‘In Sight of the Lake’ by Alice Munro

Truly, I could write about any Munro story based on the vibrant and convincing interior lives she constructs for her characters. And, although there is also her well-known story about Alzheimer’s, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ (adapted by Sarah Polley for the screen as Away From Her), this one is a curare dart to the heart. Such exquisite beauty and pain.

First published in Granta 118: Exit Strategies, 2012, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Dear Life, McClelland & Stewart/Chatto & Windus, 2012

‘The Moons of Jupiter’ by Alice Munro

Another hospital bedside, another father and daughter. (Like I said, a type.) Older this time, and thus with their beliefs and biases about one another more firmly entrenched. Janet says, “I used to tell people that he never spoke regretfully about his life, but that was not true. It was just that I didn’t listen to it.” This story has all the truth and regret that bind families together, the nursing of slanted memories and misremembered grievances. It is a relief to read these things written down, to recognise our ordinary monstrous self-centredness and to acknowledge, as Janet does, the relief that others will make their choices without us and we need simply live alongside them. 

Munro’s single-sentence encapsulation of a character is a thing of wonder and this story has one of my favourites: a character seen only in passing in a planetarium is described as “a man with a red face and puffy eyes, who looked as if he might be here to keep himself from going to a bar.”

First published in published in The New Yorker in May, 1978, and available online for subscribers to read here. Collected in The Moons of Jupiter, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, and then in Selected Stories, Vintage, 1996 and Vintage Munro, Vintage, 2005

‘Runaway’ by Alice Munro

This is a story about an unhappy relationship, but also about cowardice and dishonesty and delusion. It’s also about a goat. In this story Munro has created characters that are fully knowable in their flaws, deeply recognizable, but also injects into the narrative moments of strangeness and absurdity that make the story so memorable.

First published in The New Yorker, August 2003 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Runaway, McClelland and Stewart, 2004, and now available from Vintage, 2006

‘Royal Beatings’ by Alice Munro

There are so many things about Alice Munro that are worth celebrating, any given story of hers could fit into this entry – her gifts are always in evidence. A story like ‘Runaway’ is the sort of thing that threatens to become déclassé merely because it nails a thing so perfectly (in that case, use of an animal as locus of a sublime moment) that it becomes easy to imitate. Her later story ‘Dimension’ was the first of hers that I read. There was a specific character in that story – Maggie – who I so hoped would be a hero, and when she was revealed to be merely human, I knew Munro was going to be the living writer I most envied.

‘Royal Beatings’ has all the qualities of Munro’s writing that I love and could hold forth continually about. I chose it as a focus specifically because of the elements of ritual and meaning within it. Like the works of Márquez and Kono highlighted elsewhere on this list, there is a kind of ecosystem evident in the fiction that is darkly cast. In these stories, violence transforms the order of human relations rather than obliterating it, and the results are profoundly sad, strange, and compelling.

Rose, a girl in the past of the story and a woman in its present, lives with her stepmother Flo and her physically abusive father. The beatings that Rose’s father inflict upon her are so routine that they become essential to their relationship, accruing elements of performance, or litany. Violence becomes a means of affirmation and, obscurely, communication, while actual spoken language between them is denatured (“The person who spoke those words and the person who spoke to her as her father were not the same, though they seemed to occupy the same space.”) 

The action of the story is illustrated in a move from past tense to present, the sort of simple trick that I will always imitate and never master. The vagueness with which the scene is set – a Saturday arbitrarily chosen, the ages of the characters in a range, the circumstances uncertain – lends the lead-up to Rose’s first royal beating the frayed character of actual memory. Rose’s climactic outburst is a linguistic surge of life in large part defined by the anticipation of violence (the moment of the outburst is both “dangerous” and “delightful”, Flo’s rage is “predictable”). Relations of power are articulated bluntly, the complete knowledge of what is to happen as it happens (“She calls him in a warning, summoning voice, as if against her will preparing him for bad news.”) When the violence arrives it is suffused with dread frisson and terrible clarity. 

