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The Munro Doctrine

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page C03


By Alice Munro

Knopf. 335 pp. $25

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There's no sweeter way to spend time -- taking the long view -- than reading books and then, perhaps, writing about them. (Sex and hamburgers are all very well, but they can have unlooked-for side effects.) That said, there can be weeks when nothing extraordinarily terrific comes under your nose. Books become something like weeknight dinners -- good, certainly; nourishing, yes -- as in, "What shall we have this evening? Meat loaf? Halibut? They both sound nice."

Then a big dish of Beluga caviar sails in on a sparkling bed of ice, with a mother-of-pearl spoon. You remember: This is why you eat, read, make love, whatever -- to be left silly with admiration and delight.

Here are eight wonderful stories -- no, seven great stories and one good one. All seem at first to be about women, but they're about being human -- how that condition cradles us, limits us. Most of them begin in the relatively obscure past and proceed slowly and carefully into what we might call the present. Because of this stately movement through time, many of them are about the inevitable loss of everything we think we have when we are young. Because even as we live this exact moment, it's gone; we can't get it back.

Three of the stories here -- "Chance," "Soon" and "Silence" -- concern an ordinary Canadian woman, Juliet, at different moments in her life. In "Chance," she's only 21, a bookish prodigy, possessor of a master's degree in classics, about to begin work on her PhD. The year is 1965. Does Juliet know she's barking up the wrong academic tree, that there are next to no jobs in classics, and besides, those few slots are unlikely to go to a woman? Probably not. All she knows is that she's met a man on a train a few months ago, on the way to her first, very temporary, teaching job. He's written her a letter. On the way home she detours -- out to one of the rain-drenched islands off Vancouver -- to look him up. He has an invalid wife, she knows that, but what the hell.

To be young, a woman, and off on a crack-brained adventure! The freshness, the newness, the self-important specialness of it all, is breathtaking. And Eric, that guy, a fisherman, is waiting for her. His wife has just died, and Juliet moves right in. Was that letter he sent her one of many -- one of those "Help Wanted" messages we tend to post to the world at large when we see a divorce or death coming up? Juliet will never know. She's smart, but she's entirely ignorant of the wheels that turn her life.

In "Soon," four years later, Juliet returns home for a visit to her parents, who live in a small town near Toronto. She casts a fairly cold eye on all that she sees; she's a mother now, of 13-month-old Penelope; she's a bona fide grown-up. Also, Juliet sees herself as part of a new generation. She and Eric haven't seen fit to marry -- why should they? But here in this still-pokey town, the old values prevail; Juliet's father may have lost his teaching job because of her. That's too bad, because she sincerely loves him. Juliet can take her mother or leave her alone -- she's always been something of a narcissist, cherishing a "bad heart," too used to being waited on. Juliet can't help but be scandalized by her parents (who of us is not?). Her father flirts clumsily with the housekeeper. Her mother, frail and on the verge of dementia, primps shamelessly for a visiting minister. Is that why Juliet so carelessly rejects an overture of affection from her mom? And why she gets into a teeth-gnashing fight about the nonexistence of God with that innocent-bystanding man of the cloth?

In "Silence," Juliet has developed a semi-successful career as a local talk show host. Her life seems fine. In fact, life is getting ready to smack her, hard. Horror is coming; she can't see it, there's nothing she can do about it, and she can be said to have brought it on herself. She's reached the stage where, if she were able to perceive what's happening to her, she might begin posting another set of cosmic messages -- "I'm sorry!" -- to anyone who might be listening.

None of these stories is particularly original. There's more than a hint of Kay Boyle in "Passion," in which a young girl runs off for a few hours with a man both drunk and married, more than a hint of William Goldman in "Tricks," in which another young girl meets someone who might be the improbable man of her dreams. And "Trespasses," about the follies of a pair of old and desperately stupid hippie parents, could have been written by anyone in this literary generation. But it ain't what Munro does, to paraphrase the old song. It's the way that she does it.

"Powers," my favorite story here, begins in a tiny Canadian town in 1927. It's a whole other world. Nancy, a teenager, writes a diary full of envy, longing, facile pity. She envies her best friend, gets proposed to by a young doctor named Wilf, and flirts with Wilf's cousin, Ollie. She saves her pity for Tessa, who's a bit of an outcast, an oddity, because she can find lost objects and see the future. The story follows them all into the present. Why, oh why, does it take us so long to learn about our lives, if we ever do? Why are even the clairvoyant, the "powerful," so easily and consistently deluded? Probably because we'd die of sorrow if we knew the truth.

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