We gave it a B
By critical acclaim, popular demand, and the fiat of New Yorker fiction editors, Alice Munro is the doyenne of American short-story writers. The Canadian author’s 10th collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, had a relatively vast first printing of 50,000 copies. One of its gems appears in The Best American Short Stories 2001, another in Prize Stories 2001: The O. Henry Awards, where-in she further wins a ”Special Award for Continuing Achievement.” Introducing the Munro contribution in the O. Henry volume, the novelist Mona Simpson says of the widely influential author: ”Writers love Alice Munro for her ability, like Chekhov’s, to compress whole lives, long marriages, with-out miniaturizing. We feel we’ve read a novel in twenty pages.”
Sold. Munro, a dean of the domestic, draws characters with an eye for microcomplexities, and she does so in a smooth prose style. No linguistic sizzle here—the language moves in a casual flow that occasionally bubbles with musical metaphor. Seamlessly integrating flashbacks and anecdotes, she gives the dense particulars with gentle directness, and the stories just float. Her turf: half-satisfied couples and strained family bonds and uneasy new alliances and often all of the above. Her theme: the ironies of intimacy.
So in the course of Hateship‘s ”Post and Beam” (also in the Best American volume), we get a heavy sense of the anxious confusion of Lorna, a young mother in British Columbia. And of the remoteness of her professor husband. And of the desolation of her country cousin, Polly, who’s on the verge of begging Lorna to take her in and free her from a life grown tedious. By the time Polly and Lorna square off (”Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted”), we feel, with Lorna, the force of Polly’s need and maybe understand a bit more about need in general.
And yet we sometimes get close to the hearts of Munro’s characters only to find those hearts in a weirdly genteel flutter. Here, for instance, is one extramarital flirtation described in Hateship: ”They greet each other with…[a] laugh, by which it seems many things are conveyed and understood.” And another: ”A look that was in its way quite cold, yet deeply respectful and more intimate than any look that would pass between married people.” And again: ”Jinny had flirted with them occasionally, in a way that she could never be blamed for. Just a gentle tone, a way of making them aware of her soft skirts and her scent of apple soap.” In bulk, such accounts of emotional transactions—romantic and otherwise—are grinding.
On the evidence of the O. Henry volume, some writers go in for the whole influential Munro package, their appreciation for her unimpeachable craft wrapped up with an attraction to her tones of high-class sentiment. In Fred G. Leebron’s ”That Winter,” a suburban salesman confronts his sister’s imminent cancer death: ”[H]e understood that everyone sat at a window, the window between what they were and what they could be, what they had and what they wanted…” and so on, the delicacy of expression nearly undoing the power of thought. Nonetheless, the O. Henry volume is appealing, if a touch heavy on the gothic (a ghost story by William Gay, ripped-from-the-tabloids infanticide courtesy of T. Coraghessan Boyle, Elizabeth Graver’s superb pregnancy parable ”The Mourning Door”).
Perhaps the new Best American Short Stories edition, edited this year by Barbara Kingsolver, offers a truer sense of the verve and variety of the form. Gold stars go to Ha Jin’s ”After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” (about fast food and class struggle in China), Trevanian’s ”The Apple Tree” (a wonderfully arch fable about two squabbling Basque crones), and Marisa Silver’s ”What I Saw From Where I Stood.” Superficially, Silver is working the same room as Munro and her followers, writing about a young Los Angeles couple who’ve just lost a baby. But beyond probing the tensions between them, Silver does a number on the tensions of L.A. itself and delivers the package with contemporary snap. Stories often get truly exciting when writers find one way or another to get out of the house. Hateship: B+ O. Henry: B Best American: A