I read Dimension by Alice Munro a little less than a month ago – after reading about her at Viktoria’s Bookshelf. It’s a haunting story published, like many others by Munro, in the New Yorker. When I realized it was part of a collection, ironically titled Too Much Happiness, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. Dimension is the first story of the collection. Since I have linked to it above, I won’t spoil it for you with a summary. Read it, it’s worth your time.
The second story in Too Much Happiness is called Fiction. This is another gem, and though I’ve still only read two stories by Munro, I can tell you she’s one of the most talented authors I’ve ever come across and certainly the best short story writer. Like Dimension, Fiction has everything you expect from a novel compressed to fit into a few dozen pages – plot, style, a set of wonderful characters and a staggering climax. The story sucks you in and leaves you awestruck by its complex simplicity. It’s incredible how interesting the most commonplace things can seem.
Joyce and Jon, two of the smartest students at an urban high school in Ontario, get married, drop out of college and leave behind their bright futures. Joyce ends up as a music teacher at a local school, and Jon becomes a carpenter. Then the story, which starts out in a calm and happy place, takes an abrupt turn as Jon has an affair with his apprentice Edie and leaves Joyce. Pity is replaced by reluctant derision as you watch Joyce throw her life away, grow bitter. Trying to get him back, she goes so far as to stalking Edie and Jon.
Years later, you see Joyce contentedly married to Matt, a rich sixty-something amateur violinist. At Matt’s birthday party, among a group of connections, close and distant, Joyce spots a young woman she vaguely recognizes. She happens to be a writer, from the same school that Joyce taught at all those years ago. On an impulse, Joyce buys her book.
Through a story about a small town music teacher, which hits far too close to home, Joyce discovers how her obsession with Jon and his new wife affected Edie’s little child. Joyce then attempts to reconcile with the now the writer, presumably the daughter, now grown-up. The encounter exposes Joyce as an unreliable narrator and goes to show Munro’s understanding of people, how they function, how they react. It describes the fictions people spin in their minds, how a life inevitably revolves solely around itself, truths no one would willingly confess to.
(End of spoilers.)
What I love about Munro’s writing is that every word counts and every line is loaded with meaning. Fiction is not a one dimensional story. There are so many themes, so many characters – each as important as the next. Munro manages to recount a whole life in just one short story and narrates it seamlessly. It’s almost incredible how involved it keeps you, how deeply every event affects you. And the best part is, the writing which, though never blatantly funny, does make you chuckle every so often.
Joyce has never understood this business of lining up to get a glimpse of the author and then going away with a stranger’s name written in your book.
She doesn’t even know if she will read the book. She has a couple of good biographies on the go at the moment that she is sure are more to her taste than this will be.
How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.
(…says one of the greatest short story writers alive, you’ve got to love that.)