“Nothing is Easy, Nothing is Simple” -Alice Munro’s Claim

Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 137

Magical Thinking

Seems to me most people believed that the world would simply continue on as it always had. At least in our living memories, we seemed to be under the impression that as long we could continue to buy ever thinner televisions, as long as we could continue to send our children to football practice, we would be confident in the belief that we could have the same life as that of our parents, and their parents before them.

This inevitability doctrine is something Timothy Snyder discusses in the opening parts of his book The Road to Unfreedom. Inevitability allows us to view politics as being, rather than solving problems, and it can turn a blind eye to the hard work and nuanced discourse that needs to happen for a democracy to flourish. Combined with eternity, and ruling becomes less about facts and figures, about difficult decisions. Instead it is more about will, personality, and power.

When you hear a president discredit the democratic process of voting, and a desire to withhold elections, this should give you pause. Even during the Civil War we had elections, a time when the country was so at odds with each other that communication failed and violence won over, we still had an election.

When you hear people say that “we must have schools” without offering solutions for very real problems in the education system, this should give you pause. To carry on living ad infinitum without recognizing the new dangers unseen on this global scale for a century, we should argue for better thinking.

In times like these, the realm of art can be good for us. There are times when I say that the lies that fiction tell overwhelm our better judgment, but most likely in those circumstances I am flat out wrong. It is a failure on my part to see that fiction can change a person’s mind without forcing it down their throats.

What Should Fiction Do?

If you are looking for the sign of a good author, it is this: how profound is their ability to take a notion of life believed to be inevitable and eternal, and break it into fragments that complicate the issue? Literature used to be the place of this fragmenting. Still there is the realm of this in the form of autofiction, for example, which does away with the 20th century notion of characterization and instead infuses it with developments in neuroscience. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote extensively in My Struggle about the importance of identity, and the ability of literature to make supposedly simple things complex. In his final book, he discusses his shared title to that of Hitler’s autobiography, culminating on the idea that good literature makes for very bad propaganda. That is why it is so important.

And few authors can quite measure up to the complexities of life quite like Alice Munro.

There is a certain stereotype among laymen readers of fiction that short stories are not as good as novels. Instead of the grandeur as that of the novel on the floorspace of a Barnes & Noble, a short story exists in a collection of them, and to read one is akin to wearing fast fashion. Try it on for the day, and then leave it entirely.

Short stories are the method of young writers to cut their teeth, or it is the place for novelists to try out sections of their new, before displaying it as merely a chapter to a much finer work.

Even Munro herself admitted to wanting to write novels. The only reason that she kept herself from it for so long was because, as a housewife, each portion of her day was dedicated to the benefit of other people. Her children, her house, her husband, her family.

But out of adversity comes the finest art, and it is my opinion that Munro perfected the art of the short story, if there exists such an idea of perfection.

Alice Munro’s claim to fame is to have more going on in 50 pages of a short story than most authors can claim in several hundred. For example I just finished the book Mexican Gothic and I was left stilted and bewildered at the lack of characterization that Munro can garner in a mere paragraph.

Just take a look at a single section of a short story entitled “Chance” by Munro.

How stupid, how disastrous. Afraid, of course, that his stroking hand would go farther down and reach the knot she had made securing the pad to the belt. If she had been the sort of girl who could rely on tampons this need never have happened.

And why virgin? When she had gone to such unpleasant lengths, in Willis Park, to insure that such a condition would not be an impediment? She must have been thinking of what she would tell him–she would never be able to tell him that she was menstruating–in the event that he hoped to carry things further. How could he have had plans like that, anyway? How? Where? In her berth, with so little room and all the other passengers very likely still awake around them? Standing up, swaying back and forth, pressed against a door, which anybody could come along and open, in that precarious space between the cars?

So now he could tell someone how he listened all evening to this fool girl showing off what she knew about Greek mythology, and in the end–when he finally kissed her good night, to get rid of her–she started screaming that she was a virgin.

He had not seemed the sort of man to do that, to talk like that, but she could not help imagining it.

She lay awake far into the night, but had fallen asleep when the train stopped at Regina.

At all times, Munro never takes anything for granted. In other stories, the world of novels that us plebeians delve into, corners are cut all the time. The character suffers from mental health, or the murder was done for passionate reasons made rational. It was in fact the son the whole time, who was always jealous of his older brother. They become all too quickly the morality tale, and while they might be fun to read, they prove difficult to discuss.

Brittle Reality

Alice Munro’s short stories do not underestimate our desires. She takes us seriously, and with a sense of gravity and weight. Characters can be flippantly cruel, or they can surprise you with their loyalty. In this particular scene from “Chance”, the young woman wants something while recognizing its impracticality, as well as both relying on her intuitions of a kind man making a pass on her, and then resenting that he both was not what she thought at first glance, as well as hoping that he would have pressed further.

As a fan of the old fairy tales, Munro brings these and elements of her love for Wuthering Heights into her pastoral landscapes of Southwestern Ontario. Before Disney, we have to admit that many of these tales have dire warnings. And they also connote the capricious nature of living, the good and bad luck that we are starting to realize more and more had a bigger hand in our world than we thought. Modernity may have kept our eyes hooded as being a bright sunrise that could only brighten. But Munro knew better.

Have we already forgotten the terrors of history? Alice Munro did not forget. And somehow she was able to channel some of the deepest and most universal of tendencies through the small town living of Huron County.

Look for the authors who complicate, who prevent sound footing, who announce that our problems interacting with the world, and with each other, are far from over.

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