Alice Munro’s Best Work: A Guide

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Alice Munro’s Best Work: A Guide


This fixity of focus, this tendency to return, like a patient in psychoanalysis, to the same cluster of significant autobiographical incidents, has led some critics (perhaps with a dab behind the ears of eau du sexism) to treat her as a minor talent. Enough with the intelligent, anguished heroines waiting at rural train stations! Give us Bellow with his lion-hunting Henderson, Mailer with his century-swallowing fever dreams!

This is stupid for lots of reasons, but one of them gets at a quality of Munro’s that is hugely important but hard to articulate. Her writing, once ingested, lives on in a different part of the brain than that of most writers. After 20 years of reading her and raving about her to anyone within earshot, I can recite hardly a single sentence. But I remember moments from her books (Lottar wrapped in the lice-infested rug; Del walking drunk along the edge of the grass) more vividly than I remember entire years of my life. She goes out of her way not to be a phrasemaker; much of her writing has the murmury, urgent, working-it-out-in-real-time quality of someone writing by hand on a bouncy bus. She makes memories instead.

I sense your panic, your anxious smile, as if you’d just handed back the petition I’d cornered you into signing. (Ooh, short stories, how fun, I’ll definitely check those out!) So let’s address the short story thing.

There’s something reassuring about novels — you know where you stand with them. Even if all you’ve read is “Moby-Dick,” you can say with a straight face that you’ve read Melville, just as a visitor to Paris can say she’s been to France. Short story writers, though, don’t have capital cities. You can wander and wander through their collected works and still feel as if you’re missing the main attractions. You never know quite when you’ve earned a passport stamp.

Here’s a cheat sheet from a long-term resident. If you read this handful of stories, spanning the entirety of her career and organized by the phase of life they concern, you will know Munro. You won’t be done with her — God, no — but you’ll know whether you have the particular set of sensitivities and susceptibilities that make her, for some of us, indispensable.



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