What should make Munro hugely popular (if there were any logic to these things) is the rare combination of her emotional depth and her engagement with the strange arrangements of contemporary life. One of the simple thrills offered by Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours is the notion of an unhappy Angeleno housewife reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949—reading the great book not as such, but as a book, published recently, by an author who has such and such a history. This is the essential bargain of literature: we know that if it’s good enough, it will be timeless; nonetheless, we come to it hoping to learn something about how to live our own life, now. We come to Alice Munro’s stories as Laura Brown (Cunningham’s housewife) came to Virginia Woolf’s novel.
Sheila Munro—in her respectful, spunky, and modest memoir about growing up with Alice Munro—reminds—that years before her mother was asked whether her daughters found it embarrassing that she articulated a woman’s carnality, Virginia Woolf herself acknowledged that she was powerless to represent a woman’s corporeal experience, as were women writers before her. Most readers—not only Munro’s daughters—would agree that Munro did just that.
During her middle age, Munro wrote convincingly about the power and havoc of erotic desire, and now she’s written about becoming old. In the last story of the Everyman’s collection, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” we meet a professor who, though he loves his childless wife, nevertheless succumbed—repeatedly—to the usual temptations offered middle-aged scholars at liberal-arts colleges during the ’70s and ’80s. Later, his wife, with whom he’s stayed, contracts Alzheimer’s and has to be put in a home. Once there, she forms an attachment that looks to him, in every way, like love. When the object of her affection leaves the facility (his wife takes him out), she suffers a depression. The old philanderer, then, in an act of love, sets out to seduce that man’s wife, in order to persuade her to return her husband to the home. In Canada, apparently, filmmakers have produced a screen adaptation of the story. Perhaps this, finally, will push Munro into the popular consciousness.
The View From Castle Rock, Munro’s new collection, makes it quite clear that if Margaret Atwood and handfuls of reviewers are fretting over her popularity, Munro herself is not. In fact, she is again breaking new ground. Though the book jacket calls the work “stories,” many of the tales feel guided by the principles of memoir. The difference between fiction and memoir is not merely a matter of sources and how much of the material “really happened.” It has to do with the honor the author ascribes to what really happened, and whether that seems to hold a greater density of truth than some alloyed version. In many of Munro’s previous great stories, there are parallels to be found with her life in the roughest outlines, yet there is no question that those tales are fiction, despite the reader’s being able to pick out “the Munro character” or “the fox-farmer father” or “the woman leaving her husband.” These latest tales, while perhaps not as personal as some of her previous stories, feel more like memoirs, in that they obey the stark laws of that form. Gorgeous, completely nuanced scenes become revealed, and then, abruptly, the narrator will pull back and tell us that that is all she knows (see Deborah Eisenberg’s review, elsewhere in this section).
The new collection does not have the feel of the Last Testament of Alice. It seems a personal gift, made of bits of family history, and perhaps written as much for her children and grandchildren as for posterity. On the matter of Munro, at seventy-five, breaking her wand: when I asked her American editor, Ann Close, recently whether the newspaper reports were true, that Munro was indeed quitting, she answered, “We already have four stories toward a new collection.”