Does someone come and take away your PhD in English? Does your Canadian passport spontaneously catch on fire? Are you called before a panel to prove you still recognize what it means to be human? what constitutes beauty?
Thankfully I’ll never know, because I did like Friend of My Youth, though not as much as other members of book club, and more than M. I can’t tell you much about it because it’s a short story collection and I’ve already forgotten all of the stories. What I do remember is lots of layering of narration such that the person telling the story isn’t really the person the story is about. My wild insight for book club: can we ever really know anyone?! No, E., no we cannot. I also remember the accuracy of K.’s observation that with a Munro story you’re reading along happy as can be and then *bam* someone is an adulterous, soul-rending, murderous… housewife (re: can we ever really know anyone). My other insight: I serially underestimate how long it will take me to read a collection of short stories. My ill-founded belief that it’s ‘just’ a short story collection belies that it’s still 300 pages of reading. I should have never dropped out of maths.
So two books and one post ought to tell you something (and yes, the something is that I’m a little behind on posting).
First up – The Love of a Good Woman
So you know my deal with short stories and my deal with Alice Munro (hate the former, love the latter, the complexity of this hate-love keeps me up at night). So why did I find this collection to be… less than satisfying? I don’t know. I think maybe I had some weird and misplaced expectation that these stories were going to link together more – I kept waiting for a bit more resonance. Of course the usual Munro things stayed true: her genius, the capacity for a single sentence to capture an entire character/setting, the thrust of a verb… so no complaints with the stories themselves, more a complaint with the stories as a collection. I just wasn’t thrilled.
Cue – Death in Summer
I’ve been meaning to read more of William Trevor since discovering him with “Love and Summer” (like discovering “Madonna” as a pop star – I must have been living under a rock not to know about him). So on a recent used-book-store adventure with S. I bought a couple of his books. I was giddy with the prospect of more genius (maybe my problem with both writers is that I expect perfection and am crushed when I read only really, really, utterly, brilliant, genius?). The book delivers knockout descriptions, but is lacking in plot coherence. It sets itself up as a murder mystery, but unfolds as a Sunday tea in the heat of summer: lazy, oppressive and plodding. That reads a bit cruel, and I’d take it back, except I didn’t like the book (gasp! did I say it? yes, I did) – I love Trevor, think he’s genius, but wasn’t at all captivated by this one. I’ll try the other one I bought and hope for better things. Until then…
Alice Munro might be the reason I hate short stories. I mean, she’s the best short story writer ever – perfect detail, brilliant dialogue, the amazing ability to move forward and back in time in seamless slips of paragraphs – but with this incredible talent comes (my) the awful realization that the story is only going to be 30 pages long. And that you want it to be 300. Which doesn’t even make sense because short stories have a certain something-something in the punchiness of the plot, the pace of things, that tells you that it can’t – shouldn’t – be sustained for more than 30 or 40 pages, and yet, such is the brilliance of the characters and the complexity of their motivations that I can’t help but be just a little furious that they’re capped at being *short*.
In any case: it’s a dark collection. Murder, betrayal, knives and cheating and cold train trips. The last and titular story feels a little out of place in the collection in terms of time and setting – it’s historical fiction and set in Sweden/Denmark/Germany – but it maintains thematic resonance with preoccupations of the extent to which women will subsume their own desires and opportunities for the men in their lives, or that women are dependent (to the point of great violence) on men, or the propensity for violence that lives in each of us just waiting for particular – though not necessarily extraordinary – circumstances to come out.
Anyway. I have some ambition to read all of Alice Munro’s collections next year, but then I realize that I have to take several days off from reading after each story because I find them just so intense. So maybe I won’t. Or maybe I’ll read a story a week or something. It’s a hard life for a reader when the challenge is how to space out brilliance so as to not squander it or be overwhelmed by its dazzling beauty.
So it’s something of an admission to confess I’d never read a full collection of Alice Munro’s stories before now. The thing is – as faithful readers will know – I dislike short stories, even (or maybe especially?) short stories by brilliant authors. Before this collection I’d read one of Munro’s stories (“Boys and Girls”) for a class I taught, and really enjoyed it, but all the same resisted reading a full collection because, as with all short story collections, I feel (violently) opposed to the brief introduction to characters, which must inevitably end too early. I appreciate the short story as a compressed form, one which achieves great thematic feats in a short space, and yet all the same, I can’t help feel cheated by what I’ll never find out about characters (this from someone who writes her own – shoddy – short stories).
In any case, this collection (poorly named, I think – far too many ships) almost makes up for the failings of the form by introducing brilliant characters and having some long (novella length?) stories. I even took the new e-reader into the tub because I couldn’t wait to finish a story (new splash bag for the reader comes this week, have no fear).
I will say that amid the triumph of rendering nuanced and hopelessly believable characters in heart-breaking situations, I loved the collection, but didn’t always like it. I felt that after another hopeless ending where things don’t quite work out, or people aren’t reunited, or are miserable, or find their lives are not the lives they ought to be, that I could do with an ending where things work out. And maybe Munro’s talent is in capturing the reality of lives – the impossibility, the failure, the absence, the missed connections – and perhaps I ought to turn to another author if I want to read stories were things feel resolved, but all the same, I wouldn’t have minded a couple of stories to pick me up along the way, to restore some faint sense of hope in humanity. L. suggested that I might read one Munro story a month rather than a whole collection at once, and perhaps she’s right (but there’s no time for that kind of spacing in a year of 100 books…). Maybe I can only handle a confrontation with what is true in small, once a month doses. A complaint about me then, I suppose. Me and my desire – my commitment? my faith? my hope? – for a happy ending needs monthly dosing with Munro. Maybe all of us need monthly Munro to help us find out about others and to remind us that we are, all of us, after all, always in some kind of ‘ship,’ always colliding with others.