I sometimes get into conversations with people who have a hard time connecting with the short-story format; they say that they hardly have time to muster an emotional involvement in the characters and events, before the story is over. To those readers I might recommend Alice Munro. True, I have only experienced one of her collections, but the stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage are nothing if not emotionally affecting—or "crushingly tragic," I suppose, if you want to get specific about the thing. Indeed, the understated yet unrelenting tragedy of small unkindnesses built up over decades and lifetimes; of the inevitable disappointments and compromises that result when people do their best and their best is not very good; of the human tendency to feel pride in one's flaws and shame in one's strengths: all this is the lifeblood of Munro's collection, and there's no denying that it's more bitter than sweet. At times, the bitterness becomes overpowering. At other times, Munro strikes a compelling balance between the deep sadness in all her characters (particularly her female characters) and the moments of true connection they manage to glean from the world around them, often at unexpected moments.
Munro, it should be stressed, is a magnificent craftsman. One of the reasons these stories, at 20 or 30 pages, feel like whole super-condensed novels, is their author's extreme economy of language, her ability to establish whole histories with one or two well-chosen words, which often occur in a paragraph seemingly devoted to another task entirely. In the story "Post and Beam," for example, the graduate student Lionel contemplates the married life of his professor and the professor's wife, a couple he has come to socialize with on occasion:
He came to see them in the evenings, when the children were in bed. The slight intrusions of domestic life—the cry of the baby reaching them through an open window, the scolding Brendan sometimes had to give Lorna about toys left lying on the grass, instead of being put back in the sandbox, the call from the kitchen asking if she had remembered to buy limes for the gin and tonic—all seemed to cause a shiver, a tightening of Lionel's tall, narrow body and intent, distrustful face.
Not only do we get a portrait of a summer evening here, the ambient twilight stimuli as the adults have a drink together, but we also get Lionel's aversion to the everyday accouterments of married life (he comes after the children are in bed, shivers at Lorna and Brendan's everyday interactions). We also get a solid idea of the dynamic between Lorna and Brendan: their marriage follows traditional gender roles in that she is the one expected to take responsibility for cleaning up the children's toys and doing the shopping; if she slips up, Brendan not just allowed but obliged ("had to") to give her a scolding about it. That "had to" might indicate, since we are in his head at the moment, Lionel's point of view, his acceptance of the standard husband/wife hierarchy—although the rest of the story gives the impression that none of these characters would object to the phrase, even as the lack of equality and human understanding in her marriage is making Lorna actively unhappy. Even the addition of "remembered" ("the call from the kitchen asking if she had remembered to buy limes for the gin and tonic") adds to multiple aspects of the marital portrait. On the one hand, it speaks to the familiarity of husband and wife: probably everyone who has shared a household has yelled this type of question at one time or another. On the other hand, combined with Brendan's disconnection from his children and scolding of his wife, his phrasing adds to the picture of his domineering nature. This is not a man who goes to the store to buy limes himself, but tasks his wife with buying them, and then calls from the kitchen to ask if she remembered his request, rather than walking into the other room to ask her or (heaven forbid) looking for the limes himself. One can understand why Lionel might not be jumping on board with the whole marriage proposition, if Lorna and Brendan are his role models.
And in fact, Brendan is largely representative of the male characters in Munro's book. If I have a complaint about the collection, it's this uniformity of male callousness: although we occasionally see a long-married couple who are genuinely caring toward one another (if mutually deeply flawed), or a pair of total strangers who manage to achieve a moment of unfettered connection, for the most part Munro's men are controlling, unfaithful jerks, taking the women around them for granted and generally acting like petulant toddlers. And I don't mean to suggest that Munro does not evoke this character type with great skill and sensitivity, because she absolutely does—and in fact, many of these male characters, in her hands, end up eliciting some degree of sympathy in the reader's mind: quite a feat considering their collective behavior. Munro's analysis of the gender roles in these stories acknowledges that the mainstream culture of the 1950s and 60s set up young men to be the assholes they sometimes turned out, just as those same decades socialized women to be submissive and self-denigrating, simultaneously responsible for raising children and reduced to a child-like state themselves. In the excellent story "What is Remembered," one of the highlights of the collection for me, the narrator writes:
Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives.
So the men don't have a roadmap for how to live, any more than the women do. They, too, are working to conform to certain societal expectations. Yes.
Even so, I've known a good number of men from this generation (or slightly older: my grandparents' generation), and most of them were not domineering, not unkind to their wives or dismissive of their wives' opinions. True, I didn't know them when they were young men. Munro's older characters are significantly gentler with each other than her younger ones, albeit sometimes oddly so. To some degree even the younger characters are not being unkind given their social context: they assume it's the simple truth that a husband's role is to dictate and a wife's is to obey. This is a systemic problem more than a fault of individuals. Still. Munro's bone of contention got a bit monotonous at times, as much as I agree with her insights. The sameness of male/female relationships in the collection dulled the impact of stories which, individually or in more varied company, would have all packed the same kind of punch as the first few did.
In addition to said bones, though, this collection offers lots of meat. It will be rewarding to return to individual stories in the future, which I think will be a more palatable way of appreciating Munro than reading a collection of hers cover to cover. And there is plenty here to appreciate: the role of memory throughout these stories, for example, and how we mold our recollections to fill the functions we need them to, forgetting or imagining where it is convenient. Or how Munro so cleanly and expertly handles shifts in time, quietly moving the reader forward and backward in a given history with no unnecessary apparatus and hardly a hiccup in the narrative flow. It's not a Woolfian vision of simultaneity; while the characters often recollect their pasts, the past is not present to them as it is to Clarissa Dalloway or Peter Walsh—but the narrative engine is so weightless and nimble that it can position the reader neatly at any desired perspective point vis-à-vis the action, and whisk them to a different one with no fuss at all, with absolute clarity. (The opening paragraphs of "Family Furnishings" are excellent at this, and the titular story shows a similar character-based flexibility in its use of a roving limited third-person narrator.)
Munro is not comfort reading, in other words, but in small doses I will definitely be returning to her hard, occasionally tender, lying world.