Life is impossible; it can’t possibly continue; and then it does. Existential despair accretes; time passes; the color of one’s despair changes. Time seems to change its velocity, its direction. Suddenly everything is different. The title story in Twilight of the Superheroes describes this problem so gently and bravely: “And yet, here he is, he and his friends, falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age. … Yet one second ago, running so swiftly toward it, they hadn’t even seen it.” Deborah Eisenberg’s stories remind me of William Maxwell’s; they are wise, kind, careful, benevolent.
Starting Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy, I was led to assume by the confessional intimacy of the voice that this would be a story on a scale small enough to match the closeness its first-person narrator’s tone made me feel to her. But then I began to notice how many physical locations she was taking me to on a given page, or even in a typical supple and quicksilver sentence, and how many temporal locations, and how many of the novel’s vast range of themes and motifs she was advancing, and how many different — often contradictory — attitudes toward a given assertion she was adopting or testing out. Another way to describe this narrator’s propensity to make an assertion and then to iterate a number of alternative and mutually opposing points of view about it would be to say that the novel she inhabits, even at the level of a single sentence, is polyphonic, that its central voice contains many voices.
So, while tracking her protagonist’s mental and physical peregrinations in time and space to and from the mysterious retreat-like communal living space that is the novel’s core location, Tillman composes and arranges in syntactical harmony a great many people and places and things: mothers and fathers, dogs and cats, the Empire State Building, Eames chairs, textile mills, China and Poland, 1733 and 2006, John D. Rockefeller and Jean Genet, coumadin, lanoxin, chocolate pudding, farting, murder, the Revolution and World War II, shoes, bikes, cars, a lost brother, a City upon a Hill, worry that does not hinder exuberance or vice versa. In American Genius, a Comedy, Tillman becomes, in effect, a dozen Ellingtons conducting a monumental symphony played by an orchestra consisting of a single multifarious instrument.
Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a book I return to for sustenance, for instruction, and for pleasure. The title story is a masterpiece, a miracle of structure, character and plot, in which two teenage girls write prank letters to a housekeeper and thus set off a chain of events that changes and creates lives.
Munro is a realist of profound and subtle comprehension whose great subject is women’s lives. She is not a romantic, not sentimental, nor does she work the other end of authorial power and put her characters through excruciations and misery simply because she can. Instead, she writes with the clear, rigorous dispassion of a spiritual master.
Because literary convention so often nudges narratives toward familiar outcomes–happy endings, redemption, tragedy–Munro has retooled form to suit her nuanced purposes. Her stories have the range and depth of novels; their structures are intricate and unusual but completely lucid. Her pace is leisurely; she lingers on physical descriptions of trees, geology, and faces, and on gradations of emotions. Yet somehow the stories often span years, even decades, and cover vast tracts of ground. She makes all this seem effortless.
Alice Munro has taught us to find literary pleasure in leaping over time, in the odd swerves life takes, in the unexpected sources of comfort and sustenance, and in the idiosyncratic arrangements made for human happiness. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, she is at the top of her powers, each story, one after another, a stalwart, shimmering beauty.