I read Alice Munro’s books in benders. It usually takes me less than two days to finish one of her collections, and while reading it, I make and break promises to myself—to stop after this story, to take a shower, to run an errand just for the exercise or maybe see a friend (or else around eleven PM, I will find myself regretting how restless and dirty I am, still in last night’s pajamas, which are now exactly my body temperature.) But I never stop until the book is done. The last collection I finished and loved was Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. The sheer pleasure of reading books by Alice Munro is, for me, the product of a number of things: a just-so shading in describing emotion, prose that is straightforward and precise, a retrospective narrator that sees but does not offer excuses for the failings of their past self, interesting structure, beautiful details, unsettling everyday situations. Alice Munro’s stories often conceal the craft of the fiction, and work to lay bare a considered accounting of a period of time in someone’s (almost always a woman’s) life—they are brutally honest.
I love that Alice Munro doesn’t try to forget or ignore fashions: the “contemporary” Post and Beam house that Brendan is so proud of in “Post and Beam” or the purple eye shadow and Cleopatra eyeliner and bangle bracelets in “Queenie.” Through these outdated fashions, I’m reminded how people’s attempts to declare themselves by their style is frustrated, as their declaration inevitably takes the form of its era.
On a similar note, I’m grateful for the way Munro describes people’s flawed attempts to change their lives. I saw this most in “Nettles,” in which the unnamed narrator is recently divorced, and making a new life for herself in Toronto. This life is supposed to be one “freed from domesticity,” “lived without hypocrisy or deprivation or shame.” But the narrator is overly aware of the new outward forms her life takes (the morning rolls from the Italian deli, the afternoons drinking wine with women friends, the evenings with her lover), and seems to hope that her consciousness might match this show of independence.
The narrator leaves Toronto for the weekend to visit an old friend. In the car on the way to Sunny’s house, she is hurt that Sunny hasn’t yet asked about her new life. But then she admits: “I would have told her lies, anyway, or half-lies. It was hard to make the break but it had to be done. I miss the children terribly but there is always a price to be paid. I am learning to leave a man free and be free myself. I am learning to take sex lightly, which is hard for me because that’s not the way I started out and I’m not young but I’m learning.” It’s both heartbreaking and infuriating to see the ways that she is trapped by own aspirations. Her fuller understanding of herself at this time is available to her later in life, and through this vantage, the narrator tells her story. I love how Alice Munro explores this—the reasons why people, knowingly and unknowingly, distort their perception of themselves, and how we can be both bemusedly detached from and beholden to our contradictions.
Besides “Nettles,” there were two stories that I particularly loved in this collection. First was the title piece, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” which, from various points of view, tells the story of how Sabitha and Edith’s schoolgirl prank (involving the fabrication of love letters) results in the marriage of the homely housekeeper Johanna to Sabitha’s ne’er-do-well father, Ken Boudreau. The story reminds me of a Greek tragedy, in which the intentions, feelings, and actions of the separately acting characters create a machination that is more powerful than the sum of these parts. The story brings to mind questions about fate, will, and the strange outcomes of our lives.
The other story I especially loved is “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” in which Fiona, who has dementia, forms a strong attachment to a man she meets in her nursing home. We learn about this through the perspective of her husband Grant, whom she doesn’t remember. Little is told of his jealousy or sadness. Rather, we’re given a revisiting of his own infidelities over the years of his marriage, and an account of a decision he makes in order to ensure Fiona’s happiness. Grant is able to perceive his utter powerlessness in regards to Fiona’s feeling about him, but with a ruthless assessment of his power over someone else, he saves Fiona. The moral ambiguity, the heartbreaking circumstances, the focus on decision and the mystery of emotion made it a story that I continued to think about for weeks.
There is a particular reason why I wanted to write about Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage rather than other Munro books I love. With every Munro collection I read before, I felt a bit disappointed at the end by the similarities between the stories and collections, that common complaint that an author is using the same bag of tricks. Each story involved some kind of movement or narrative, but the whole collections didn’t produce a feeling of a movement forward in time or understanding. I was frustrated with this repetition until I came across one paragraph in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage that had me reflect more carefully on my frustration.
The paragraph is in “Comfort,” which follows a widow in the days after her husband’s suicide. In one scene, we learn the town’s funeral director sleeps at the funeral home on busy nights.
“Last night had been on of those nights because of the accident north of town. A car full of teenagers had crashed into a bridge abutment. This sort of thing—a newly licensed driver or one not licensed at all, everybody wildly drunk—usually happened in the spring or around graduation time, or in the excitement of the first couple of weeks at school in September.”
When I read it, I felt a twinge of recognition, not with my own life, but with another Alice Munro story. Sure enough, in the story “Vandals” from Open Secrets I found what I remembered:
“By the time they moved, Kenny was dead—he had been killed when he was fifteen, in one of the big teenage car crashes that seemed to happen every spring, involving drunk, often unlicensed drivers, temporarily stolen cars, fresh gravel on the country roads, crazy speeds.”
This particular observation about the seasons of teenage car crashes doesn’t fit with my own experience. Its idiosyncrasy reminded me of the fact that Munro’s stories are products of one person and her singular experience and reflection of the world. Rather than be frustrated by Munro’s repetition of certain stories and themes, I became interested by her choice to return to them. For instance, again and again Munro tells the story of a woman who was raised in the country, wins a scholarship to college, there meets and marries a more metropolitan man, and eventually realizes that she will always be somewhat estranged from both her parents and her husband. With the repetition of the story throughout her books it might be that more than wanting to reach that story’s conclusion, Munro wants to increase its dimensionality. Munro’s stories remind me that just as brave as the effort to change is the willingness to reflect.