One of the things that Munro does so well is chart courses beyond the typical beats of plot – I can’t remember where I read it, but someone once observed that Munro, in her signature fluid approach to time in stories, will often set their beginnings after what we’d consider a point of narrative climax. Her stories aren’t anticlimactic but rather speak to a solidity of narrative outside the walled garden of Freytag’s Pyramid. Rather than the expected rising and falling actions, you get something like the rhythm of actual life, at turns gentle and turbulent, stubbornly refusing ease and simplicity. When the violence ends, as definite and singular as it seems, Munro intimates that it could be one of countless ritual scenes. “He has never managed really to injure her, though there are times, of course, when she prays that he will.”

A disquieting implication of the text is that certain thresholds of violence can be not only bearable, but digestible, mistakable as love. On the level of family it suggests truth in the axiom that the more dysfunctional a given system gets, the more resilient it becomes (“By stages, by arguing, they are being drawn back into themselves.”) The influence of southern gothic is evident, in the story’s matter-of-fact tone, and in ancillary characters like the polio-scarred Becky Tide, “a big-headed loud-voiced dwarf, with a mascot’s sexless swagger,” as grotesquely human a figure as anything dreamed by Flannery O’Connor or Harry Crews. The ghost of class and money, and their relationship to violence, hang unspoken. “…treachery,” as she writes, “is the other side of dailiness.”

I once attended a Carmen Maria Machado reading in which she opined on what she termed “mysterious vistas” in fiction. These were things in a story hinted at but not truly revealed to the reader – a cryptic message, a monument of unknown provenance, a locked door that never opens – which are particularly endemic to “world building” in genre fiction. When she defined this concept I immediately thought of a particular passage in ‘Royal Beatings’, wherein Rose, after her father has passed away, finds a trove of papers on which her violent father wrote both financial records and personal musings. One entry is excerpted:

Ate new potatoes 25th June. Record.
Dark Dary, 1880’s, nothing supernatural. Clouds of Ash from forest fires.
Aug 16, 1938. Giant thunderstorm in evng. Lightning str. Pres. Church, Turberry Twp. Will of God?
Scald strawberries to remove acid.
All things are alive. Spinoza

The journal entry, and the poetic asides overheard by Rose in her youth (“The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces”) turn the abusive father’s internal landscape into a mysterious vista of the story. It doesn’t make him sympathetic or complicate the violence he commits. His capacity for unexpected private thought does not make him rare. Neither does his capacity for violence make him especially monstrous. Rather it shows us the reel which ties Rose to her father, the palimpsest of a person she is refused access to.

From one angle, this might seem the sort of WASPy remove that makes the canon of contemporary realist literature difficult for so many readers to enjoy – not for nothing that this was Munro’s first published story, out of 60 plus total, in the New Yorker. But rather than cruelty, I think Munro’s mode of compassion is akin to agape, the distant love of a God toward Her creation. It’s a quality that she shares, in my mind, with Toni Morrison. It might be that such things are impolitic in 2021, or maybe it only feels like this kind of writing is scarce, beyond the Ferrantes of the world. It’s all exquisite pain, like biting down on a loose tooth, or the vital itch of a wound beneath its bandage.

First published in The New Yorker, March 1977, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Who Do You Think You Are? a.k.a. The Beggar Maid, Alfred A. Knopf 1978, and in the Selected Stories, McLelland and Stewart, 1996

‘In Sight of the Lake’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro has written about the world in which she lives so many times, but this story from late in her life tackles the very real muddle of being old, so weirdly that it almost seems like science fiction. An ordinary story of being slightly lost in southwest Ontario is increasingly tinged with disorienting, blurry oddness, ending in what feels for me like tragedy. And the story itself, the prose style, has something of a reality where words are coming unattached to things, and familiar places are losing familiarity. Real and unreal, and the way they can coexist in the life of a confused old person. I want to put sad face emoji. 

