Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Happy Birthday Alice Munro

This afternoon at the pool I was trying to read a literary novel about the breakup of a marriage. The writing was all right, but I was finding it to be kind of a slog, and not just because of all the "Mom, look at me dive!" stuff. The book was suffused with wistful lyricism, which struck me as subtly wrong and psychologically inaccurate. There was no anger, no freaking out, no confusion, no passion -- well, maybe that happened later, but I didn't get that far. I sighed, shut the book, and guiltily took out a true crime paperback.

Alice Munro writes about complicated human relationships better than anyone. Her insights into how people fall in and out of love are so startling and correct, it can spoil you for other writers. Here's just a tiny thing, from one of my favorite stories, "Lichen," in The Progress of Love -- a man and his new girlfriend go to visit his ex-wife:
As David turns the car into the lane, Stella steps out of these bushes, holding a colander full of berries. She is a short, fat, white-haired woman, wearing jeans and a dirty T-shirt. There is nothing underneath these clothes, as far as he can see, to support or restrain any part of her.
"Look what's happened to Stella," says David, fuming. "She's turned into a troll."
Catherine, who has never met Stella before, says decently, "Well. She's older."
"Older than what, Catherine? Older than the house? Older than Lake Huron? Older than the cat?"

The writer of the novel I failed to read at the pool would probably have had David thinking sentimentally of Stella's former beauty, or feeling sad about how she's let herself go, or something. But Munro has him mysteriously angry -- personally offended by her sagging boobs. It's surprising, absolutely believable, and about a thousand times more interesting than the reaction most writers would resort to. Later in the story, David leaves Stella a naked photo of Catherine. It's a weird thing to do, but again, it's perfect.

Alice Munro has churned out an astounding body of work in the last decade -- she's writing more and better the older she gets. If every writer followed her arc, we'd be drowning in great books.

1 comment:

the individual voice said...

The appreciation for Alice Munro by the writers on this site has helped me better understand what has felt so mysterious to me about her work. As a new writer-blogger, I thank you.