Alice Munro's perfectly pitched stories about intimacy and sex are more than a match for most novelsby Sebastian Smee / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
It is hard to think of any great literature which does not have as a theme the relationship between women and men. The subject emerges, as if by accident, in almost every memorable story told. And if women with men, women against men, men against women, men and women without each other and all the cruel, ecstatic, jitterbugging combinations in between constitute essential matter for literature, there is no contemporary writer to have shaped it better (in English, at least) than Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro.
Munro is one of a number of Canadian women writers who have achieved a kind of free-floating international recognition—foremost among them, Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood. What distinguishes this Canadian phenomenon seems, oddly, to be a freedom from questions of national identity, one that even their American counterparts can’t match. Writers belonging to that other vast English-speaking landscape, Australia (Peter Carey, David Malouf, Robert Drewe), look like neurotics of nationhood by comparison. The Canadian women remain aloof. Munro, especially, can infuse her stories with an acute sense of place with no need to make a myth out of it.
Nor, in Munro, is there an urge to ape the great, sweeping, American, social novel. Tom Wolfe, Don DeLillo, Kurt Andersen and, most recently, Jonathan Franzen have all foundered on the dizzy incoherence of their panoramas. Munro’s answer is not to inflate her vision in the manner of DeLillo’s “paranoid fiction,” or Salman Rushdie’s hectic magical realism. Rather, she gives us a fiction whose abiding characteristic is intimacy. Many of her stories hew close to the bone of her own life. A certain kind of woman—married, then separated, usually with children—recurs in many of them. But her stories never feel constrained by the parameters of autobiography; Munro has too broad a repertoire of characters and types. Her great theme is sex. No one alive writes as well on the vicissitudes—the pleasures and aches—of relations between men and women, nor with such a balance of detachment and compassion.
In male authors who write well about women, we are often aware of a contradiction. John Updike and Philip Roth are capable of drawing on a kind of femininity, and then recoiling from it in dismay or disgust. It can be bracing or shocking, but it feels like a truthful engagement with the violence at the heart of congress between the sexes. Munro manages this tension more…