Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 27 February 2012

"Selected Stories" by Alice Munro (Random House, 1986)

These stories pre-date previous books of hers that I've read. Some of them are only 10 pages long! In the first story, a father, on a car trip in the 1930s with his 2 young kids, drops in on an old girlfriend. On the way home "My father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home, but I know, just from the thoughtfulness, the pause when he passes the licorice, that there are things not to be mentioned". The daughter's PoV has to be broken out of in the penultimate paragraph

So my father drives and my brother watches the road or rabbits and I feel my father's life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back it turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine

(After posting this write-up I read "Alice Munro" by Coral Ann Howells which quotes this very paragraph on page 1, writing Where but in Munro would we find a sentence like this ... This description by a young girl of the imaginative process of transformation from 'touchable' into 'mysterious' might also be taken as Munro's description of her quality of vision and of her fictional method of mapping alternative worlds)

In "Images" a father and child go out.

Then we went along the river, the Wawanash River, which was high, running full, silver in the middle where the sun hit it, and where it arrowed in to its swiftest motion. That is the current, I thought, and I pictures the current as something separate from the water, just as the wind was separate from the air and had its own invading shape." (p.45).

They meet someone living rough. The father says "But don't say anything about it at home. Don't mention it to your momma or Mary, either one". At times in other stories the pace hastens -

Arthur got up in the evenings and sat in his dressing gown. Blaikie Noble came to visit. He said his room at the hotel above the kitchen, they were trying to steam-cook him. It made him appreciate the cool of the porch. They played the games that Arthur loved, school-teacher's games. They played a geography game, and they tried to see who could make the most words out of the name Beethoven. Arthur won. He got thirty-four. He was immensely delighted. (p.52)

"The Ottawa Valley" begins promisingly -

I think of my mother sometimes in department stores. I don't know why, I was never in one with her; their plenitude, their sober bustle, it seems to me, would have satisfied her. I think of her of course when I see somebody on the street who has Parkinson's disease, and more and more often lately when I look in the mirror. Also in Union Station, Toronto, because the first time I was there I was with her, and my little sister. It was one summer during the War, we waited between trains; we were going home with her, with my mother, to her old home in Ottawa Valley."

I like the mix of information and promise. The rest of the story's pretty good too. After that I struggled for a few stories, so I jumped to "The Moons of Jupiter". Here's the first paragraph.

I found my father in the heart wing, on the eighth floor of Toronto General Hospital. He was in a semi-private room. The other bed was empty. He said that his hospital insurance covered only a bed in the ward, and he was worried that he might be charged extra.

Distraction in times of crisis runs in the family

I was … irritated by an article I had been reading in a magazine in the waiting room. It was about another writer, a woman younger, better-looking, probably more talented than I am (p.206)

Later we find out about one of her daughters

"Where's Nicola?" I said, thinking an once of an accident or an overdose. Nichola is my older daughter. She used to be a student at the Conservatory, then she became a cocktail waitress, then she was out of work. If she had been at the airport, I would probably have said something wrong. I would have asked her what her plans were, and she would have gracefully brushed back her hair and said, "Plans?" - as if that was a word I had invented (p.208)

It's decided that her father needs a sudden operation. She leaves him, saying "I'll see you when you come out of the anaesthetic". The final paragraphs are a flashback to a few hours before when she was walking in the park, seeing someone who reminded her of Nichola. Themes and symbols are brought together.

If I did see her, I might just sit and watch, I decided. I felt like one of those people who have floated up to the ceiling, enjoying a brief death. A relief, while it lasts. My father had chosen and Nichola had chosen. Someday, probably soon, I would hear from her, but it came to the same thing.
I meant to get up and go over to the tomb, to look at the relief carvings, the stone pictures, that go all the way around it. I always mean to look at them and I never do. Not this time, either. It was getting cold out, so I went inside to have a coffee and something to eat before I went back to the hospital.

I liked the story. More generally I like Munro's stories when the characters are opinionated, not evasive. I don't like it when a significant detail is withheld by the narrator so that we can be surprised later. Having read about a third of the stories in this book I think it's time to take a break. I'm not very good at seeing behind facades.

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