A week for writers and lit lovers

Friday, October 11, 2013


Nine Reasons I Love Alice Munro
By Joan M. Baril

How does she do it? Well you may ask. Join the line. For years, I have been trying to figure it out. A couple of summers ago, a writer friend from Winnipeg and I sat in my garden and read Alice’s story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” out loud, slowly, slowly, to divine what made that story tick,  what made it great, the usual Alice masterpiece. We found, hidden within, many interesting avenues for discussion, many phrases that twisted the tale just a bit. She is a sly one, our Alice.
1.  Her sentences. Her open, lacy, airy sentences written in a simple colloquial style. Munro takes her time with her sentences. Example: Three months pregnant with the baby that would turn out to be Penelope, she was suddenly free of nausea, and for that reason, or some other, she was subject to fits of euphoria.” Note the commas, four of them. Alice uses a lot of commas and they give her sentences that open, easy feeling which characterizes her writing. But note the phrase, or some other. Alice always leaves a little space, a tiny snowflake of foreshadowing, a blank dot that your subconscious picks up and starts a question in your mind, hardly remembered as you read along.

Here is another Alice sentence. Even when she had located Little Shabot Lake, or thought she had, there seemed to be too many roads leading from it into the country road, and then, when she had chosen one of those roads, too many paved roads crossing it, all with names she did not recall. Note the six commas and the word “road” repeated four times, a big no-no in writing groups, but Alice never cared a snap for those sort of rules.

2  Her opening sentences.  I took up an Alice collection and paced through it just to read the first sentences. Very often they set the place and time and name of the protagonist (or one of the protagonists) and immediately slam you into the story. Some examples from her book Runaway follow. Every first sentence tells you a lot.

Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill.  

Halfway through June, in 1965, the term at Torrence House is over.

Not too long ago, Grace went looking for the Traverse’s summer house in the Ottawa Valley.  ( I love the colloquial phrase, not too long ago. She starts another story with,  It was a hot enough day…)

 3,  Her plots. I was amazed to read a recent opinion piece stating Alice never did plots. What! I doubt this person has read any of her stories.  Alice’s plots are complex, as sinuous as a novel. If you read a story such as “Friend of My Youth” and then try to tell someone the plot, you are soon turned around.  It took Wikipedia six paragraphs to do a basic outline. This story is packed, crammed, with twists:  simple twists of fate, and sinister twists of human frailty.  I once tried to tell a friend the plot of “The Albanian Virgin,” and all I got was a puzzled frown when I was half way through.


4.     The violence in her plots, or more often, the threat of violence, or the hint of past violence. Secret violence. Long ago violence.  Alice has said she gets ideas from news stories. Alice knows a lot of violence lurks under the sweet façade of Canadian life. In the story Runaway, a man visits the older, neighbouring woman who has helped his wife run away. His tone is harsh.When I read this section my heart began to thump. No violence occurred but the heart thumped just the same. Alice can ratchet up the tension is a way that makes James’ “The Turn of the Screw” feel like a cup of tea.

5.  Her manipulation of time. Alice swings back and forth in time as effortlessly as a trapeze artist. She starts with a prologue or a long opening section and the next thing we know, we are back in the past and then, a space and we are further back in the past and so on. Alice can turn the clock with one word. You don’t even notice the word, but you are back there. 

6.Her use of many points of view. Just as Alice plays with time the way a child plays with plasticine, Alice also can flip effortlessly among various points of view in a single story. Often she leaves a space and starts the next section with the name of the new POV.  The mystery is that you do not mind the change from one character to another. I think that sometimes the tension is so strong that you long for a breather and so, you are glad to get under the skin of someone else.

7. Her stories are long. No snippy 1,500 words for her.  She would not fit the submission requirements of most literary magazines or literary contests. One has a feeling she does not care. You settle into an Alice story the way you settle into a novel. You cannot read them one after another.  They are too powerful and too thought-provoking.

8.    Rereading is such a pleasure. Every time, you see something new. Her stories are timeless. Like Chekhov, Atwood, Hemmingway, Gallant and other masters, you can re-read then any time. They never date. My heart still thumps, my brain still puzzles. The emotional experience is the same. I have listened to them on audio books and got a completely different take.  When I am old and grey and full of sleep, let me have a good Boise headphone and an Alice story to listen to.

9.  Feelings, such a banal word. The Victorians would call them sentiments or passions. Whatever.  The point is Alice conjures them up. Her characters have feelings and we share them. The deep disappointment of Almeda in “Menesetung.” The sly mischievousness of the little girls in “Hateship, Friendship.” Her characters feel deeply and you feel with them. A mother loses her daughter to a cult. I still feel for that mother and it has been a few years since I last reread the story. Parents almost lose a child to drowning in “Miles City Montana”. My own relief still operates. A woman is jilted by her lover. A woman learns her husband fathered an illegitimate child.  An elderly woman confronts an intruder. A grandmother sees her grandson lured away by a possible molester. I stopped breathing, reading this one. A husband sees his wife disintegrate into Alzheimer’s. And then….  There is always more.

It is a good thing Alice was not born into the middle ages or early modern times.  Women like her, who could summon up the spirits with her tales, might be branded as witches. Too powerful! Toss her into the pond! Fetch the inquisitor! It is also a good thing that yesterday, October 10, 2013, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A fitting tribute to one of the greatest writers on the planet.









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