This generous selection of stories drawn from Alice Munro's seven collections - the work of almost thirty years - is a literary event of the highest order, one that confirms Munro's place in the very front ranks of today's writers of fiction. From the first story, about two children making sales calls with their father during the Depression and turning off the road they're traveling on to visit one of his old girlfriends, we know we've entered the magic of "Alice Munro country" - a world of passionate and often hidden loves, betrayals, family secrets, and unspoken sympathies, a world that encompasses big cities as well as the area of farms, small towns, and resorts around Lake Huron.
Royal Beatings, The Turkey Season, Labor Day Dinner ... these are incomparable short stories. The protagonists are inclined to fall in love with men, are entangled with men (their fathers, their lovers), yet can never fully trust or rely on these men. Many of the stories are packed with information that at first seems extraneous - Royal Beatings, notably - but there's always a storyteller's logic at work. Munro is not afraid of the physical. Her women come in all shapes and sizes, from all classes, and their allegiances are unpredictable ... sometimes they side with their friends, sometimes with their husbands, lovers.
It seems to me that the failings of Munro stories come down to two huge absences: humor and passion.
Humor: There is an almost complete lack of humor in Munro's stories. Reading her, I was paradoxically reminded of something David Sedaris said recently about Lorrie Moore's stories: "There's joke after joke after joke, and yet when you get to the end, you're just devastated." To me, Alice Munro is the exact polar opposite of Lorrie Moore in that respect. Most of her characters are humorless prigs who go through life in a perpetual grumpy funk, and when you get to the end of their story... well, speaking for myself, I'm glad to be done with them.
Passion: Munro seems to shy away from strong emotions. I'm not looking for romance-novel heaving bosoms and rending of bodices, but just some occasional clear, sharp, strong feelings in a character or narrative. Certainly Munro makes use of emotions; many -- perhaps most -- of her stories seem to engage in an almost mathematical complexity of shifting feelings: When character A is under circumstances B and C, she reacts with emotions X and Y. Later, when her circumstances change to D and E, her emotions become W and Z. And it's usually all very convincing and realistic, but there's no _life_ to these mathematical constructions. We see and understand how people feel, but they're rarely feelings of any intensity, and when they are we don't share those feelings. We're just told about them from a long, cold distance. For just one example, in "The Beggar Maid" a man supposedly loves the protagonist, but we only see this character through the detached gaze of the protagonist, whose feelings are ambivalent at best. It's typical in a Munro story for characters to get married out of listless inertia rather than love, and then to grind their way to an inevitable divorce. Often when something intense happens, such as a birth, marriage, or death, the narrator is literally distant. She reads about the event in a letter or hears about it second hand, and then it's dryly passed along to the reader. In addition to letters, another favorite distancing device of Munro's is newspaper clippings. In "Menesteung," for example, we learn about the deaths of the two main characters via their newspaper obituaries. (This could have been poignant, if it had been in contrast to the rest of the story -- that is, if we'd ever gotten close to these characters, but we never did.) And yet another distancing device is unreliable memory: A character will recall some deeply moving event, and then later the memory will be called into question, with the character admitting she must have imagined some of the very details that made the memory intense.
In talking about writing, Robert Olen Butler has often repeated a quote from Akira Kurosawa: "An artist is someone who does not avert his eyes." It seems to me that Munro habitually averts her eyes. Whenever situations threaten to get too intense, she diffuses them, she backs away, she averts her eyes.
The above, of course, is a series of generalizations; things that I feel apply to "typical" Munro stories. Contrary to those generalizations, there are a rare few Munro stories that I've found moving and wonderful (in particular, two that aren't in this collection: "Floating Bridge" and "The Bear Came Over the Mountain"). And I still wonder if some day the scales will fall from my eyes and I'll see something human and beautiful in all the Munro stories that now seem to me more like precise little painted dolls -- neatly constructed, but lacking in the stuff of life.