New Selected Stories
Chatto & Windus, 448pp, £18.99
A short story writer who is unusually good (or lucky) will see his or her best-known work in a magazine, a collection and finally, crowningly, a "collected" stories (omnium-gatherum) or "selected" stories (best of). John Updike's "Wife-Wooing", for example, first appeared in the New Yorker in March 1960, and has been reprinted half a dozen times. One cannot help feeling that, of all its various resting places, the most stately, Updike's The Early Stories, was also the most undignified. There, "Wife-Wooing" sits among more than a hundred siblings, all produced between 1953 and 1975, in a book barely portable and containing within its covers so much other evidence of how the young writer, hardly known for his range, went about constructing a story.
Updike hinted at these problems when reviewing Alice Munro's Selected Stories in 1996: "All of them have already been published in handier, pleasanter formats in previous collections . . ." Munro's new book, which reprints 15 stories from the past 15 years, contains a great deal of fine writing, but it damages what it means to celebrate. If the short story collection may aspire to the unity or coherence of the musical album, say Joni Mitchell's Blue, then the short story selection is the literary (or rather, publishing) counterpart to Joni Mitchell's Hits. It is a commercial enterprise, an old-rope cash-in - a format rather than an art form.
Jonathan Franzen was joking when he set down a synopsis of the typical Alice Munro story ("A bright, sexually avid girl grows up in rural Ontario without much money . . . She marries young, moves to British Columbia, raises kids") - and so was Updike, when he did the same for, or to, the Munro heroine ("Bright, she attends college and marries; she and her husband move to British Columbia, usually Vancouver, and have children"). But the exaggeration has a basis in reality, and New Selected Stories allows us to become well acquainted with Munro's tics, traits and tricks in a way that a constructed collection wouldn't (or didn't). The first time you encounter her description of blood looking not like blood but like the froth produced by boiling strawberries, you may be struck by how good you think it is; but the second time you encounter the description, in a story written a decade later, you will more likely be struck by how good Alice Munro thinks it is.
The effect, after about a hundred pages, is one of déjà lu. There seems to come a point in every Alice Munro story - or so the jaded reader feels - when an asterisk or a paragraph break is followed by a leap in time and a sentence along the lines of: "I didn't see Russell again." Death never crawls towards Munro's characters - it pounces on them, usually in contradiction to the medical prognosis: "One night her mother died suddenly"; "Quite suddenly, one January, she died"; "on the day he was supposed to come home he died". But how "sudden" can the reader possibly feel these "sudden-death stories" to be? Events that come as an unexpected blow to Munro's characters are calmly awaited by her readers.
Little of this reflects badly on Munro as a writer of stories or story collections; rarely do the repetitions occur across pieces originally written to be read side by side. But even when offered in a more highly managed, flattering context, her stories have weaknesses, among them a wilful withholding of detail and a reliance on easily earned expressions of feeling ("She thought of their large gentle shapes in there with the monkey musk and chicory, the flowering grasses, and she thought, They have a lovely life, cows").
Most of her stories are written in a third person that, when it doesn't display what one character calls "an obstinate naïveté", is in danger of projecting something close to the opposite - an air of amused, illusionless, almost smug trenchancy, especially in portraying men, a loutish bunch prone to infidelity and violence, unable to boil water, and impressed by large television screens when there are decent fauna to admire.
But enough griping. Munro, though her one-time under-appreciation has now been over-corrected, is an astute and lavishly confident writer, her clean, well-shaped sentences delivering a near-constant supply of stinging insight, together with moments of wonderful soft-fingered grace. Her economy with words can be dazzling: "you couldn't call it rape, she too was determined".
Mostly she writes about parents and children, occupying similar scenarios from different positions. "Don't say we'll be in touch," a man tells his mother in "Deep-Holes". "Maybe we'll be in touch," she replies. "Is that any better?" At the end of "The Children Stay", when a man utters the title phrase to his adulterous wife, she reflects, in a chilling attempt at self-deception: "Say to yourself, You lose them anyway." In "Soon", a young woman contemplates her neglect of her now-dead mother: "Could it not have been managed? . . . To Sara it would have meant so much - to herself, surely, so little." Then, in "Silence", we read of the same character, now also a mother:
She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in any strenuous way.
She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.
New Selected Stories is perhaps best seen as an advertisement for any one of Munro's last five collections. Runaway (2004), home of "Soon", "Silence" and the earlier "Chance", comes out best. For once, there is a solid justification for the stories chosen - their shared protagonist, Juliet, who starts off as a young classics teacher at a boarding school in the mid-Sixties and ends up as a widow retired from the television presenter jobs that brought her modest fame.
The story cycle requires Munro to flex different muscles, and affords her unwonted possibilities. "Chance", for example, ends with a teasing description that is as close as Munro will come to writing a "Next time on . . ." trailer for a TV soap; a passage in one story about Juliet's hair and its resistance to perms prompts us to recall a detail in an earlier story about how it refused to retain a bouffant style "even when sprayed". But on the whole, the stories concentrate on the ways in which Juliet changes. Munro, the book makes clear, is attracted to the idea that people harbour more than one potential self and are capable, or feel capable, of changing horses in midstream.
The Juliet triptych is rare in displaying a desire on Munro's part for a canvas larger than the single, 15,000-word story. A few of her collections, due to running characters or a shared setting, have been described as novels. Otherwise, she seems happy, not with the conventions, but with the possibilities of the short story, a form that, as she commands it, proves capable of ambition in scene-setting and character-drawing, of variety in form and perspective - and, in a story such as "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage", of more or less everything that a novelist could ever hope to achieve.
Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer of the New Statesman