What Alice Munro Has Left Us

Because of my reverence for Alice Munro’s work, I was often asked if I’d ever met her. I felt that I had totally met her in her books and said as much. I never desired to meet her in person, for what I loved would not necessarily be there. The one time I was scheduled actually to meet her—at a reading and ceremony in her honor—she canceled. Stupidly, I was relieved. Because what could one possibly say to this human, Alice Munro, who was also a genius but would probably turn out to resemble a nice, ordinary, once-beautiful-now-forever-middle-aged woman with an Ontario accent (though perhaps also a sparkle in her eyes)? Reality was too full of annoying disguises—one of her many themes. Would she appear to lack something?

Throughout her stories, there is admiration for skills of every sort—piloting an airplane, horseback riding, plucking turkeys—but she did not drive a car. This boggled my mind! Yet it also caused me to think that maybe marriages could be held together this way. The husband would have to drop you off and pick you up so he always knew where you were, even if you didn’t always know where he was (or deeply care). Perhaps this was an essentially literary—Munrovian—condition. Also, in the plus column, I could see in her work that she did not admire rich people but also did not sentimentalize the poor, though her sympathies and interests were more deeply located there. The way a hired girl in “Hired Girl” sweeps the floor and then hides the dirt behind the broom propped in the corner was exactly how I swept when young. A metaphor for secrets, but also an actual (poor) way of sweeping. I was always thinking about her in one way or another, so actually meeting her seemed beside the point. I loved her forensic plots and her gothic gruesomeness. In one collection, she has two decapitations. What would be the point of actually meeting her?

Her stories were radically structured—built like avant-garde sculpture. In this way, she completely revolutionized the short story, pulling it away from conventional form altogether. She understood that life was layered, that stretches of time did not neaten themselves out into a convenient linear shape but piled themselves up in layers that were sometimes translucent and contained revisions of thought and opinion, like a palimpsest. These layers seemed to have access to one another. This nonlinear way of course mimics the mind and memory and how life is bewilderingly lived and then recalled. She embraced Chekhov’s movement away from the judgmental finish and built on it, supplying similar narrative oxygen to the lives of North American girls and women. Because the story genre is end-oriented—one must stick the landing—she brought this power to her open endings as well, which were sometimes torn from the middle of the story and thrown down like a beating heart on an altar.

One wonders whether she felt that all of her artistic devotion and productivity had been worth it. I hope so. I do not want to pity her; I want only to treasure her. Munro’s career seemed to involve an entire life handed over to art, so, from a distance, it is hard to know whether she felt she’d missed out on some other, easier, sweeter life. (Though, I suppose, for a writer there is no other kind of life.) She is one of those women writers who took a rebel’s stance toward motherhood and partially (not completely) left their children in order to get the literary work done and be free of conventional and gendered expectations. (Literary men, of course, leave their children all the time.) To turn one’s life inside out in order to make short stories for people you’ve never met is a kind of contortion and sacrifice one cannot stop to measure, or the gift may flee. Such hesitation, I suppose, would be like a magician stopping to feed and then cage the tiresome rabbit, who then will not go back into the hat.

When someone of Munro’s stature passes away, the world feels a little empty for a while and may never completely get back to its ever-elusive purpose. Still, there remains her great, great work. Even if, like all literature, it wrestled un-victoriously with the meaning of the world, even if, like all interesting characters, hers were not always at their most admirable, her writing kept its eye on the dramas of power in human relations and communities. She explored the upset and consequences of love, hate, desire, devotion, despair, illness, social class, gender—and, most of all, time, its magical uses in art and its sly surprises in life. And so, at the culminating close, there is a still-pounding heart. May she reside in pages forever.

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