AN APPRECIATION OF ALICE MUNRO
by Daniel Menaker
Lisa Dickler Awano, Compiler and Editor
Editors are paraliteraries—like paralegals and paramedicals. Their job is to help the writer to get a piece of writing to be the best it could possibly be with the writer writing at her best all the way through. To work with Alice Munro poses special challenges and offers special rewards. The structure of a Munro story works somewhat like a microscope, so that the closer in the reader focuses, the more the form dissolves and reassembles. Then as one gets to the end of the story, one sees what appears to be a whole cloth. The chronology of the structure of a Munro story is nonlinear and sometimes somewhat modular, so it is flexible. When I was editing her work at the New Yorker, we would look together at sections that might go elsewhere in order to best realize the kind of meaning and effect she wanted the story to have on the reader. She is open, congenial, never rancorous or contentious; she has no vanity, she welcomes suggestions, and is both easy but firm on her part regarding things she doesn’t want to do. She is someone you want to work hard for because she is someone whose good opinion you always seek.
Munro is a distinctive writer. I think the line between style and content is even more blurred in her writing than in that of most good writers. In some ways her stories do not seem consciously experimental—they look “right” or conventional on the page. They are very clear; there’s no obscurity ever. Any reasonably sophisticated reader will have no trouble reading her work. But she has a slyly postmodern sensibility. One of the very modern and unconventional things she does in almost all of her stories is to write about the way people narrate events. For example, first she will give the report of something that somebody hears. Then she will tell the story that someone tells about hearing that report. Then Alice will tell the story of hearing that report. “The Albanian Virgin,” which I edited at the New Yorker, is an excellent example of this overlapping and sometimes conflicting narrative technique. Often it seems as if sets of curtains are being parted one after another, revealing stories within stories—and varying versions of stories—often being told in different voices, all of which, taken together, enables the reader to apprehend different constructions of roughly the same events.
What the reader sees behind the last Munro curtain is a vital animal energy that doesn’t care about stories or complexity or morality. It’s as though she were throwing up her hands and saying, “There’s no real accounting for why this woman loves this man, why this mother abandoned her children, why this husband’s transgression against the community was hidden by his wife even though she despised him. There is a moral anarchy—maybe amorality—at the heart of the human heart.”
In life, she seems to be saying, seduction and betrayal are often invited, as a victim may unconsciously invite a con man to cheat him. Most of us don’t get involved in relationships in which we don’t know what the other person is like. Especially if we sense a disaster coming on—we know what we are getting into. There’s a certain kind of destructive wish in people—this is what Alice Munro writes about. She dramatizes the uncivilized behavior that so many of us get ourselves up to. She uses sexuality to show that life is not a science. And she makes readers, who may feel this amorality in themselves, feel understood—forgiven. To read a writer like Alice Munro is to be understood. To be understood is to be in a community. Munro’s readers create an invisible and often silent community for themselves. She never puts herself above us; she is with us.