First published in Granta 118, Winter 2012, and available online for subscribers here. Collected in Dear Life, Chatto & Windus/McClelland & Stewart, 2012

‘The Red Dress – 1946’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro was a twin god of my late grandma’s literary universe, along with William Trevor, and as a teenager I always thought of both writers dismissively as being short, quiet and a bit boring. It turns out (of course) that the pizzazz of both lies in the sort of tiny detail a teenager skates rapidly over, but that will leave a fifty-year-old woman staring out the window for a good eight minutes feeling nauseous with recognition. 
‘The Red Dress – 1946’ has an insistently dress-making mum who reminded me of my own, always trying to poke me with pins in the construction of something that wasn’t QUITE as decadent as what I really wanted from a shop. This mother hovers, and tries to make a joke along the same lines as her child’s friend, and I cringed for the mom, but also for all of us who have tried a bit too hard with a teenager. 
The dress, the narrator and her friend are off to a Christmas school dance, pictured in painful colour, and there is a real sense of the traumatic moment-by-moment potential for rejection in being a thirteen-year-old girl. I read it out loud with a weekly group I facilitate, each taking it in turns, and there were conversations about high school dances in 70s Ireland, teenage heartbreak, and the sheer shame, aged 13, of acknowledging you have a mother at all. MERRY CHRISTMAS!
First published in Montrealer Magazine, 1965, and collected in Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968. It is available online at Narrative magazine.

Chosen by Emma Townshend. Emma is a journalist and writer and runs a book Instagram @anicegreenleaf 

‘Passion’ by Alice Munro

If Helen Simpson opened the door for me, Alice Munro pushed it wide and invited me in. The same friend who’d recommended Helen Simpson to me leant me, a few months later, a copy of Runaway by Alice Munro. It knocked me sideways. I can’t think of a single book that has stopped me in my tracks, brought me up short, in the way that this one did. The deep focus; the profound, understated power of the writing; the delicacy with which she draws us into her characters’ lives and then the devastation that she wreaks upon them, and us – well, others have written more, and better, about all of this – including, of course, the Nobel committee. But for me, her work was a personal epiphany: I was swept away by the content – the small lives; the humdrum tragedies; the sense of the losses inflicted, and the accommodations forced, by the passage of time – and by the pure, clear brilliance of the words on the page. But I was swept away by the form, and its essentialness, too. Even though several of the stories in this collection are linked, charting the life of one woman, they nevertheless function as short stories, and draw their strength from the confines of the form: they’re economic, selective, focused and exact.

I hate to play favourites with these tales: Runaway, it seems to me, is one of the most ideal and complete collections of short stories going, and the way in which the stories resonate with and complement each other – the skill, in other words, with which they’ve been assembled – is a great part of its strength. But if you forced me to it, it’s ‘Passion’ that I’d have to name; it perfectly demonstrates those aspects and qualities that Munro, more than any other writer, exhibits. This is the story of Grace: the small sweep of her life, from school, to waitressing, to an unexpected marriage, to late middle-age. It is, profoundly – to borrow from the title of another of Munro’s collections – the life of a girl, a woman: a life that involves response, acceptance, accommodation, and thus a series of negatives: decisions not taken; opportunities missed. The pang it delivers, the sense of loss, is amplified by the way in which Munro swims back and forth in time, in order to show how insignificant the moments are in which changes can happen, and lives are shaped – and, finally, how little even we, the protagonists, remember of them. “Describing this passage, this change in her life, later on,” Munro says, of the event that lead to Grace’s marriage, “Grace might say – she did say – that it was as if a gate had clanged shut behind her. But at the time there was no clang – acquiescence simply rippled through her, the rights of those left behind were smoothly cancelled. Her memory of this day remained clear and detailed, though there was a variation in the parts of it she dwelt on. And even in some of those details she must have been wrong”. It’s all loss, loss, loss: loss of potential, of self, and finally of recollection. Oof.

Originally published – and still available online – in The New Yorker, March 22, 2004. Collected in Runaway, McLelland and Stewart, 2004

‘Amundsen’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro is nearly everyone’s favourite short story writer, and she is mine too. I’ve tried to delay finishing everything she has written by limiting myself to a collection a year. I haven’t finished all of Dear Life yet, but I read ‘Amundsen’ some years ago, and now when someone asks me what Alice Munro story I would recommend, I say ‘Amundsen.’ For a while, I was not entirely sure why—it is hardly her best short story. Minutes later I will think—should’ve said ‘Runaway.’ Or ‘Miles City, Montana’. 

