I’ve had Alice Munro’s last book, Too Much Happiness (Vintage, $15), on my to-read list for so long, it’s out in paperback. I think she is our finest living short-story writer.
No one else can tell a story the way she can. The opening lines almost always take you on a journey, or promise a cautionary tale, or refer to another time; it’s like descending into one of those beautiful old shadow boxes trimmed in gilt, with vintage figures of men and women pasted into it that come alive.
“I am speaking of the way things were just before the Second World War…” they begin, or, “In those days they didn’t let fathers into the glare of the theater where babies were born…” or the story takes place back when “there was a fashion for naming twins in rhyme.” We know we are in some hazy, pre-PC, sepia-toned atmosphere, like the corner of the attic where the old steamer trunk sits in the shadows, full of old photo albums—and at least one family skeleton.
Everything has already happened, as she lays the scene, quietly, and after a few pages, calmly introduces a seemingly tangential character: The doorbell rang, says the narrator, and there was a person “whom I had not been told about.” Now it will get good, we know. This may as well be the alluring little cottage in the wood, and we the doe-eyed Hansel or Gretel.
Jon and Joyce live in a pleasant, welcoming farmhouse they’re renovating as the story, “Fiction,” opens. Joyce tells us how pleasing it is to come home from work and see the new, fashionable patio doors Jon has installed. A furniture restorer, Jon works days in his shed; Joyce says the two of them sometimes talk at night about something his apprentice, Edie, has said. Edie’s a little strange, but Jon gets paid for teaching her, so he tolerates her. Joyce, an elegant, pretty music teachers, sees her as nonthreatening: With “broad shoulders, thick bangs, tight ponytail, [and] no possibility of a smile,” Edie is covered in tattoos and has a daughter of her own. We are just as surprised as Joyce is when Jon falls for Edie, and even more, when Joyce agrees to move out of her lovely home and give it over to them—hoping that Jon will come to his senses. She’s sure he loves her still.
He doesn’t. Years pass, and we meet Joyce again; remarried, at a party for her third husband, she finds among her guests a sullen young woman “wearing a short frilly black dress that makes you think of a piece of lingerie,” to whom she takes an instant dislike. Who is this disturbing new face?
In a deceptively ordinary, oh-by-the-way voice, Munro fits these whole lives into the story, not just one, but several, like Russian dolls. She is like the wolf dressed as grandmother, her frilly cap and homey nightgown concealing a shrewd, sharp interest in something altogether different than what we first see.
Take the narrator in “Wenlock Edge”: a college student, she begins her story talking about a bachelor cousin who, when she moves to London, Ontario, to go to school, takes her out for meals. And on she grumbles, talking about the other girls in the rooming house, the landlady, her job in the school cafeteria—when, without warning, “there was another girl moving in” to her room. Nina, who turns the world upside down and sideways and subjects the narrator to one of the most humiliating and unforgettable incidents she’ll ever know.
She is a shameless and expert tease, beginning “Child’s Play” with three cryptic sentences:
I suppose there was talk in our house, afterwards.
How sad, how awful. (My mother.)
There should have been supervision. Where were the counsellors? (My father.)
In “Free Radicals,” we read for several pages about a widow, as she explains how hard it is to live without her husband in the house they lived in together, how she can no longer concentrate enough to read books, which used to be her favorite pastime. We’re caught as off-guard as she is, sitting in the lonely kitchen, when the stranger appears just outside her screen door, claiming he needs to get into the basement to look at her fuse box. Of course, when we find out he’s cut her telephone line, we expect he’ll be the last development, but Munro reaches further into her bag of tricks before it’s over.
In an introduction to Best of the South (Algonquin, 2005), Anne Tyler once said this sort of “narrative style” was a Southern trait:
… the run-on stream of associations, the dreamlike interweaving of the past with the present, and the fondness for verbatim he-said-she-said reported with such dead-to-rights mimicry of inflection that the speakers come alive before the listener’s eyes.
Maybe that’s why, when I find that the story I’m reading isn’t about the main character or the original narrator at all, but some maid or camp counselor from long ago, a neighbor, or the niece of a mother or some far, far distant acquaintance who once knew the narrator’s sister, I feel so at home. Here’s Munro, divulging her secret:
Q: What draws you to short stories as opposed to novels? What do you find that the shorter form enables you to do that a novel perhaps would not?
A: I seem to turn out stories that violate the discipline of the short story form and don’t obey the rules of progression for novels. I don’t think about a particular form, I think more about fiction, let’s say a chunk of fiction. What do I want to do? I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.
Many of her stories reacquaint us with childhood confusion and awkwardness and incidents we’d almost forgotten. I’m reminded of Lynda Barry’s comic childhood—her panels of embarrassing crushes, awkward awareness of class differences, her eager attempts to ignore teasing and contempt.
Still reading Gryphon, the new collection of Charles Baxter’s short stories. I am surprised to find that I barely recall some of the early stories, it’s been so long since I read Harmony of the World and A Relative Stranger; they’re all new again. I loved his older work—the gusts of strangeness, the characters’ ghostly brushes with the unknown and their conviction that reality is just a flimsy scrim, hiding something archaic, powerful and urgent that they need to know.
I have just started reading “The Old Murderer”:
An old man, a murderer, had moved in next door to Ellickson. The murderer appeared to be a gardener and student of history. Prison had seemingly turned him into a reader. Putting out the spring-loaded traps for the moles, Ellickson would sometimes glance over and see his neighbor, the murderer, sprawled out on a patio recliner as he made his way through a lengthy biography of General Robert E. Lee. At other times he saw the murderer spreading bone ash at the base of his backyard lilacs. The murderer’s uncombed gray hair stood up in sprouts at the back and the sides of his head, and he would wave from time to time at Ellickson, who had delayed introducing himself. Ellickson would wave back halfheartedly. The murderer did not seem to care that he was being snubbed. He kept busy.
Who but Baxter could get mole traps, a murderer, a biography of Robert E. Lee and lilacs into an opening paragraph? I hope to finish up the remaining stories in the next day or so.
See this bookmark? I must have hundreds of them around my house as a result of working at Tall Tales Book Shop from 1990 to 2009. Marlene Zeiler, my old boss—or as she liked to be known, “fearless leader”—is planning to close her 30+-year-old store in the spring unless someone comes forward and buys it. It’s located in the Toco Hill shopping center at the corner of LaVista and North Druid Hills roads.
The day I walked into Marlene’s shop in 1990, I was in the middle of a divorce and, aside from writing book reviews and short stories, had a ten-year gap in my employment history and little job experience except as a bookstore clerk. She took me right in, motorcycle jacket and Doc Martens notwithstanding. My coworkers became some of my best friends: Dave, Connie, Laura, Carolyn, Carol, Stephen… too many to list. (We are all still friends, with lots of war stories to tell.) Tall Tales became my second home, the place where no matter how shitty life was, I could walk through the doors and disappear into a life of books. Without it, and its many wonderful readers, I might never have picked up a book by Alice Munro or Charles Baxter. I am forever grateful for my time there.