In the week when Alice Munro’s daughter, Jenny, travelled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature on her behalf, I naturally found myself pulling down Munro’s books from the various shelves and from under the various book piles where they were hiding (my approach to book cataloguing being rather haphazard for most tastes) and reacquainting myself with some old favourites; as well as one or two stories that had somehow passed me by (the extraordinary title piece of her collection Too Much Happiness being a particularly glaring omission.)
Alice Munro’s best stories (i.e. almost all of Alice Munro’s stories) stay with you once you have read them. She made clear that this has always been her primary intention in the recent Nobel interview that she gave in lieu of a speech, adding that what she wants above all is for people to be changed after they have read them. This, you would imagine, is almost certainly true for most writers but few would say this so plainly, let alone achieve it so rampantly.
For me the story that has particularly stayed with me and which has left me feeling most especially altered is ‘Tricks’ from Runaway (although I would probably also add the tale of late-teenage angst and dark family secrets that is ‘Family Furnishings’, from the preceding collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship to that; alongside the whole of her essential autobiography-in-the-form-of-a-short-story-collection, The View from Castle Rock, which is arguably her most complete work).
‘Tricks’ was actually the first Alice Munro story that I chanced upon, when it was given away in the Guardian’s Summer Short Story Special in 2005. I had recently read Jonathan Franzen’s eulogising essay on Munro in the New York Review of Books, ‘What Makes You So Sure You‘re Not the Evil One Yourself?’and being a huge Franzen fan had thought that I had better give Munro a go (when I had previously been put off by the often inappropriately chicklit-ish nature of her book covers at that time.)
‘Tricks’ is a died-in-the-wool-masterpiece. No question. Try and spot a hole in it and a hole you will not see. Speaking in his Paris Review interview, Truman Capote had this to say about the short story writing process:
Finding the right form for your story is simply to realise the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.
Capote expounds that this is merely what he tries to do and that it is not something that is constantly attainable. What is so impressive about Alice Munro is that she really does attain it all of the time. Her gift is the ability to always be able to find that ‘most natural way of telling the story.’ Perhaps this is partly because, as she explains in her Nobel interview, she has written short stories ever since she was a little girl, when she was first read Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ And partly too because she is not an academic writer (she says she would be incapable of being one) but rather a self-taught writer whose works are more formed by the patterns of life as they happen to her and as she perceives them than by the patterns transposed onto her perception of the world by an over analysis of great writers of the past.
But to get back to ‘Tricks’, which, in a sense, is the archetypal Munro story in that it describes the cruelty of chance in such an acute way that it can make you both afraid to leave the house and determined to live life to the full, all at the same time. Robin is a youngish nurse who has, partly owing to the fact that she looks after her terminally frail sister, never had any experience at all with men. She is a fairly archetypal Alice Munro character in that she has a lot of imaginative and creative potential, all of which is being slowly smothered by her circumstances and the small town environment in which she is living. This creativity and imagination is represented by the much-loved trip to the city that she takes on her own each year to see a performance of Shakespeare. This is something her sister and her peers think of as being ridiculous (which puts you in mind of the way that Munro talks about the perception people in Wingham, Ontario, where she grew up, had about writing and reading when she was young.)
One time Robin loses her money while she is in the city and finds herself stranded until a kindly man, who is a Montenegrin, and importantly a clockmaker, offers to lend her the fare home. But first he insists on cooking her dinner and later passionately kissing her. He asks to meet her again a year later – he has to return to Montenegro to help his family – and for her to be wearing the same dress and for her hair to be in the same style.
Robin is altered by the experience and very much in love. All of the following year is taken up with the expectation of the man’s return and of their meeting. However, when the time comes, something happens to prevent her from wearing the same dress and, as though she has broken a magic spell, the scene is set for disaster.
When she arrives at her would-be-lover’s shop, he glares at her and shockingly ‘bares his teeth’ before slamming the door in her face. To be rejected in this way – because she is wearing the wrong dress? – naturally leaves Robin feeling crushed and Munro is an expert at describing how this act of apparently wanton cruelty forces her heroine to settle back into the staid social structures that have been made to house her. She forgets about Shakespeare and dreaming once and for all.
It is only many years later that she discovers that the man that she had fallen in love with had brought back his deaf-mute, identical twin brother with him from Montenegro, and that she had only missed her would-be-lover by ten minutes. Alice Munro conjures Robin’s beautiful vision of the life that she and the man could have made between themselves and then swipes it away in a flash with the same implacable cruelty that she assigns to nature. With the spare artistry of a minimalist poet, Munro describes Robin’s reaction thus:
Robin wants to set this piece of paper in front of someone, some authority.
This is ridiculous. This I do not accept
This moment of revelation for Robin is a moment of revelation for the reader too. For Robin it is an appalling signifier of the way that she has sadly wasted her life as a result of a false impression. And for the reader, the apprehension of this is a reminder not to waste their own lives in a similar fashion. Munro’s entrance into the mind of Robin is also such that we feel a great deal of empathy for her, and so are changed in that respect too, in that we feel we know what it is like to have such little confidence in oneself as Robin has, and to feel so cruelly manipulated by nature.
In some writers’ hands the plot devices that Munro uses in ‘Tricks’ might seem heavy handed, or even absurd, but Munro is at work with a deeper magic. She understands that the impetus that went into creating those old plot devices originally is still around us. She understands that we are at the mercy of extenuating circumstances and that happiness can be stolen from us at a moment’s notice, at the very moment indeed, when we are most expecting to be happy. And while it may seem clichéd to compare human beings to clockwork mechanisms, Alice Munro gently suggests that nevertheless, we really do have very little control over our lifespan. Giving up smoking, perhaps, or never starting but nothing much more.
This might sound bleak, and in a lot of ways, of course, it is, but nevertheless this is what Munro is all about. She is about the truth and the telling of it. That the Nobel Prize committee have decided to honour such a sane chronicler of reality, as well as someone who time and time again has elevated the short story to ever loftier peaks, is most assuredly to their credit. So then congratulations, Alice Munro, and a heartfelt thank you from myself, for having subtly changed the way that I look at the world with each story that bears your name.