Before the advent of these Canadian fiction masters, the only other inroads on American culture made by our neighbor to the north was a feeble attempt, when the British Army came down across the border and held a river crossing at Schuylerville, New York on the upper Hudson for a few days in 1777. Compared to that, the hold on U.S. readership by Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro has been monumental. Ever since the publication of her novel Surfacing in 1972 she began to gather a following, and with The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 the drum-beat began for Atwood to take her place at the forefront of American feminism.
North American feminism, I should say. Because Atwood, Canadian through and through, has been just as interested in exploring questions of Canadian identity as she has female identity. Where her internationalism shines through, or, perhaps we ought to call it, her North Americanism, because she embraces both Canada and the U.S. in this regard, comes in the form of her science-fiction—or as she, an old science-fiction buff since childhood would prefer to call it—her speculative fiction. Having looked to Canada’s past in her quest to come to terms with its national identity, she has lately again been looking to the future and trying to come to terms with a dark vision that has grown naturally out of her Canadian sense of the menacing wilderness.
Whereas I never tired of Alice Munro’s stories. Though I am not the kind of reader or short-story writer who puts much stock in exposition, I sit still for hers every time. She lays down such seemingly ordinary but useful sentences, one after another after another, that though I come to scoff I stay to marvel, almost every time. Munro’s expositions hold worlds of story material in themselves. There’s this, from near the opening of the story called “Fiction”: “In their first year at college they dropped out of their classes and ran away together. They got jobs here and there, traveled by bus across the continent, lived for a year on the Oregon coast, were reconciled, at a distance, with their parents, for whom a light had gone out in the world…” The actual story has an odd shape, the past first presented as present, and then springing us in to the female character’s future that packs a force only the sharpest observation can produce. She and her drop-out break up, and years later she moves to the city to make another life with another man, when events out of the past, in the form of a short story by a writer with she thinks at first she has only a casual relation, return to haunt her, and change her at all this great distance in time.
The ironies of living a long life, with all of its twists and turns, abound in this story, including the main character’s initial disdain for the short story form itself. When she purchases a copy of the writer’s book she scoffs: “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…”.
Munro has a little fun with herself here. Is there anyone writing short fiction today in English who has more authority? But as safely settled inside the gates of Literature as she may be, she advances her art in this current collection, with its cast of lovers and losers, husbands and widows, scientists, female geniuses who solve difficult math problems and also write novels, and people who labor with their hands. In “Wenlock Edge”, there’s an element of dead-pan erotica that includes such details as the way a naked woman eating dinner with her wealthy old host hears her “buttocks make a slapping noise” as she loosens herself “from the sleek upholstery of the dining room chair…” In “Wood”, we learn about the bite of a life working with bark. “Many people recognize trees by their leaves or by their general shape and size,” we hear, “but walking through the leafless deep bush Roy knows them by their bark. Ironwood, that heavy and reliable firewood, has a shaggy brown bark…Cherry is the blackest tree in the bush, and its bark lies in picturesque scales…Ash is a soldierly tree with a corduroy-ribbed trunk…” The descriptions go on.
And if this is what she does with the trees in these stories, you can imagine what she does with the people.
Alan Cheuse is the author of four novels, three collections of short fiction, and the memoir "Fall Out of Heaven."
Review: 'Too Much happiness' by Alice Munro, 'The Year of the Flood' by Margaret Atwood
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