the great Canadian victim complex.” On the contrary, the particular, peripheral sense of place that inspires her fiction gives her the assurance to matter-of-factly take up an especially large theme, the disorienting power of time.
In her stories, many of which have the geographical density and the historical sweep of novels, the plots again and again turn on the ways the past has of unsetting the present. Her characters—like their author—are forever trying to find some pattern, however tenuous, in the choices and accidents, the continuities and rebellions, of their lives. They privately set great store by those…
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