By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
HATESHIP, FRIENDSHIP, COURTSHIP, LOVESHIP, MARRIAGE: STORIES | By ALICE MUNRO
Knopf | 326 pages | $24 hardcover
As far as literature goes, we live in an age besotted with the novel. Overwhelmingly the choice of Oprah, book clubs and bestseller lists, the novel is literature-as-comfort-food: soap opera--ish, lulling, involving, providing hours of immersion, distraction, entertainment and merciful self-forgetfulness.
Meanwhile, as is often noted, the short story has fallen on relatively hard times. But throughout this period, the Canadian writer Alice Munro has persisted in publishing collection after collection of short stories that demonstrate the crucial differences between this genre and the novel. Where the novel operates through the shaggy-dog, picaresque principal of accumulation, the short story -- harsh, swift, and unsparing -- is clinical, even reportorial in intent, aspiring to Robert Lowell‘s famous description of the snapshot: ”lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,heightened from life,yet paralyzed by fact.“ Munro is a master of such revelatory snapshots, and her latest volume, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, is a testament to the continuing power of the form.
Alice Munro’s Yoknapatawpha County lies in southwestern Ontario, where she was born Alice Laidlaw in 1931, in the town of Wingham, the eldest daughter of a man who struggled during the Depression as a fox farmer and turkey raiser. Her mother, formerly a school teacher, was afflicted with genteel aspirations, always frustrated. As with Chekhov, to whom her work is frequently compared, Munro was raised in close proximity to the kind of sordid poverty she is so adept at describing. ”Life was fairly dangerous,“ she has said about this period of her life:
We lived outside the whole social structure because we didn‘t live in the town and we didn’t live in the country. We lived in this kind of little ghetto where all the bootleggers and prostitutes and hangers-on lived. Those were the people I knew. It was a community of outcasts. I had that feeling about myself.
She knew early on that she wanted to be a writer and began producing adventure stories when she was 12, the same year her mother developed Parkinson‘s disease. Munro has written about those years, her parents’ disappointments and her mother‘s illness in such powerful autobiographical stories as ”Walker Brothers Cowboy,“ ”The Peace of Utrecht,“ and ”The Ottawa Valley,“ a story that ends by defining the problem that has preoccupied much of Munro’s formidable attention:
I wanted to bring back all I could. Now I look at what I have done and it is like a series of snapshots, like the brownish snapshots with fancy borders that my parents‘ old camera used to take . . . The problem, the only problem, is my mother. And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did.
In 1949, she won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, where she sold her first short story (to CBC radio) and met James Munro. They married in 1951, the year her scholarship money ran out and she quit school. They moved to Vancouver and had three daughters, eventually settling in Victoria, where they established Munro’s Books. She continued to write in spare moments stolen from her family life but destroyed much of what she wrote. ”I can see what was going on,“ she has said of this period. ”I can see that those were the twin choices of my life, which were marriage and motherhood, or the black life of the artist.“
The ”black life“ eventually won out. In 1968, her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published; four years later, she was divorced from her husband and moved back to western Ontario. (She eventually remarried and now lives about 30 miles from where she was born.)
Her next book, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), is her only novel, although it, too, is broken up into linked stories. Since 1977, much of her work, collected in some nine volumes (and in a Selected Stories that appeared in 1996) has been published in The New Yorker. The stories calmly encompass everything from sadistic violence (”Royal a Beatings“), decapitation (”Carried Away“) and even incest (”Privilege“) without a hint of the Gothic. All human behavior, no matter how outrageous, is seen as somehow commonplace, arising out of ordinary, universal, inescapable human needs. Although, as Bharati Mukherjee has noted, ”Each [story] is a marvel of construction,“ often broken into sections that skip across time. Munro‘s tales seem deceptively simple, a result of her uncanny eye for detail and gift for reproducing the speech of rural and city people of current and previous decades.
In fact, Munro’s career starts on such a high level, that it doesn‘t really progress from amateur to accomplished, the way other writers’ do -- it simply accrues excellence. But the nine stories of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage bear reading not just because they display a rare and extraordinary technical prowess, but because, as part of Munro‘s life’s work, they‘re essentially Volume 10 of a complete Natural History of the Emotions, dedicated to examining all the big animals -- Guilt, Love, Lust, Hate, Humiliation -- and their innumerable subspecies.