The short story is the most civilized form of fiction: unlike the novel, it makes no imperious demands on the reader's time and attention and unfolds its pleasures in polite, small doses. Nevertheless, a short story is a story, and to succeed it must have two things -- character and motion. It is the sense of people moving -- of time, even a short time -- that makes the reader wish to continue, to turn the page, to ask "What happened next?"
To succeed artistically, of course, a short story must have something else, some surprise for the reader. Rose Blatchford, one of the title characters of "The Beggar Maid" is an actress who lands a part in a television serial that sounds like a Canadian version of "The Waltons":
"People watching trusted that they would be protected from predictable disasters, also from those shifts of emphasis that throw the story line open to questions, the disarrangements which demand new judgments and solutions and throw the windows open on inappropriate, unforgettable scenery."
This, of course, is precisely what we ask of the short story, and Alice Munro, a Canadian writer who has written three previous books, delivers. "The Beggar Maid" is a linked series of stories that tells of Rose's poverty-stricken childhood in West Hanratty, Ontario, with her stepmother Flo; her stiflingly prosperous married life in Vancouver with her husband Patrick; and her anxious early middle age, ranging alone across Canada as a radio broadcaster, actress and college teacher.
Along the way, she loses Flo to senility and her daughter Anna to Patrick's second wife -- another stepmother who will, we sense, set up the cycle of family love, disappointment and loss that is the book's true subject. About families, Munro is wonderfully knowing, and "The Beggar Maid" has moments and scenes I will remember for a long time to come. My favorite is when the newly divorced Rose visits a couple she has known for years, and the husband shyly suggests an orgy: "Jocelyn and Rose said, 'Really?' at exactly the same time. Then they linked their little fingers and said 'Smoke goes up the chimney.'"
The motion in all these stories is Rose's desperate search for love, which propels her across the broad spaces of Canada in all weathers and moods and which, when the prize seems suddenly within reach, propels her desperately away again, lest its obsession and loss rob her of the self she has struggled to become. As a character, Rose is engaging, gallant and complex; "The Beggar Maid" is a civilized pleasure indeed.
Not so "Black Tickets," whose dust jacket bears, at precisely albatross height, the message that it is "the unmistakable work of early genius." Genius, of course, is not civilized but terrible; but perhaps even more terrible for a young writer is to be hailed as a genius before she has mastered the basics of her art. "Black Tickets" makes an ambitious attempt to live up to its blurb, and fails. Jayne Anne Phillips, a 26-year-old writer with two chapbooks of stories to her credit, tries to write in a high colloquial style, pushing the spoken language -- and the internal monologue -- to its limits and beyond. Very occasionally this works, as when a cocaine freak tells her psychiatrist that "Paranoia . . . sounds like an exotic liqueur. You drink it down hot and it makes you shake," or when a man, traveling for the first time into forgotton valleys of Appalachia, exclaims, "This ain't the South . . . This is the goddamn past." But more often it produces clinkers such as "She born and died in Maine, she dying there still I guess" or "His ashed face nearly shone with some power." Not seldom it descends into incomprehensibility, as when the narrator of the title story apostrophizes his beloved:
"Who sees you now Jamaica, how many of them ever did. I got close, inside, in the whirling. Or maybe you kept me out, crouched in your fetal hum, but I knew where you were and mapped a tonal geography no ear could name; found you with a sonar plugged into the music of dark feedback that shoves us."
Much of "Black Tickets" is concerned with the low life of contemporary America -- murderers, strippers, prostitutes, drug pushers and heroin addicts. But Phillips' version of this nightmare world is flat, unconvincing and even cliched. For example, she portrays a junkie hitting a vein in a room straight out of "Monkey on My Back" or any other '50s movie, where a neon sign "throws a splattered word across the floor. Rooms, it says, blue Rooms."
In fact, the most satisfying of the stories in "Black Tickets" are fairly conventional views of middle-class life, of young women struggling to understand their parents and their own lives. "Souvenir," in which a young academic comes home to help her mother face death, is the most successful story in the book. Many of the others -- including the title story -- fail because they are not stories at all, but static prose poems (more than half the book's 27 "stories" are less than one page long) -- verbal indulgences in which nothing happens, no characters are revealed, and no time passes.
Jayne Anne Phillips has talent and ambition to be sure, but these are not the same as genius. Both must be gentled and trained until they move and stop at the rider's command. "Black Tickets" is not so much a book as a series of stampedes, with intervals of grazing.