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Alice Munro and the masters of the short story

Jun 03, 2024

I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way – what happens to somebody – but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing – not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.

– to the New York Times, 1986

Amongst the outpouring of affection and thoughtful words for the passing of Alice Munro, it is often said that she was “Our Chekhov”, the modern master of the short story. Besides being shorthand for a great short story writing, what was it about her writing that made her our Chekhov? I heard the news of her passing while I was in the midst of reading George Saunders A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.  He reads iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, to understand how fiction, and in particular, the short story works and what they can teach us about both fiction and life. In thinking about what made Alice Munro a modern master of the short story,  two of his insights about Chekhov resonated with what made her such an impactful writer and made her "our Chekhov”.

Saunders notes that in Chekhov, his depiction of the everyday lives of ordinary people in the Russian provinces expresses “the most radical idea of all, that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single even very humble person and the turnings of his or her mind.”  In his reading of Chekhov’s The Schoolmistress, the schoolteacher Marya reflects on the events of her life as she carries on through an ordinary day. The events of her life that led her to being a schoolmistress living on a meagre salary in a small town far from her happy childhood in St. Petersburg. Like Chekhov, Munro’s depicted the life of ordinary people in southern Ontario. Her choice of setting is often written about with a tone of surprise that sleepy southern Ontario was worthy of fiction. Being from Southern Ontario I can understand why people may think it's a quiet place, devoid of the type of interesting events to inspire great fiction. But like Chekhov, Monroe found fiction everywhere and in everyone. This is what made her writing so relatable, that fiction is something that happens to everyone, and everywhere, we are caught up in our stories that we fashion from those around us and the places we live, no matter where we are. We see this in George Saunders as well, who in stories like “A Thing at Work” or “The Mom of Bold Action” from Liberation Day, finds absurd and hilarious action in the most mundane settings.

The second insight that Saunders makes is that what makes the form of the short story unique as a genre is that every part of the story is essential, everything counts towards what the story means. The short story is like a clock, a tiny narrative machine where each sentence and element of the story is essential to the movement of the story. The question was often posed to Alice Munroe as to why she did not write novels.  But her “stories were novels with the extra bits removed, no time wasted on the fallow or uneventful stretches.”  Her stories could traverse vast expanses of time going back and forth from future to past in what would normally take a novel to describe and she would do it with only the perfect sentences that were essential to the story. The short story was the perfect form for Monroe because the short story is about transitions, moments of significance in our life when things change. Her characters are like Marya the schoolmistress, thinking over the events that happen after which we can definitively say that our life has a before and after that time. 

I was  thinking about these themes while re-reading Gravel, one of my favourite stories  from Dear Life and it has all the elements of her storytelling.  The unnamed narrator of Gravel looks back on her life living next to a rural gravel pit  with her sister Caro. They live in a trailer with their mother and her boyfriend, Neal, after their mother divorces their father. The narrator looks back on her life and mysterious tragedy that befell her family. The gravel pit appears in the first page, and it's charged with a bit of mystery or nervous energy that we somehow know will return later in the story. 

At that time we were living beside a gravel pit. Not a large one, hollowed out by monster machinery, just a minor pit that a farmer must have made some money from years before. In fact, the pit was shallow enough to lead you to think that there might have been some other intention for it—foundations for a house, maybe, that never made it any further.

The narrator tries to assemble the story of her early life from her uncertain childhood memories, the stories that she's been told, “I barely remember that life. That is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture.”  Like so many of her characters, the narrator is never omnipotent, never in full certainty of the story. So much is left unsaid, unknown, that we need to fill in. We, the reader feel that unknown, and it’s hard not to start to reflect on the events of your life, the times that things changed and how did that really come about. 

What Munro did was not so much write about women as write from inside them. When her characters don’t understand exactly what they’re feeling, she expresses it in such a way that you can both feel the confusion yourself and see beneath it to its cause. Reading her stories, you merge with her characters and also with yourself. 

Alice Munro Reinvigorated the Short Story 

I would never say that there is a moral to an Alice Munro story, everything is too obscure and uncertain to hit us over the head with a moral lesson. But I do think there is a practical, maybe even ethical idea, that we can take from her writing. One of my favourite quotes of hers is “The constant happiness is curiosity.”  How do we remain curious and wonder how people came to be, besides being someone in our way. In our tired and worst everyday moments, we assume we know who exactly who people are. We forget they are products of their story, of their psychology, that we cannot know. And so if the the goal of storytelling is to create empathy, to transport readers into the minds and experiences of characters different from themselves, than Munro was the master. 

Alice Munro and the masters of the short story
by Chris_biblio