By Alice Munro (Chatto & Windus 319pp £18.99)
Canada is a gigantic country, containing different landscapes, climates, peoples, cultures and languages. Alice Munro cuts it down to a disconcertingly small size. She situates her stories somewhere in the middle, usually not far north of Toronto, and locates her characters in small towns or on trains. And that sets the tone for these tales: small towns, small worlds, small lives, small events, with the large dramas kept offstage. Caro, a recalcitrant big sister, drowns herself in 'Gravel', but we never quite see it happening. The young girls with fatal TB in the sanatorium in 'Amundsen' die reported deaths. Belle in 'Train', a tale about the long-term effects of child sexual abuse, makes a big speech about her father, who watches her naked in the bathroom and then commits suicide on the railway lines. This event is never described, nor is Belle's death from cancer a few weeks later. Even in the four acknowledged autobiographical pieces, which conclude this volume, we never see Munro's own mother die and neither Munro nor her readers go to the funeral. In 'The Eye', Munro's childminder, who is given to dancing, gets herself run over (offstage) on the way home. We visit the corpse to say goodbye and the cadaver winks at the narrator. But even this suggestive moment is domesticated and tamed. Nothing is allowed to be terrifying. Death, violent or gradual, is all around us in Munro's stories, but never under our noses. Death lurks out of sight, waiting.
Short fiction is often the space in which writers take risks. The definition of a short story hangs on the story's relationship to the reader and the act of reading: a short story should be read in one sitting. A novel and its characters may accompany you through part of your life, but a piece of short fiction should work like a firecracker, or a depth charge. The impact of the story should have the force of an explosion, and its aftermath - even when that explosion is subtle, muted and slow-burning - should be far-reaching and lasting, like an echo that is endlessly repeated. It is this element of shock, so often the effect of reading short fiction, that accounts for very passionate or hostile responses to the form. A good short story should be a disturbing rather than a comforting experience. Even writers whose novels or longer works of fiction settle down into bourgeois security by describing furniture, clothes and sentiments plunge into the epiphany, the visionary or the supernatural when they write short stories. Our greatest short-fiction writers - among them I would name Flannery O'Connor, Angela Carter, Michèle Roberts and A S Byatt - have produced tales that stalk the unconscious mind.
Munro appears to have initiated a strict risk-assessment policy to minimise the danger of disturbing her readers. Her language remains plain, bland and universally accessible; no showing off, and no rhetorical flourishes. Irony and ambiguity are sliced down to the minimum. She presents a complete lost world, caught in time, each story set somewhere between 1930 and around 1975, filled with low-key, random events, or low-key reactions to enormous events. There is only one computer mentioned and someone, living far away in 'Pride', recommends email, but the central female character comments: 'I'm not keen on it somehow.' And no one possesses a mobile phone. Many of the characters are old, or age during the elastic time span of the story.
'The war' (Munro always means the Second World War) is often evoked. Jackson, the central protagonist in 'Train', is a returning soldier. At the funeral of a supposed blackmailer in 'Corrie', the narrator observes: 'Hats didn't seem to be required nowadays, on women or men.' The 1960s herald the advent of sexual liberation: in 'To Reach Japan', the central character, Greta, has sex on the train with a much younger man, an actor she has only just met. One of Munro's subversive strengths lies in her sly refusal to reveal whose story we should be following. Greta's little daughter goes missing while her mother is with the young man, and the brief hunt for her is genuinely alarming, but once she is discovered on the shifting metal plates between two carriages - significantly a place of transition - the story passes to her. As Greta confronts the next possible lover, the child pulls herself free. 'She didn't try to escape. She just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.'
And this is a good way to read Munro's stories. Don't follow the usual clues. Don't assume that a named character with a complex back story will become significant, for he or she may not. Listen carefully for the shifting tones and registers. 'Dolly' opens with a long-married couple deciding how to manage their deaths. 'That fall there had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. ... We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out or up to chance.' This wonderful, understated paragraph generates dark laughter. The usual emotional landscapes of women's domestic fiction - interiors, homes, families, the peculiar mysteries of events behind closed doors - are all there, but observed from an oblique angle. The smothered or blazing rage that usually characterises old women's writing is not quite absent: the bullying patriarchs, nasty old men with power, who appear in 'Amundsen' and 'Haven', are exposed and rejected. Alice Munro makes it clear how much she despises 'all that delight in the infantile female brain'. But does she have an agenda? Do her stories challenge conventional values and received opinions, or simply repeat and endorse them? And should we care? I have no idea, but I find myself neither shaken nor stirred.
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Patricia Duncker's most recent novel is The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge. She is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester.