Characters Dangerously Like Us
By JOYCE CAROL OATES
Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses - one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment. The one, practiced most scrupulously, yields ever briefer and ever more abstract or parablelike fictions; the other, of course, yields the novel or the epic. Some storytellers experiment endlessly while others, having found their voices early on, and having developed (or appropriated) the most pragmatic structures to contain them, are content to work in more or less the same tradition throughout their careers. When the work is good no one is likely to lament the writer's lack of interest in experimentation. When the work is very good no one is likely even to notice it.
Like her similarly gifted contemporaries Peter Taylor, William Trevor, Edna O'Brien and some few others, the Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro writes stories that have the density - moral, emotional, sometimes historical - of other writers' novels. As remote from the techniques and ambitions of what is currently known as ''minimalist'' fiction as it is possible to get and still inhabit the same genre, these writers give us fictitious worlds that are mimetic paradigms of utterly real worlds yet are fictions, composed with so assured an art that it might be mistaken for artlessness. They give voice to the voices of their regions, filtering the natural rhythms of speech through a more refined (but not obtrusively refined) writerly speech. They are faithful to the contours of local legend, tall tales, anecdotes, family reminiscences; their material is nearly always realistic - ''Realism'' being that convention among competing others that swept all before it in the mid and late 19th century - and their characters behave, generally, like real people. That is, they surprise us at every turn, without violating probability. They so resemble ourselves that reading about them, at times, is emotionally risky. Esthetically experimental literature, while evoking our admiration, rarely moves us the way this sort of literature moves us.
From the start of her career in 1968 with the Canadian publication of the short-story collection ''Dance of the Happy Shades'' (published in the United States in 1973) through ''Lives of Girls and Women,'' ''Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You,'' ''The Beggar Maid,'' ''The Moons of Jupiter'' and this new collection, ''The Progress of Love,'' Alice Munro has concentrated on short fiction that explores the lives of fairly undistinguished men and women - but particularly women -who live in southwestern rural Ontario. When her characters move elsewhere to live, to British Columbia, for instance, like the couple whose precarious marriage is explored in ''Miles City, Montana,'' it is still Ontario that is home. (But: ''When we said 'home' and meant Ontario, we had very different places in mind.'') Though Ms. Munro's tonal palette has darkened considerably over the last 20 years, her fictional technique has not changed greatly, nor has the range of her characters. By degrees, of course, they have grown older. Their living fulfills the prophetic conclusion of a beautiful early story, ''Walker Brothers Cowboy'' (from ''Dance of the Happy Shades''): ''I feel my father's life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.''
The most powerful of the 11 stories collected in ''The Progress of Love'' take on bluntly and without sentiment the themes of mortality, self-delusion, puzzlement over the inexplicable ways of fate. In ''Fits'' it is observed that ''people can take a fit like the earth takes a fit'' after an unaccountable murder-suicide has been discovered in a small rural town. (Indeed, ''Fits'' would have made an excellent title for this collection.) The story yields its secrets slowly, with admirable craft and suspense: the surprise for the reader is that the ''fit'' at its core is less the sensational act of violence than a woman's mysteriously untroubled response to it.
''A Queer Streak'' is a tragically comic (or comically tragic) tale of an ambitious young woman named Violet, a ''holy terror'' in her youth, whose life is permanently altered by the bizarre behavior of an emotionally unbalanced younger sister. It is a familiar temptation to which Violet succumbs: she decides, against the very grain of her personality, that the loss of her fiance is a ''golden opportunity'' and not a disaster. Henceforth she will give up her own life, live for others: ''That was the way Violet saw to leave her pain behind. A weight gone off her. If she would bow down and leave her old self behind as well, and all her ideas of what her life should be, the weight, the pain, the humiliation would all go magically. And she could still be chosen. . . . If she prayed enough and tried enough, that would be possible.'' But this moment of revelation is the high point of Violet's life, as we see it.
Violet, who takes on, by degrees, the ''queer streak'' of her family, is one of Ms. Munro's unromantic, independent heroines - country bred, proud, resilient, courageous even in her old age. Her story might have been even more moving if it did not unaccountably accelerate in its second half (where the point of view shifts to Violet's cousin Dan about whom we know virtually nothing and who is merely used as an instrument to observe Violet). Also, Ms. Munro is curiously perfunctory in summarizing Violet's love affair with a married man - the most intense emotional experience of Violet's life, presumably. Like the adulterous love affair at the heart of ''White Dump,'' it is alluded to rather than dramatized: the reader knows very little about it, and consequently feels very little.
RECURRING in Alice Munro's fiction is a certain female protagonist, clearly kin to Violet, but generally more capable of establishing a life for herself. She is intelligent, though not intellectual; ''superior,'' though often self-doubting. She has the capacity to extract from frequently sordid experiences moral insights of a very nearly Jamesian subtlety and precision. She tells us what she thinks; tells us, often, what we would think. Not conventionally beautiful, she is nonetheless attractive to men: which leads her sometimes, as an adolescent, into dangerous situations - as in the new story ''Jesse and Meribeth'' in which the adolescent Jesse is scolded by a near-seducer, an older man, for what he correctly perceives as her overwrought romantic imagination: ''You shouldn't go inside places like this with men just because they ask you. . . . You're hot-blooded. You've got some lessons to learn.'' In the more complex, multigenerational ''White Dump'' a kindred girl is drawn into marriage with a man who ''depended on her to make him a man,'' and who will prove inadequate to her passionate nature. In ''Lichen,'' one of the bleakest of the new stories, the heroine, middle-aged, cheerful, at last adjusted to a solitary life, achieves a moral triumph over her fatuous ex-husband simply by maturing beyond him. She is fully accepting of the terms of her freedom: ''This white-haired woman walking beside him . . . dragged so much weight with her - a weight not just of his sexual secrets Continued on page 9 but of his middle-of-the-night speculations about God, his psychosomatic chest pains, his digestive sensitivity, his escape plans, which once included her. . . . All his ordinary and extraordinary life - even some things it was unlikely she knew about - seemed stored up in her. He could never feel any lightness, any secret and victorious expansion, with a woman who knew so much. She was bloated with all she knew.'' She has become, ironically, a kind of mother to him; but she looks so much older than he that he is shamed and frightened at the very sight of her.
