So it has happened. On Tuesday, Alice Munro’s daughter Jenny accepted the Nobel Prize on her mother’s behalf, and I admit I was a bit giddy watching the ceremony online (I never thought another person winning a prize could make me so happy). I’ve loved watching her fans rally in the build-up to the prize rendering. A Facebook page where posts gets hundreds of likes, joyous tweets from Margaret Atwood – this must be what it feels like to have a team to root for and to have the team be winning. Not a bad feeling. A representative of the Swedish Academy even commented on her “remarkable” popularity.
Munro’s popularity is a funny thing right?
I've recommended Munro to several people over the years, and even more so following the Nobel Prize win. The same thing keeps happening. After a few months, they sheepishly admit that they “haven’t started her yet” or “couldn’t get into her.”
What gives? Why is Munro so popular for a Nobel Prize winner, yet so many of her fans have admitted to thinking they wouldn't like her in the beginning? Why are there articles on the internet entitled: “How Alice Munro Won Me Over” or “I Once Thought I Didn’t Like Alice Munro”?
I think it’s just this: Alice Munro is surprisingly difficult to get started on. And maybe 30% of the reason is that a lot of people just don’t like short stories (This can be overcome, in the same way that a person can gradually start to like spicy food with more exposure!), but the main problem, when it comes to getting started with Munro, is that her writing doesn’t sound like something you are going to like. In fact, it usually sounds boring when described on a book jacket, or Wikipedia page, or in a book review, because it’s really difficult to sum up what makes Alice Munro great in an enthusiastic blurb. This is because what she does better than anyone is to capture the unexpectedness of life.
Somehow she creates a space in which the complexity of life is enacted – just how weird it is that one thing happens because of another thing – and from which you can emerge at the end to see your own life anew, like it has just been through the car wash. I guess it makes you feel like extraordinary things can happen anywhere, at any time. Which of course, they can. That feeling is not easy to get across in a few snappy sentences, so of course when writing about her we tend to resort to, as one critic put it, “offering up those drab little scenarios that serve as the springboard for Munro’s wizardry and then, feeling the shortcomings of this, uneasily moved to heap on the superlatives and the hosannas.” (Of which, yes and yes, I am totally guilty.)
Just start. And since you must start somewhere, I will now provide my top 5 Alice Munro stories… complete with hopelessly inadequate hosannas. Because people who love Munro cannot resist trying to explain why they love her. Even though it’s really hard.
1. “Family Furnishings” (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage): When the narrator was a child living in the country, visits from her father’s town-dwelling cousin Alfrida were thrilling. Then she goes to university in Alfrida’s town and hangs out with the kind of people who have seen Les Enfants du Paradis. Now Alfrida embarrasses her. But this doesn’t stop her from using details from Alfrida’s life years later in her fiction.
Why it’s brilliant: This story has all of Munro’s classic themes: provincial prejudice (After the narrator describes what she’s learning at university, Alfrida responds, “You couldn’t get me to read that stuff for a million dollars”), youthful pretention, the budding writer who is ruthless in a way she can barely admit…. It has all that and this incredible family secret, folded into the story as delicately as an egg white.
2. “Passion” (Runaway): This story includes a hilarious description of what it’s like to fall in love with a person’s family instead of the person you’re actually dating. Every time I thought I knew where the story was going (She’s going to run away with the brother! There’s going to be a rescue operation that will bring her closer to her boyfriend!) I was wrong.
Why it’s brilliant: An ending that is totally unforeseeable and very Munrovian: a bit of good luck comes to the narrator out of another person’s tragedy and despite the narrator’s own flightiness.
3. “What is Remembered” (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage): Munro often writes about characters from her own generation. They tend to marry young and then smash up their marriages in their mid-30s because they feel they haven’t lived. Well, that doesn’t happen here. The woman has the affair, but doesn’t leave her husband. The memory of it is enough to sustain her. (Don’t worry, this isn’t as Bridges of Madison County as it sounds.)
Why it’s brilliant: It’s a perfect diagnostic of the female imagination. We see the affair unfold, but the story is really about all the things she does with the memory over the years: substituting another, better location for the tryst in her mind, trying to organize the experience, “all of it gathered in like treasure and finished with, set aside.” Writers everywhere will be envious and disheartened because Munro has said everything there is to be said on the subject of female fantasy, and said it so well.
4. “White Dump” (The Progress of Love): Munro isn’t kidding when she says that her material always “has a starting point in reality.” In real life, Munro met her husband in the university library, when he dropped a piece of chocolate on the floor and she said without skipping a beat “I’ll eat it.” This sets the tone for the typical meeting in an Alice Munro story: the young woman from the poor side of town, sassy but improperly dressed (she’s naïve about social codes), says something flippant to the young man. He’s stubborn but charmed and asks her out.
In this story, she’s a cafeteria cashier wearing a tight pink sweater from Woolworth’s, pointing at his shepherd’s pie and saying, “that’s a mistake.” This is revealed during the windup of what turns out to be one turbulent summer of ‘69 for her vacationing family.
Why it’s brilliant: The shifts in time! The shifts in point of view! This story is structured in the classic Munrovian style.
5. “Cortes Island” (The Love of a Good Woman): The newlywed narrator and her husband have rented the apartment from hell. She wants to be a writer but has a tough time working with the constant interruptions from her landlord’s mother, Mrs. Gorrie, who judges her housekeeping skills and reads her notebooks when she’s out of the apartment. The Gorries’ lives seem incredibly tedious to the young narrator. But this is Munro. Of course there was a dramatic event in their lives. Of course they have a past.
Why it’s brilliant: Munro is constantly doing this. Constructing some character or situation with a dull-looking surface (here, the Gorries) in order to crack that surface open and reveal the “things within things.”