“Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” Eliphaz the Temanite told Job. In Alice Munro’s stories, it is the women who are born that way and the men, mostly, who cause it. “You flare up,” says Carla, in the title story of Munro’s new collection. “That’s what men do,” her husband, Clark, replies and Carla doesn’t answer back. She may be young and confused, but she is old enough to know that she’s complaining about nothing worse than his impatience and irritability: he picks fights at the local store, squabbles with clients of their nickel-and-dime riding school, and is chronically sullen with her. Trivial stuff, nothing to worry about. But Carla travels a long way in the course of a short story, and by the end “what men do” has come to seem altogether more sinister than mere moodiness.
There are two runaways in the story—first Flora, their pet goat, then Carla herself—and, as Munro describes them, they sound very alike:
At first [Flora] had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love had made them both laugh. But as she grew older she seemed to attach herself to Carla, and in this attachment she was suddenly much wiser, less skittish—she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor.
Carla herself is too young for irony, too brimming with emotion, and when the little goat disappears her despair seems like the culmination of “her seesaw misery with Clark.” She spills out her unhappiness to Sylvia Jamieson, the recently bereaved neighbor she cleans for, and Sylvia, being sympathetic, practical, and sophisticated—she is a college teacher, her late husband was a famous poet—encourages her to make a break for freedom.
Nobody lives happily ever after in Alice Munro’s stories, so the plan doesn’t work out: Carla chickens out of a new life in Toronto a mere two bus stops from home and she never sees the lost goat again. Only later, when all is seemingly forgiven and her marriage appears to be flourishing, does she hear, at second hand, that little Flora had reappeared miraculously out of the night at Sylvia Jamieson’s house, just in time to defuse what might have been a violent confrontation between Carla’s outraged husband and her would-be savior. But Clark hasn’t mentioned this to Carla and somehow the little creature disappears once more on the short trip home in the back of his truck. The only traces of her Carla can find later on are some “little dirty bones…[and] a skull that she could hold like a teacup in one hand. Knowledge in one hand.” She has learned, in other words, what her husband means when he says, “That’s what men do,” though, like the bones, this knowledge is a secret she keeps to herself:
It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.
Not that Munro’s women are any more trustworthy than her men. At night, in bed, Carla had whispered stories in her husband’s ear—dirty stories in which their late neighbor, the distinguished poet, tries to seduce her on his deathbed—all lies, of course, but they turn her husband on. Similarly, the motives of worldly-wise Mrs. Jamieson are not as disinterested as they seem. She has a crush on Carla and loves her not altogether purely or maternally for qualities she herself has grown out of—for her impetuosity and innocence, for her churning emotions and youthful bloom and the dazzling way she swings between ungainliness and grace. All three characters are held tight together by a net of erotic tension.
No one writes more subtly about sexual attraction than Alice Munro—coolly, discreetly, but without ever lessening its fatal power. By hints and inflections, she transforms the old cliché “physical chemistry” into an irresistible force, real and urgent. Her people are drawn together subliminally by a touch, a tilt of the head, a smile, by some sudden sense of physical ease and emotional understanding that sets off an invisible process, unquestionable and irreversible, and happens involuntarily, without anyone quite mentioning it:
And Neil said to Grace, “You didn’t want to go home yet, did you?”
“No,” said Grace, as if she’d seen the word written in front of her, on the wall. As if she was having her eyes tested….
Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on, Grace might say—she did say—that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang—acquiescence simply rippled through her, the rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled….
She was not used to driving in a convertible with the top down, wind in her eyes, wind taking charge of her hair. That gave her the illusion of constant speed, perfect flight—not frantic but miraculous, serene….
Grace and Neil did not talk, of course. As she remembers it, you would have had to scream to be heard. And what she remembers is, to tell the truth, hardly distinguishable from her idea, her fantasies at that time, of what sex should be like. The fortuitous meeting, the muted but powerful signals, the nearly silent flight in which she herself would figure more or less as a captive. An airy surrender, flesh nothing now but a stream of desire.
That is from “Passion,” the most remarkable of the stories in Munro’s brilliant new collection. Grace and Neil have just met and there is no future for them. She is twenty years old and uneasily engaged to Maury, Neil’s young half-brother, whom she doesn’t really fancy; Neil is in his mid-thirties, an alcoholic, with a sulky wife and two small children. But it is precisely the impossibility of their situation, their shared conviction that happy endings are not for them, that draws them together:
She’d thought it was touch. Mouths, tongues, skin, bodies, banging bone on bone. Inflammation. Passion. But that wasn’t what had been meant for them at all. That was child’s play, compared to how she knew him, how far she’d seen into him, now.
What she had seen was final. As if she was at the edge of a flat dark body of water that stretched on and on. Cold, level water. Looking out at such dark, cold, level water, and knowing it was all there was.
It wasn’t the drinking that was responsible. The same thing was waiting, no matter what, and all the time. Drinking, needing to drink—that was just some sort of distraction, like everything else.
All Munro’s stories rest on this bedrock of depression, “this lack of hope—genuine, reasonable, and everlasting.” “Reasonable” seems a strange word to use about chronic melancholy, but that is precisely how she makes it seem—partly, no doubt, because her tone of voice is so reasonable, her writing so wary of overstatement, so allusive and accurate and restrained.
Most of the women who interest Munro are discouraged as though by natural right, since they come from nowhere and have been brought up without families. Or rather, they are discarded baggage from broken homes, raised by elderly relatives and with parents who have died or split up, moved off, lost touch, and take no interest in them. So they assume from the start that love doesn’t last, marriages go sour, and people generally are unfaithful.
