Munro, Alice 1931–
Munro, a Canadian short story writer and novelist, is known for her precise recording of personal experiences. Her stories chart the search for personal freedom in nostalgically rural settings. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
Alice Munro … writes stories you have to call "well-made."… They are journeymen's work. But they are no more than that, and by now … we ought to demand that a volume of stories delivers the thrilling economy, the poetry which makes the form so valuable.
Alice Munro's subject matter is ordinariness—disappointment, the passage of time—but she doesn't bring to her stories what, say, John Updike or Tillie Olsen do: extraordinary language, a mind in love with the everyday but able to exalt it so that we feel the magic in what is usual. Most of the stories [in "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You"] concern the past, hidden from others but told to us … and the stories do seem formulaic.
The book is filled with lots of information on who did what to whom, and when, and where, but there is little emotional tension arising from the events. Everything is thought out, decided upon. Most of the dialogue, even, seems there for the sake of information, not for its own sake. And much of the writing seems to be designed to win our love rather than stun us with character or prose….
When the narrative voice of the story doesn't use winsomeness as a strategy, it takes refuge in Art: "I invented loving you and I invented your death. I have my tricks and my trap doors, too. I don't understand their workings at the present moment." Such a dependency on our sense of the artful paradox of contemporary writing—while the author permits herself to cease responsibility for her characters—is close kin to the childishness of "I wouldn't have looked in her drawers, but a closet is open to anybody. That's a lie, I would have looked in drawers, but I would have felt worse doing it and been more scared she would tell." In both cases, as in most of these stories, there is the kind of innocence of tone that can make you grin, but the way you grin at someone else's charming child: already forgetting. (p. 54)
Frederick Busch, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974.
[In Alice Munro's vision there] are those of "the world," of society, of the accepted norms, and those "from the other country" …, people such as Miss Marsalles [in the title story of The Dance of the Happy Shades], whose innocence has made her, at the best, a fondly tolerated anachronism and, at the worst, a social embarrassment. Miss Marsalles, with [a] terrible faux pas, has placed herself in the same category as idiots, seniles, eccentrics, criminals, and the fatally ill, all of whom are uncontrollable, unpredictable, and, therefore, painful, embarrassing, and plainly unacceptable by "the world." (pp. 366-67)
The prevalence … in Munro's work, of idiots, senile old people, suicides, the fatally ill, and that recurring image of the mother who is attacked by Parkinson's disease are guides to her controlling vision. Munro sees society and life as cruel and deforming. Those who appear to adapt or cope and survive are, in her eyes, more deformed in an internal, spiritual way, than those who are clearly retarded or maimed and unable to enter the struggle. In some stories, the obviously defective people seem better off and freer than those who have found acceptance in a "normal" world. In most cases, they work as a symbol or externalization of the suffering and deformity of the apparently healthy and adjusted characters. They are also a deflecting release valve for the tension that builds up from the reader's sense of...
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[Lives of Girls and Women] is not, the author says, autobiographical except in form. In fact, in form it more closely resembles a series of short stories, and it is no surprise to see that the author won a Canadian award in this genre. Each chapter of Lives of Girls and Women is virtually self-contained; characters who appear in more than one are nearly always reintroduced, however well we might reasonably be supposed to remember them. Yet each protagonist is closely connected with the central family; Del Jordan, the daughter, is the narrator throughout and though she is not the heroine of every episode it is very much her story. The first chapter, it is true, is set at a decided angle to the main narrative line; its hero, Uncle Benny, appears only peripherally in the later chapters—and his vicious mail-order bride never—but the effect is intriguing rather than confusing.
The title is accurate, for the book presents not only the growing up of a girl, her relationships with her family and her approaches and eventual introduction to sexual experience, but also the histories of her female contemporaries and older relatives, especially her mother. In other words, we are in Kinflicks country, but whereas Kinflicks tries, too hard for its artistic good, to be a, or even the, Great American Novel, Lives of Girls and Women obeys its own natural range and scope and is consequently much more successful....
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[Alice Munro is] a writer who has quietly and firmly established herself over the past decade. In a very real sense, she occupies [two] fictional worlds: her fiction is rooted tangibly in the social realism of the rural and small town world of her own experience, but it insistently explores what lies beyond the bounds of empirical reality. Though she has said that she is "very, very excited by what you might call the surface of life," the substance of her fiction to date suggests that this excitement must also derive in part from her intuitive feeling that there is something else of significance just below that literal surface. This may be one reason why to date she has been more attracted to the short story than to the novel…. [That] more concentrated fictional form probably allows her to explore in a more imaginative and intense way the intangible aspects of her world: those shadowy and shifting areas between the rational and the irrational, between the familiar, comfortable world and sudden dimensions of terror, and between various facets of uncertainty and illusion.
These metaphysical concerns find their aesthetic and formal complements in the structures of her fiction, where a similar illusory balance operates between the conventional fictional elements of plot and character on the one hand, and on the other, a kind of psychological or even psychic verification or resolution of a particular dilemma. Though emanating from a recognizable sociological reality, the situations that are characteristically depicted in her fiction frequently transcend the literal bounds of our conscious realizations, and leave us with a residual uncertainty, puzzlement, or even despair. (pp. 56-7)
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You … essentially picks up on the same themes and concerns as [Munro's] two earlier works, Dance of the Happy Shades and Lives of Girls and Women. In most of this fiction, Munro is the chronicler of a particular region, that of south-western Ontario…. (pp. 57-8)
Alice Munro's fiction could profitably be examined in terms of the themes of isolation and rejection, which unfold in situations where human relationships are rarely cemented or consummated…. [For example, in the short story "The Peace of Utrecht," home], the past, family ties—forces which are conventionally interpreted as positive forces—are … dramatized as disturbing elements, and the narrator even defines "home" as a "dim world of continuing disaster."… (p. 58)
It is [the] intangible or irrational impulses between the protagonist and some other element—other characters, the past or childhood, a code of morality or behaviour—which give Munro's fiction its haunting and disturbing quality…. In Munro's first two books, the emphasis was on the youthful protagonist trying to come to terms with the adult world, but in her latest collection it is frequently the other way around: grandmothers trying to understand granddaughters ("Marrakesh"), elderly sisters trying to make sense out of their common past ("Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You"), a sensitive old man just failing to come to terms with the younger generation around him ("Walking on Water"). (pp. 61-2)
[There is] an underlying element in Munro's fiction in...
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