Aug/Sep 1998 Nonfiction

Alice Munro: The Short Answer

by Alex Keegan

Tired of working on that term paper? Rather relax and read some great fiction and poetry? Why not take a break and check out the current issue of this award winning literary magazine? Remember: procrastination is the secret to happiness!


Browsing the second-hand bookshops of Bath a few months ago, I spotted an old, dog-eared copy of Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid - Stories of Flo and Rose since re-issued as Who Do You Think You Are?. This book, short-listed for the Booker Prize - as a novel ? - was so organic in the relationships between its parts that none other than literary novelist and creative writing guru, John Gardner, tutor to Raymond Carver and author of Grendel was called to write:

Whether The Beggar Maid is a collection of stories, or a new kind of novel, I'm not quite sure, but, whatever it is, it's wonderful.

In the introduction to this edition, Penguin were quite happy to note that Munro had published, "Two volumes of short stories and a novel, The Lives of Girls and Women". Then it was, now we ain't sure. A strange world.


So what is a short story, what is a novel? Is a long short story, one longer than a short novel, still a short story, while the "novel" is not? Munro's Carried Away is almost twenty-one thousand words, much longer than the core story of Bridges of Madison County, or Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, longer than Gertrude Stein's Blood on the Dining Room Floor.

Hemingway's Old Man & The Sea, Lawrence's The Virgin & the Gypsy, Pic, by Kerouac and Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept all come in between 27,000 and 30,000 words, while Steinbeck's dizzylingly-long book Of Mice & Men and Jerzy Kosinski's Being There log in at less than 32,000 words.

Admittedly, I've chosen one of Munro's longest pieces, but it remains that if Carried Away is a short story, then mere word-count does not define! Had Munro's publisher marketed this as a novel or novella, larger margins, larger print, thicker paper, readers would have had a quality "novel", a longer and more satisfying read than the now notorious Bridges of Madison County, one perhaps to measure against Hotel du Lac, another "tiddler".

Taking, for the moment, the individual Munro shorts/extracts/chapters, however we define the separately titled elements, could we argue perhaps that they are simpler, less layered, less complex, with fewer characters, none of the diversions considered not the realm of the short and more that of the novel, where, the author is argued to have more "room" to breathe, to expand, where, to quote a review of one of my own novels:

He knows how real detection and good novels often work in oblique ways, through detours that contribute nothing to the final destination but are essential for the journey.

So is this the key? That Munro doesn't mess about, she strips bare, gets to the point, the nub of the matter? No wonderlands for this Alice, she's a writer of shorts - straight to the point? Well, no. One remarkable feature of her work is how she appears to break some of the cardinal rules of short-story writing, how she can appear to be "loose" and drop in what look like irrelevancies, irrelevancies that presented to an editor by a less-gifted author, only slightly weaker, fractionally less polished, might easily be rejected as uncontrolled, off-theme, even "messy".

On this point, Alice Munro can be an acquired taste. Once we learn that her looseness is definitely not that, that she does place information, does construct carefully, we develop the ability to not discard seemingly off-track reminiscences, to store them up, giving them the attention we do our own "less important" memories, knowing that we are all a product of the few big things in our lives, but more so the accumulation of little things.


Any student approaching an essay question, "Does Alice Munro Only Write Shorts?" and reading a selection of her stories, is rolling the dice. If the student happens to read Munro's collected (and disparate) shorts - obviously a collection of short stories and equally obviously not a novel - she will gain one impression, but begin perhaps with The Beggar Maid or Del Jordan's odyssey from childhood to adolescence in The Lives of Girls & Women, then a far different impression is likely. For these stories organically interconnect, and like in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, they use the same times, settings, overlapping characters and families, even refer back and forth to incidents in other stories, ones already read and ones still to be read.

Like a novel.

So, unless we have read all of Munro, absorbed the complete body of her work so far, understood how each collection was put together - was each story, like Anderson's, written to illustrate a whole and is that why the whole seems much larger than its constituent parts, or are each of the comings-together arbitrary and the organic reinforcing and cross-feeding features in fact invented by Munro's readership, or an unconscious accident?

A full and complete analysis of Munro's writing - oh, that I had the time and finances to study her to PhD - might plot the strong autobiographical threads of her work. Marital breakdowns for writers and broadcasters in the big city after leaving the sticks, seem not that far from Munro's own life. Her stories of rural Ontario, its settlers and settled, those who leave and come back, do not just overlap within collections, criss-cross with differing points of view, but characters return in new collections, Flora, for example, in the title story of Friend of My Youth.

There is a nagging suspicion that Munro has been writing one huge novel, an opus of her life (not unlike much of Updike's almost autobiographical work) but simply leaving out the cement, the bridges from incident to incident. Unquestionably, if we read all the collections with Flo or Flora, read everything which illustrates the passage of Rose's journey, gradually we can put together their complete real, fictional, or fictionalised lives.

