A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro

July 5, 2012 | 12 books mentioned 25 3 min read

coverThis November, Knopf recently announced, Alice Munro will publish Dear Life: Stories, her 13th book of shorts and second since her announced “retirement” in 2006. For Alice Munro fanatics — a group in which I proudly include myself — this is, of course, wonderful news. It’s also an excuse, as if we needed one, to revisit her previous work, and to push her books on the world’s non-Munroviacs.

Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances — and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache.

Herewith, a partial guide:

covercoverThe Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one: Selected Stories

The Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album: The Beggar Maid. Published in 1977, The Beggar Maid is as close as Munro has ever come to writing a novel, but it actually does a better job than just about any novel I know of getting an entire, living human being onto the page. The book follows a woman named Rose all the way from her early childhood to her middle age, and never feels stretched. It’s an extraordinarily high-grade steak that just happens to be served in slices.

Best story, in the category of autobiographical-seeming stories about love: “Bardon Bus,” which contains some of the most convincingly rendered emotional agony I’ve ever read.

Best story, in the category of historical drama: “A Wilderness Station,” which should, with its many voices and bizarre, dramatic happenings, put to rest any notion of Munro as a predictable dispenser of affair/epiphany-type fiction.

Best story, all categories: “The Beggar Maid,” which showcases, among other things, her remarkable deftness in telling stories that leap around in time.

Story featuring most implausible twist: “Tricks.” A woman falls in love with a man, meets him again and is puzzled by his coldness. Turns out, the cold one was an identical twin. She acknowledges the silliness within the story, but still.

Stories featuring drownings or near-drownings: “Miles City, Montana,” “Changes and Ceremonies,” “Gravel,” “Walking on Water,” “Love of a Good Woman,” “Pictures of the Ice,” “Child’s Play.”

Stories featuring murders or near-murders: “Open Secrets,” “Fits,” “Dimension,” “Free Radicals.”

Story whose plot, after three or four readings, I’m still not sure I understand: “Open Secrets.”

Most depressing story that will somehow leave you uplifted: “Dulse,” in which a woman spends a few days thinking gloomy thoughts in New Brunswick in the wake of a devastating breakup. The brilliant little breakfast scene with the Willa-Cather-obsessed man is a joy.

Most uplifting story that will somehow leave you depressed: “The Turkey Season,” in which the narrator cheerfully remembers the winter she spent working in a turkey barn. A sense of never-quite-resolved unease hovers over this story like a snowstorm.

Authors to read once you’ve finally gotten your fill of Munro: William Maxwell (who’s Munro’s favorite writer), Eudora Welty (whose story, “A Worn Path,” Munro has called the most perfect story ever written), and George Saunders (whose stories, despite very much not being set in rural Canada, are as moving and smart and humane as Munro’s).

Appendix:

Lives of Girls and Women: “Changes and Ceremonies”

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: “Walking on Water”

The Progress of Love: “Miles City, Montana,” “Fits”

Friend of My Youth: “Pictures of the Ice”

Open Secrets: “A Wilderness Station,” “Open Secrets”

Love of a Good Woman: “Love of a Good Woman”

The Moons of Jupiter: “Turkey Season,” “Bardon Bus”

Runaway: “Tricks”

Too Much Happiness: “Free Radicals,” “Dimension,” “Child’s Play”

is the author of Zoology and You Know Who You Are and, most recently, Shelf-Love, a Kindle Single about Alice Munro. He lives in Brooklyn.

25 comments:

  1. Love this! Say, what is the name of the story in which the main character discovers a murder scene in her neighbor’s house and then is ostracized for not discussing it?

  2. hi mary — that one with the murder-scene is “fits.” it’s also got the nice, strange ending in which the husband wanders out into the blizzard.

  3. I thought Lives of Girls and Women was a novel, or an attempt at one, after which she said, nah, I’m not a novelist… ? Or maybe that’s just what someone said and I remembered it as fact. For me, Silence is THE story. I’ve read it many times and each time I discover something new in it. It kills me every time.

  4. I appreciate this article as a long time Munro reader and fanatic (ya know, I’ve never actually read The Begger Maid! I have to change that). I think that The Love Of A Good Woman is about the most perfect collection of stories I’ve ever read by anyone, personally. But I have to quibble with one point: George Saunders is absolutely nothing like Munro. Saunders is caustic and funny and rife with tragicomedy, irony, and, often, fantastical sci fi lunacy. They are both gifted writers of short fiction, but as far apart as that category could possibly bring you.

  5. FFS you call it “A begiiner’s guide to Alice Munro” then proceed to spoil the stories (like “Tricks”) for any begiiner wanting to read them. PISS OFF!

  6. Love how this site auto-corrects words in posts to INcorrect spellings! ie: incorrectly. Can’t wait to see what you do to this one

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