- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

By Alice Munro
Knopf, $24, 323 pages

Strict literary constructionists may well wonder how to evaluate Alice Munro's increasingly intricate and wide ranging, universally praised short stories. For their meanderings away from the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action and toward novel-like amplifications of their premises have grown more pronounced throughout a 35-year career during which she has come to be known as Canada's Chekhov.
That comparison is by now a reviewer's cliche, yet it's an unavoidably apt one. She has the Russian master's keen eye for quotidian and domestic detail and his empathy with people of all sorts and conditions if not quite his uncanny penetration into the psyches of female as well as male protagonists, antagonists, and especially victims.
Mrs. Munro focuses on what the title of an early (1971) volume of linked stories calls "Lives of Girls and Women." Though men are strong (if sometimes offstage) presences in her stories, they generally act as stimulants or irritants which push the stories' central characters to (and, sometimes, away from) self-understanding. Familial and romantic, marital and adulterous relations, real and remembered and imagined, are as much the author's territory as are the meticulously observed locales where the conflicts they spawn generally occur: the nondescript villages and once thriving farms of western Ontario (where Mrs. Munro grew up) and the comparatively upscale comfort and prosperity of Vancouver Island (where she now spends part of each year).
A case in point is this volume's ingenious title story, which initially finds Johanna Parry, a Scottish immigrant working as a housekeeper whose tidy life has never admitted romance, preparing to ship a houseful of furniture "out west" to Saskatchewan, where the future husband with whom she has exchanged only letters awaits her. As the story gradually "opens up" to include other characters (and their agendas), we learn that the stoical Johanna's anticipated happiness is the illusory creation of a malicious prank. As its plot seems to tighten around her, we realize that Johanna's "brisk sense of expansion and responsibility" will assert itself, providing a resolution that neither the story's characters nor its readers could have foreseen.
Similar fruitful misdirections occur in "Nettles," in which a divorced middle-aged woman meets an old acquaintance whom she had not so secretly loved when they were teenagers (and forced to part) and reluctantly acknowledges that he is still unattainable: that her own "Lust … was all chastened and trimmed back now into a tidy pilot flame, attentive, wifely" and also in two probably partially autobiographical stories which demonstrate how impressions gathered early in one's life remain lodged in a sentient shaping consciousness.
"Queenie" (previously published by itself in chapbook form) discloses the gap between its narrator Chrissie's romantic imaginings about her vagrant stepsister, a runaway who flamboyantly declared herself "a creature of love," and the reality of Lena's (aka "Queenie's") sad, essentially innocent posturing. "Family Furnishings," an even more explicit (and even more artful) crystallization of a writer's sensibility in embryo, recounts its narrator's memories of her "fervent and dashing" (if unbeautiful) aunt Alfrida, a "career girl" and smalltown newspaper columnist who settles passively into a draining relationship with a helpless man. The narrator is alerted to "the danger of seeing life through other eyes than my own …" and, quite possibly, also to both the legitimate and the exploitative uses of "family furnishings" as narrative materials.
Women suffering the pangs of increased awareness are also central in "Comfort," about a retired teacher whose chronically ill husband (himself a disgraced academic) takes his own life, leaving her to ponder the confusing permutations and limitations of his intellectual integrity and their shared distaste for "anything that verged on sentimentality"; and "Post and Beam," whose protagonist Lorna seeks respite from her husband's coldness and condescension in a complicated friendship with his former student, a mathematics prodigy recovering from a debilitating breakdown. We think we see where the story is going until the arrival of Lorna's unmarried cousin Polly renders Lorna's fantasies as frail and unfulfilling as is her real life.
"What is Remembered" is built on a similar use of narrative logic: twentysomething Meriel's dutiful attendance at the funeral of her husband's best friend, a visit to her namesake aunt in a nursing home and a captive hearing of the latter's boastful sexual memories, then an extramarital "afternoon adventure," which comes to nothing in the cruelest way imaginable, leaving Meriel with the rueful knowledge that, "There was another sort of life she could have had."
The collection's two finest stories dig even deeper. "Floating Bridge" adheres closely to the viewpoint of Jinny, a married cancer patient also afflicted with the inconstant attention of her otherwise well meaning husband, a tireless (and really quite tiresome) environmental activist. Again, Mrs. Munro develops the story in a totally unexpected manner, when a "youthful offender" assigned to aid Jinny involves her in an errand that takes Jinny to an out-of-the-way family living in a trailer, a remote cornfield, and a brief encounter at a (seemingly illusory) "floating bridge" that's either a reprieve from the inevitable or a meaningful glimpse of the future she had not expected to have.
The unpredictable turns that carefully managed arrangements can take are dramatized with masterly complexity in the brilliantly plotted final story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." It's told from the viewpoint of Grant, a frequently unfaithful husband now in his 70s, who has recently placed his wife Fiona, an Alzheimer's patient, in a nursing home. An ironic role reversal occurs, as Fiona forms an intense friendship with Aubrey, a submissive fellow resident who "had something of the beauty of a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse."
Mrs. Munro's virtuosic depiction of the story's setting (the wary etiquette of visiting days, the patronizing compassion of attendants and nurses) and unsparing honesty (neither Grant's belatedly awakened compassion nor Fiona's hardwon happiness is meant to endure) makes this haunting story another memorable expression of the theme that animates, and graces this superb writer's best work: the peculiarity, irony, and pain of human connection and, underneath them all, its mysterious and perpetually surprising sustaining power.

Bruce Allen is a writer and critic in Maine.

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