Like many many happy readers this week, I was flabbergasted and delighted to discover that Canadian short story master Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize. So many more qualified writers have already offered their thoughts on why Munro is so unique, and what her decades of quiet, devastating stories have contributed to literature. But as a reader, I feel entitled to offer my own quiet thoughts to the pile. After all, one of Munro’s many prevailing ideas seems to be that everyone, every forgotten subdued girl and woman, has a voice, a rich inner life.
I think Alice Munro is often misunderstood. She is often labelled as a “quiet” or a “domestic” writer; hey, I just did in the previous paragraph! And on the surface, many of her stories could seem muted in tone, in violence, in scope. But that’s also the fate that is dealt to many women writers who write about the home, or about marriage and divorce, love and heartbreak. Somehow, if a man writes about these topics it is “grand” and “ambitious” and “sweeping”, but I’ll save that whole discussion for another day.
Munro is misunderstood, I think, because so many of her stories carry such devastation within them. They are harsh, brutal, and unafraid. Often a single, devastating choice changes the entire course of a character’s life; a moment of coldness, or of emotional dissolution, can radically change the world you thought you understood. There are too many truly wonderful stories to choose from, but many still ring in my mind in a way many short stories don’t. I’m thinking about a young woman at a tuberculosis sanatorium for children who sleeps with the head doctor and is told that they’ll be married. He drives her to town, presumably to go to City Hall; it’s not until he presses money into her hand that we realize, with a jolt to the heart, a sudden loss of breath, that he is giving her money to put her on the train, to send her away forever.
Or there’s another story in which a woman travels to a new town and falls in love with a mysterious stranger she meets there. They promise to meet again in a year; I can’t remember why they must be apart. A year later, she faithfully returns to his house, but when he comes to the door, he shakes his head in a firm, rejecting silence, and slams the door in her face. Only decades later does she read in a newspaper of this man and his identical twin, who is mentally handicapped and lived with him. What quiet, subdued writer would make such a bold narrative choice as that?
There are others that I love. Mothers defending their children, lonely girls on long train trips across the wilds of rural Canada; a man returning from the war, who always felt separate from the world, decides to get off at a random train station, and never sees his hometown again.
The other element that is often overlooked in Munro’s writing is her willingness to explore brutality. I’m thinking about a story that still chills me when I think of it, of a fighting married couple. When the wife marches out in a fury and spends the night at a friend’s house, you never expect the story to be more than about domestic squabbles. But when she returns home, ready to apologize, her husband has killed all the children. He’s waiting for her on the front steps, waiting for her to discover their bodies. Or another one, in which two close girl friends become enraptured with each other. When a mentally handicapped girl keeps following them at summer camp, they take the opportunity of a rogue wave at the shore to push her underwater — and hold her there.
These elements, strung together, are as brutal as the most graphic noir fiction, and yet still she is thought of as an author of petticoats and bouquets of flowers. What a mistake it is to underestimate Alice Munro! More than anything, though, her language and her keen understanding of human thought are what delights me. Her writing is beautiful, always precise, clear, and cool, and her surgical penetration of our best and worst human motives is unmatched.
Hooray for Alice Munro! Hooray for the Nobel Committee’s wise choice!