I continue to say ‘Amundsen’, because it has all the thematic elements I love best in Alice Munro’s writing: the optimism of a young woman, arbitrary acts of kindness, characters who grow on you despite not appearing for a significant chunk of the story, and heartbreak. What is there to say, life presses on, heartbreak after heartbreak, and really, nothing is the same after the first heartbreak, but heartbreaks are always the same every single time. “It still seemed as if we would make our way out of that crowd, as if in just a moment we would be together,” writes Munro. “But it was just as certain, also, that we would carry on in the directions we were going, and so we did.”

First published in The New Yorker, August 27, 2012. Collected in Dear Life, Vintage, 2013. Read it online here

‘The Beggar Maid’ by Alice Munro

This is my favourite short story. I’ve re-read it several times. It ‘opened up’ to me because it seemed that it was written for me. Or, perhaps, it speaks to most women in their early twenties, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask. In a sense, it’s a story about uncertainty, about navigating important choices while not knowing whether they are the right ones. Munro carefully describes the smallest event and allows its effects to ripple through the story. In this case, the event is someone touching the protagonist’s bare leg in the library. This leads to absolutely everything else, until the final, small yet momentous event – an expression – completes the piece.

First published in The New Yorker, June 27 1977. Collected in Who Do You Think You Are? Macmillan, 1978 – later reissued as The Beggar Maid – and also collected in Selected Stories, Vintage, 2010

‘Friend of My Youth,’ by Alice Munro

This story, which pretends for a while to a kind of staid rural middle-Canadian domestic story of manners, suddenly opens out onto a recontextualizing, explosive endingthat connects the story of the present to a long-ago story an ocean away, and the reader is confronted with the terror of the cause-and-effect chain that history has enabled but the present has obscured, a situation common to all of us when you come to think of it.

First published in The New Yorker, January 1990. Collected in Friend of My Youth, Knopf/Vintage 1990 and Selected Stories, 1997

‘Jakarta’ by Alice Munro

As is the case with so many of Munro’s stories, ‘Jakarta’ is set in the Vancouver area in the 1950s, during the height of the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs. Sonje, who is described as ‘calm’ and ‘Nordic’, is married to Cottar who, at 38, is significantly older than her. Cottar teases Sonje mercilessly about her bourgeoise aspirations. Cottar is a journalist who has scandalously travelled to communist China. He believes in free love and encourages Sonje to sleep with other men, the thought of which makes Sonje unhappy and so she doesn’t follow through. Sonje and Cottar are on vacation in a rented cottage for the summer when Sonje meets and befriends a woman called Kath, who lives in the area permanently with her husband Kent. During their days on the beach, Sonje and Kath discuss the relationships in the book they are reading—DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’—but the subtext of their discussion is their own attitudes towards their husbands and marriages. The story explores the fault lines of marriage—the personal struggle either to adhere to conventional notions of marriage or to find alternatives to it. The argument Kath and Sonje have about DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’ illustrates this perfectly. Kath and Sonje can’t admit it to themselves, or each other, but they have married the wrong people. What is left so beautifully understated in the story is that, deep down, they both know it.

In The Love of a Good Woman, Vintage, 1998

‘Postcard’ by Alice Munro

I’m afraid it’s true – I prefer her early work. The later stories – so spacious and surprising, technically extraordinary and self-effacing – are brilliant in their own way but it is in the first few collections, where the language is fuller and the emotion is allowed to flow more freely that Munro really does it for me. In ‘Postcard’ the narrator, Helen, has had a long affair with Clare, the scion of a grand local family. When Clare returns from Florida one summer with a wife, Helen’s mother tells her it is her own fault: ‘But once a man loses his respect for a girl, he is apt to get tired of her’. Munro seems to me very like Wolff, in that her subject has always been the complexities, surprises and essential unknowability of human character and behavior – yes, all that vague stuff! – a notion that is perhaps intrinsic to the short story form.

First published in Dance of the Happy Shades (Ryerson Press, 1968)