Munro's stories are more than just literary Russian dolls. Unlike some literary stories with a comfortable top level narrative but then layering, depth, shadows and light, Munro's stories, like no others I've read, seem to challenge how I put together my thoughts, how I see or imagine the inter-connectivity of life, how I "construct", but don't construct, my constructions - where my unconscious debates with my conscious.

There is so much here; insight, the occasional beautiful, encapsulating remark, for example, on the temporary nature of mentor-worship, here in Simon's Luck talking about students:

They come along looking for a parent-substitute. It's banal as can be. They trail around worshipping you and bothering you and then bam! It's parent-substitute rejection time!

But there is also a perversity, a taking-on of expectations, general ones and reader-expectation too. In Open Secrets, Munro takes this "testing" to an extreme when, after a long story, many lives, a dead man appears alive again, decades later. I've used the word perverse, I think it's OK, because I have the distinct impression that Munro likes to use my expectations against me. She knows my "rules" of perception and of reading / absorption / expectation and turns them back on me like the throw of a skilled martial artist, first to disturb me (in Open Secrets, too much for my taste), but then to reveal to me (I think) that there are connections in life which are huge and important even when they are never seen or acknowledged, there, but simply not brought into the right kind of light, of focus, or attention to reveal them as driving forces rather than the symptom.

So for example, in "Who Do You Think You Are?" We see Milton Homer in the story's opening, and our rules of construction, (of good short stories and novels) suggest Milton will be large and important to the plot. But then we are taken away from Milton and he appears to be a commonality for many of the story's characters, a maypole round which they circle, a shared confidence, a butt of familiar jokes or anecdotes, something to not be, something to be outside of. And, as the story moves, it's Rose's view of Milton that seems the key to the story's weight, her Hanratty view and her outsider view after she leaves and returns, is what seems to matter, not Milton himself - except, like in many Munro stories, that Milton represents the ageing, drifting centrality of focus - but then such is the genius of Munro that the whole point of the story is not this either, but instead is something about Rose and Ralph Gillespie, how some intimacies are cross-supportive, apparently shallow, yet deeper than we could ever imagine. This is revealed in a closing of the Ralph episode which also closes the story and the book (not merely a collection of shorts but a construction, a selection, a novel, it might be argued, with the space- wasteful links removed):

What could she say about herself and Ralph Gillespie, except that she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of the men she had loved, one slot from her own?

There's a depth here that masquerades as a throw-away remark! Complex and resonant as a poem, like a door banging open in a wind, revealing a yard behind a muslin fly-screen, fuzzy enough to allow us a partial view, but allowing, too, our separate, individual constructions, reconstructions. Don't we instantly begin to wonder about our Ralphs, those with whom we sailed together, parted from, maybe overlapped with? Isn't there something of "life, religion, karma, the cosmos", the crazy poetry of what we each imagine is an individual life? What am I but background to some friend, an enemy, a confidante or lover, husband, father (son) - yet still ultimately peripheral, maybe even peripheral to me. Is that the point? I mean, who do I think I am?

So Munro tells stories, but she makes me think about how I think, and to continue thinking, about the story and about what the story suggests, long after the book itself has been put down. This is a great strength of her writing and she has created in me, yet to finish everything she has written, a deep and profound curiosity about her, her work, her own life and "what makes her tick" as a writer and a person.

To break her work down, to argue whether they are short stories, a new type of novel, or something else, is hardly the point. It's almost Munroesque to wander round her stories in an essay, picking up facts here, an insight there, making a thoughtful point here, growing, coming to a larger understanding about something, me, her, writing, life, whatever - I'm not quite sure, and that's part of the delight.

Alice Munro is a kind of literary tease. In the opening paragraphs of her story "Differently" she writes:

Georgia once took a creative writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.

Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grand-father killing chickens, and the instructor seemed pleased with it. Georgia herself thought it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story. The instructor said she expected too much, of herself and of the process, and that she was wearing him out.

I loved this - Alice Munro getting her retaliation in first!

But critic after critic, reviewer after reviewer has pounced on the key to this question. Does Munro write novels or short-stories? Who cares? In most Munro stories there is as much as in many novels.

"In range and depth her short stories are almost novels … complete, complex and brilliantly structured…"

"Like fully-rigged sailing ships in tight-necked bottles"

"The particular brilliance of Alice Munro is that in range and depth her short stories are almost novels."

Munro is hard work, she is wearing, because she chooses to add depth and width, to flash back and forward, to cross-reference to other stories, other incidents to tease with her little asides. She's not hard work to skim, skimmed she feels slightly bitty as a writer, I used the word messy earlier, but read, really read, she reveals how life is nothing like novels, but instead full of chance, complexities, full of blood-lines, power-relationships changing (Flo, for example, eventually being sidelined then put into a nursing home). These tendrils, new flowers sprouting, are hard to spot when our settings are urban, unsettled, new, but as Munro herself has pointed out, by choosing (mostly) a small-town, almost stable community she is advantaged.