In one of the collection's finest stories, ''The Progress of Love,'' the daughter of a woman who sacrificed both herself and her children to presumably Christian ideals of integrity chooses deliberately not to believe in those ideals, or to marry conventionally as her mother had done; she becomes, in fact, a real estate agent, selling off the old houses and farms that made up the world of her youth. Long divorced, alone but not really lonely, Euphemia - who calls herself Fame -seeks moments of ''kindness and reconciliation'' rather than serious love; she wonders ''if those moments aren't more valued, and deliberately gone after, in the setups some people like myself have now, than they were in those old marriages, where love and grudges could be growing underground, so confused and stubborn, it must have seemed they had forever.'' But without the old marriages and all that they yielded of sorrow, repression, loss, romance - what remains? Fame's love affairs are affairs merely, matters of convenience. To celebrate birthdays ''or other big events'' she goes with friends from work to a place called the Hideaway where male strippers perform. (While Ms. Munro's Ontario countryside has come to bear a disconcerting resemblance to Andrew Wyeth's stark, bleached-out, clinically detailed landscapes, her small towns have been tawdrily transformed - dignified old country inns recycled as strip joints, convenience stores stocked with video games: ''jittery electronic noise and flashing light and menacing, modern-day, oddly shaved and painted children.'')
More than ''The Beggar Maid'' and ''The Moons of Jupiter,'' the two story collections preceding this one, ''The Progress of Love'' does contain less fully realized stories. So thinly executed is ''Eskimo'' that it reads like an early draft of a typically rich, layered, provocative Munro story: its male protagonist is offstage, its female protagonist senses, or imagines, a psychic kinship with a young Eskimo girl she tries to befriend on an airplane flight, but their encounter comes to nothing and the story dissolves in a self-consciously symbolic dream. ''Miles City, Montana'' recounts a child's near-drowning but fails to integrate the episode with what precedes and follows it, and ends with a rather forced epiphany: ''So we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that had first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous - all our natural, and particular, mistakes.'' ''Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux'' and ''Circle of Prayer'' are each rather sketchily imagined, though brimming with life; and ''White Dump,'' potentially one of the strongest stories in the collection, suffers from a self-conscious structure in which time is fashionably broken and point of view shifts with disconcerting casualness from character to character. We catch only a glimpse of Isabel and her lover and must take Isabel's word for it, that she feels ''rescued, lifted, beheld, and safe''; we are not even certain whether the author means her conviction to be serious, or self-deluded. And the image of the ''white dump'' - the biscuit factory sugar dump - is rather arbitrarily spliced onto the story, poetically vivid as it is.
EVEN the weaker stories, however, contain passages of genuinely inspired prose and yield the solid pleasures of a three-dimensional world that has been respectfully, if not always lovingly, recorded. And Ms. Munro's minor characters, though fleetingly glimpsed, are frequently the vehicles for others' gestures of compassion and pity. (As in ''The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink,'' where decades are compressed within the space of a few pages, and Edgar, whom we have seen as a bright, attractive boy of 17, emerges as an elderly stroke victim, seated in front of a television screen, indifferent to the visit of his cousin and to his cousin's offer to take him for a walk. His wife says of him, simply: ''No. He's happy.'') ''The Progress of Love' is a volume of unflinching honesty, uncompromising in its dissection of the ways we deceive ourselves in the name of love; the bleakness of its vision is enriched by the author's exquisite eye and ear for detail. Life is heartbreak, but it is also uncharted moments of kindness and reconciliation.
Joyce Carol Oates's most recent book is the story collection ''Raven's Wing.''
'I KNOW WHERE THE ROPE IS ATTACHED'
Time is layered in Alice Munro's latest stories - present narrative is interwoven with reminiscence, and the stories consistently beckon to past selves and past experiences. ''I'm very interested in the present, in the culture as it is right now, but I always want to tie it in to what I remember,'' the 55-year-old Canadian writer said recently. ''Anyone my age has seen a lot of change in social attitudes, in the fabric of the culture that surrounds people's lives. I'm interested in how that affects people, I want to skip around in time.''
Ms. Munro has been less inclined to skip around in space. Although she has played the role of ''suburban housewife'' in Vancouver, managed a bookstore in Victoria with her former husband and taught writing at universities in Western Ontario, British Columbia and Queensland, Australia, she has returned to live in the rural Ontario of her childhood - as she usually does in her writing. Her latest collection, ''The Progress of Love,'' is no exception. ''I have a very deep feeling for the countryside, and I write a lot about the sort of people who live in this area - people away from the mainstream,'' she said by telephone from Ontario.
Ms. Munro doesn't choose her subjects, she explained, they choose her.
Perhaps the same could be said of her genre. ''I never intended to be a short-story writer. I planned to write a few short stories to practice writing, and then write novels.'' One novel (''Lives of Girls and Women,'' really a collection of linked stories) and four short-story collections later, she admits she is not a novelist at heart.
''I can get a kind of tension when I'm writing a short story, like I'm pulling on a rope and I know where the rope is attached. With a novel, everything goes flabby. I like to have things going on at a lot of levels and I don't know how to do a novel in that way.''
-- Lori Miller