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.

The title story finds an aging housekeeper, Johanna Parry, setting off to join the man she fancies has fallen in love with her, never imagining that teenagers have manufactured his fateful love letters. In a kind of homage to O. Henry’s sly surprise endings, the man does end up marrying her, but the story is propelled less by its clever plot than by an examination of the ways and means of pride: the sexual snobbery of the young; the man‘s unwarranted self-regard, reduced to manageable proportions by a bout of bronchitis that Johanna nurses him through; and, most touchingly, Johanna’s tenacious pursuit of her fantasy, in the face of what she knows to be her homeliness. In many ways, Johanna‘s appeal as a character is limited — by her looks, her stinginess, her rigid mores — but there isn’t a woman on the planet who can read the scene in which she tries on wedding clothes in a dress shop and not wince in recognition:

At first she just looked at the suit. It was all right. The fit was all right . . . There was no problem with the suit. The problem was with what stuck out of it. Her neck and her face and her hair and her big hands and thick legs.

Such humbling epiphanies are what Munro is made of.

Most of the rest of the stories concern Munro‘s stock in trade: adultery, infidelity, betrayals of love or friendship, the differences between the perceptions and behavior of men and women. Two of them are particularly unforgettable: ”Family Furnishings,“ which seems to be an autobiographically inspired story — its first-person protagonist is a writer whose mother has a terminal illness — and the last story in the book, ”The Bear Came Over the Mountain,“ a terrifying and funny piece about the reversals of power accomplished by age.

In this latter tale, Grant, a onetime serial adulterer in the swinging ’60s, must move his nonetheless beloved wife of 50 years, Fiona, to an Alzheimer‘s home. Advised against visiting at first, so his wife can become accustomed to her new surroundings, he eventually returns to find her tolerant of his attention but enamored of Aubrey, a fellow patient with ”something of the beauty of a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse.“ Aubrey and Fiona’s devotion becomes so single-minded and their sorrow at being parted — when Aubrey‘s wife returns from vacation to take him home — so debilitating, that Grant finds himself embarking on a grotesque affair with the wife (”her cleavage . . . deep, crepey-skinned, odorous and hot“) to procure Aubrey’s return and facilitate his wife‘s own, albeit unwilled and peculiarly unconscious, infidelity. It is ultimately a most discomfiting, disturbing tale about age (not to mention just deserts) that highlights the almost photographic clarity short stories can bring to their subjects:

[Grant] set himself to observing other things about the place, as if he was a sort of visitor at large, a person doing an inspection or a social study . . . Female chins might have had their bristles shaved to the roots and bad eyes might be hidden by patches or dark lenses, inappropriate utterances might be controlled by medication, but some glaze remained, a haunted rigidity — as if people were content to become memories of themselves, final photographs.

”Family Furnishings“ is likewise a masterwork, examining the rejections and betrayals that writers commit. In it, the protagonist ponders the ”peculiar difficulties“ writers cause their families, with their egotistical, thoughtless probing and borrowing, producing ”an ever-increasing roll of words like barbed wire, intricate, bewildering, uncomforting.“ That’s as good a definition as any for what Munro does, and the best reason to put aside the novels for a little while and read her.

Caroline Fraser is the author of God‘s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church.

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