Munro has always been ironic and clear-eyed about the heart’s trickery, but her work has darkened as she has got older and, although she never allows it to muddy her style, her pessimism in these new stories is relentless. Sometimes it appears in nothing more than passing comments, flashes of disillusion masquerading as common sense—“Outings…were what people did before they understood the realities of their lives”; “The semblance of love would be enough to get by on until love itself might be rediscovered”—and sometimes, though rarely, she makes a direct comment of her own:
It was all spoiled in one day, in a couple of minutes, not by fits and starts, struggles, hopes and losses, in the long-drawn-out way that such things are more often spoiled. And if it’s true that things are usually spoiled, isn’t the quick way the easier way to bear?
Her message does not change: good things occasionally happen; love of a kind exists, but not for keeps; you glimpse it, then it’s taken away.
Munro’s women are full of curiosity, both intellectual and physical—knowing, distrustful, and not to be trusted, easy in their skins, uneasy in their souls. And that was not how women were supposed to be back in the 1950s, where many of these stories begin. When Maury takes Grace to see Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride, she is enraged because
that was what men—people, everybody—thought [girls] should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with.
Pea-brained, of course, is how Maury would prefer her to be—pea-brained, demure, and domesticated—though his mother, who reads books and encourages Grace to do the same, knows better and Grace puts up with Maury for the pleasure of his mother’s company. With Neil, her intelligence and the depression that, for both of them, seems to go with the responsibility for being intelligent is part of the sexual charge. But then, Neil comes into her life and is gone again within twelve hours.
All these young women are also doomed to disappointment because of the places they come from—they are doomed, that is, by their intelligence to live three-dimensional lives in two-dimensional worlds. Grace is learning how to cane chairs from the great-uncle who raised her, but she has matriculated in fifteen high school subjects, instead of the regulation five, because “she just wanted to learn everything you could learn for free. Before she started her career of caning.” In the hick town in provincial Canada where she lives, canniness is admired but books, learning, and the life of the mind in general are a disadvantage, a social deformation that will work against her when she decides to settle down to the real business of a woman’s life—marriage, child-rearing, housekeeping.
It is the same for Juliet, whose life is told in three interlinked stories:
In the town where she grew up her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb, and people had been quick to point out the expected accompanying drawbacks—her inability to run a sewing machine or tie up a neat parcel, or notice that her slip was showing. What would become of her, was the question.
Juliet has had a better start in life than Grace; her father is a schoolteacher with nonconformist ideas, her mother is stylish and eccentric, and she herself is naturally bookish, a twenty-one-year-old prodigy, with a BA and MA in classics, who is working on her Ph.D. But she leaves town, travels west, falls for a married man, moves in with him, and bears him a child. When the news of her bohemian ways reaches the townsfolk back home, her father is forced to give up his job, her flaky mother gets religion, and Juliet becomes what the rubes she was brought up with always suspected—a scandalous freak.
Munro’s stories about Juliet are a triptych with all the weight and complexity of a much longer novel: first the young woman’s westward train journey across Canada, in which she meets her man, Eric; then her visit back home with her baby daughter to see her parents; finally, Juliet in later life and once more alone, Eric drowned at sea, her daughter swept off by some phony cult. Juliet herself has been famous for a while as a TV personality, but fame, unlike loneliness, doesn’t last, and anyway, it is not what she is after.
On that first train journey west, Juliet falls asleep while reading a passage on cosmic justice in a book about Greek thought:
The book slipped out of her hands, her eyes closed, and she was now walking with some children (students?) on the surface of a lake. Everywhere each of them stepped there appeared a five-sided crack, all of these beautifully even, so that the ice became like a tiled floor. The children asked her the name of these ice tiles, and she answered with confidence, iambic pentameter. But they laughed and with this laughter the cracks widened. She realized her mistake then and knew that only the right word would save the situation, but she could not grasp it.
Juliet is an intellectual young woman, at ease in the world of dead, white, male culture, and readying herself for an academic life. But there is nothing academic about her dream. It is a writer’s dream of aesthetic perfection—those beautifully even tiles of ice—in which everything depends on the right word in the right place. In one of Munro’s earlier stories, an unhappy, abused little girl overhears her father reciting to himself while he works:
The cloud-capped towers, she heard him say once.
“The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces.”
That was like a hand clapped against Rose’s chest, not to hurt, but astonish her, to take her breath away. She had to run then, she had to get away. She knew that was enough to hear.*
For people like Rose and Juliet, the key to happiness—the key to everything—is language and the astonishing things you can do with it.
Writerly moments of inspiration like these are unusual for Munro, who seems not to care much for literary folk and their excuses, preferring ordinary troubled women with ordinary troubled lives in which nobody gets away with anything. But I think it is that openness to the power and mystery of words that makes Munro’s work special and explains—at least, in part—how she manages to compress so much into the span of a short story. Her prose, I mean, has the economy and perfect pitch of good poetry, where everything depends on judgment, balance, and an ear for how words move and interact. Writing of this kind has nothing to do with the vanity that passes for “poetical prose.” On the contrary, one of the great pleasures of reading Munro lies in her lack of ostentation, her skill in pinning down a scene or a character or even some moment of revelation in a passing detail and without ever raising her voice:
She was reminded of her mother, Sara. Sara’s soft, fair, flyaway hair, going grey and then white.
That is Juliet widowed and growing old, haunted by the daughter who has walked out of her life and, implicitly, by the mother she, Juliet, has also betrayed in her own way. But that is as far as her sorrow gets and there is no self-pity in her. Later, she says of her vanished daughter:
I could tell you plenty about what I’ve done wrong. But I think the reason may be something not so easily dug out. Something like purity in her nature. Yes. Some fineness and strictness and purity, some rock-hard honesty in her.
I can think of no better way of describing Alice Munro’s work.
“Royal Beatings,” Selected Stories (London: Vintage, 1997), p. 98. ↩