I guess I'm a kind of anachronism… because I write about places where your roots are and most people don't live that kind of life any more at all. Most writers, probably, the writers who are most in tune with our time, write about places that have no texture, because this is where most of us live.


A large part of Munro's incredibe skill is the compression she seems capable of crafting. In her stories, single stories, characters move through life, marry, have affairs, divorce, yet all in such powerfully few words. Here, in the story "Differently", "a little background", is crucial to the characters and their relationship. Raymond and Maya have been trying for a baby and failing:

One evening Raymond had said to Ben and Georgia that it looked as if Maya wasn't going to be able to have any children. "We try our best," he said. "We use pillows and everything. But no luck."

"Listen old man, you don't do it with pillows," Ben said boisterously. They were all a little drunk. "I thought you were an expert on all the apparatus, but I can see that you and I are going to have to have a little talk."

Raymond was an obstetrician and gynaecologist.

We are barely three hundred words into this story. Prior to this we have had a Munro insight into her views on the short story (and maybe the teaching of creative writing), Georgia's grandfather, the killing of chickens, the quickly delivered fact that Georgia married her tutor, where they ended up, what they did, (ran a little farm, some publishing, got divorced). We know Georgia's uncertain mental state, that Raymond has remarried Anne after Maya has died, and are then shown beautifully Raymond's new manners, his over-the-top friendliness, then we flashback to the above excerpt. Now we get:

By that time Georgia knew all about the abortion in Seattle, which had been set up by Maya's lover, Harvey. Harvey was also a doctor, a surgeon. The bleak apartment in the run-down building, the bad-tempered old woman who was knitting a sweater, the doctor arriving in his shirt-sleeves, carrying a brown-paper bag that Maya hysterically believed must contain the tools of his trade. In fact it contained his lunch - an egg-and-onion sandwich. Maya had the smell of that in her face all the time he and Mme. Defarge were working her over.

This incident is more than enough on it's own to form the basis of a long short story, enough for a third of a novel. We have, in this page and a half met eight characters. If we realise we have a student-tutor love affair, then a marriage, a life together, a divorce, almost as an added extra, it's clear that a novel would be possible based solely on these two opening pages!

But Munro chooses words and phrases with the precision of a poet. What an amazing indictment of abortion that Maya could imagine the weapons of a child's destruction carried in a brown paper bag! No comment, for none is needed, just one flashing image of incredible intensity. That Munro carries this onward - she smells the doctor's lunch as she undergoes the abortion - is brilliant, expanding the idea, reinforcing and repeating the image. And Munro doesn't use medical or emotional terms to describe the act, but one phrase incorporating the attitudes and expediency which led to the abortion, for Harvey and Mme. Defarge "work her over." Stunning.

Part of Munro's brilliance is this compression, this teasing, almost. Don't we know, now we "understand" this author, that this love affair will emerge somewhere else, be looked at by another or from within, flashed forward to from a story of a teenager, back from one about a fading older lady? Many fine author's would want to "milk" these events, here and now. Munro does but in separate stories, separate collections, each revisiting with a fresh eye, another meaning. Her work, unlike that of many fine writers, grows the more we read of her. While each collection is larger than the sum of its parts, so are the collections of her collections. Does Friend of My Youth not grow from a re-reading if in between we read The Beggar Maid? Isn't Flo, Flora, more each time we get another small part of her life, delivered exquisitely?

But returning to this passage, it continues:

Maya and Georgia smiled at each other primly while their husbands continued their playful conversation.

Now here is a semi-closed secret, but does the same attitude not float through Munro's latest collection Open Secrets? That we know so little or so much, that their are hidden or never articulated dynamics as well as the ones we can describe? Again so much resonates behind these "casual" lines - that the two wives are intimately and secretly connected (through what other secrets?) and that the men are misguided, but men nevertheless and in a position of imagined strength. And, of course, Maya was capable of conceiving - she did with her lover - what does this mean for Raymond's potency? - and of course it may well be that the abortion itself is the reason for Maya's barrenness.

Had Munro wished to use the expansive canvas of the novelist or playwright could she not delve into these passageways, could she not expand on the unanswered questions? Does a novel's body not lie behind what Munro holds back? But doesn't it feel like a huge story nevertheless?

So, I feel I must argue that Munro is rather like Doctor Who, and her stories rather like the Tardis: the insides of her vehicles are larger than the outside. Yes, she does write novels, in terms of the information, the subjects, the incidents, the characters, but she reduces, compresses, condenses them, almost to the level of the poet.

Munro creates novels within short-stories, as on the previous page, novels across her short-stories, (the lives of Flora, or Rose), novels built from single collections of stories - The Lives of Girls & Women, The Beggar Maid) and most importantly, her one large novel, all her stories combined, a life-time's work, a life. If you read Alice Munro it must be all of Alice Munro.


Tired of working on that term paper? Rather relax and read some great fiction and poetry? Why not take a break and check out the current issue of this award winning literary magazine? Remember: procrastination is the secret to happiness!


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