Munro is widely considered to be one of the best short story writers (still, at 81) around. She's highly regarded not only by readers, but, apparently, by fellow writers, as well. After reading my way through the majority of this generous collection, I can see why. There is something that puts one in mind of "the classics" about Munro, even when her subjects are contemporary. She eschews literary gimmicks, for one thing. Her tone and style are largely traditional. Her themes are the eternal ones as relevant to the human condition a hundred years ago as they are today; one is put to the challenge to imagine a time when they wouldn't be relevant. She seems a shoe-in to be included in every serious comprehensive short story anthology from now until Doomsday.
Childhood, family life, marriage, infidelity, illness, death--these are the subjects Munro returns to again and again in her work. She deals in the "small" mysteries and quiet crises that mark the pivotal turning points in ordinary lives. For the most part, her stories have rural Canadian settings. Oddly, this doesn't seem an impediment to their universality any more than a setting in a traditional fairy tale does. Even though few of us have ever lived in a rural Canadian setting, or any kind of rural setting, there is an elemental truth to Munro's world that strikes close to the bone, that taps some larger archetypal memory we still share of a life lived closer to earth and weather.
Traditional, even conservative as they are, Munro's stories almost never track an ABC plot-line; often it is even hard to say exactly what they are "about." The stories seem to grow organically, like a crystal in solution; events are often recounted out of order, past and present reflecting, amplifying, clarifying, and deepening the meaning of events, the definition of character. Munro writes about a situation--a father's illness, a mother's infidelity, a husband's abandonment--without seeking to resolve anything, with no other discernible intent than to present it in all it's complexity. If anything becomes clearer at the end of a typical Munro story, it's that life--and other people--are an even greater mystery than we ever realized.
My favorite story in this collection, "Fits," is a good example. In it, Peg, a sensible, undemonstrative woman, a good wife and hardworking mother, discovers the bodies of her next door neighbors, both shot to death in their bedroom. She dutifully calls the police, files a report, and then goes to work. She never mentions what she saw that morning, not to her friend and co-worker, not to her husband, not even to the son who's home from school that day. Why not? She figures everyone will hear about it soon enough. That's her plainspoken answer. But is it the truth? As Munro reveals, it both is and isn't, and either way, you have the essence of what a mystery a human being is.
"I did not avoid touching my child but realized I was touching her with a difference. There was a care--not a withdrawal but a care--not to feel anything much. I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love measured and disciplined, because you have to survive. It could be done so discreetly that the object of such care would not suspect, any more than she would suspect the sentence of death itself."
"People say they have been paralyzed by fear, but I was transfixed, as if struck by lightning, and what hit me did not feel like fear so much as recognition. I was not surprised. This is the sight that does not surprise you, the thing you have always known was there that comes so naturally, moving delicately and contentedly and in no hurry, as if it was made, in the first place, from a wish of yours, a hope of something final, terrifying."
"All my life I had known there was a man like this and he was behind doors, around the corner at the dark end of a hall. So now I saw him and just waited, like a child in an old negative, electrified against the dark noon sky, with blazing hair and burned-out Orphan Annie eyes. The man slipped down through the bushes to my father. And I never thought, or even hoped for, anything but the worst."
"Like the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back from marvelous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after--like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word."
"The map of the city that she had held in her mind up till now, with its routes to shops and work and friends' houses, was overlaid with another map, of circuitous routes followed in fear (not shame) and excitement, of flimsy shelters, temporary hiding places, where she and Miles made love, often within hearing distance of passing traffic or a hiking part or a family picnic."
"She saw herself as a person surrounded by, living by, sham. Because she had been so readily unfaithful, her marriage was a sham. Because she had gone so far out of it, so quickly, it was a sham. She dreaded a life like her own before this happened. She could not but destroy. Such cold energy was building in her she had to blow her own house down."
"I guess we never believe we're going to die," Georgia says. I mean we never behave as if we believed we were going to die."
Raymond smiles more and more and puts a hand on her shoulder. "How should we behave?" he says.
"Differently," says Georgia. She puts a foolish stress on the word, meaning that her answer is so lame that she can offer it only as a joke.