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 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.