Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories

It’s easy to forget the beauty of the long story. Hell, most people ignore its existence and presence in the tradition. It is truly enchanting, something exceptional. It does not have the restrictions and rigidness of the other popular modes. It conforms to an array of genres. Its length is adequate, satisfactory. It does not have the exhausting duration of the novel and its relentless attempts to encompass the entire life of an individual or a community, or, in the case of the novels before modernism, all of human existence (hello, meta-narrative and yes, Joyce is an exception to this claim, although I will argue that Bloom’s ordinary day in London is in fact a {re}presentation of his whole life). It does not have the briefness and fleetingness of the short story that leaves its readers satisfied but ultimately wanting more, nor does it possess the rules or norms of what the short prose narrative is supposed to be. It does not have the feeling of safety that ones gets from the novella and the novelette, its baffling form, its questionable appearance, and the lingering sense that what you are holding is simply an exhausted and stretched piece of short prose or shortened, sacrilegiously chopped novel. I have much adoration and affinity for all the forms of fiction, but the long story is different. Its protean nature, its sheer ability to adopt the techniques of the novel and the short story, and completeness is staggering, disarming. The way it says, “Screw the damn page limits and the minimum page requirements,” or “Down with breathlessness and the sprint of storytelling, the damn ‘flash of the fireflies,’ or “To hell with minimalism and the culture of restraint,” makes so much sense to me. And in this form, Alice Munro, I think, is one of the few ones who have really mastered the technique and skill to achieve everything that the long story can hope to be.

My knowledge and acquaintance with Alice Munro has been restricted to the few stories I found online and the few recent works which The New Yorker has made available in their website. I’ve never been able to read a collection. The collection which will be the focus of this review, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, along with Runaway, Lives of Girls and Women, Too Much Happiness, Open Secrets, The Progress of Love and The View from Castle Rock are perennially on my wish list, an excel file, located at my desktop, where all the books I wish to purchase are indicated. The stories that I have been fortunate to read were excellent, to say the least. Going into the collection, I was already aware of what I could look forward to from the book. But finishing the collection, after four brief days, as I tried to slip a page or two in between work, commute, school projects and extra-curricular endeavors, I was foolish to infer a prediction of what my experience would be like. Reading a collection from Munro is different, vastly and incomparably different. The emotional turmoil and sheer elation derived from reading it was not a usual occurrence. It’s something that I’ve only experienced while reading Lorrie Moore or John Updike. Certainly, I’m used to enjoying a collection. I’m comfortable with being in awe of a book. But to completely taken over, to be absolutely compelled and held by a book is a gift and a privilege. It is rare, precious, something to consider, ponder, and linger on even in the busiest moments of everyday life.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, is at first reading, utterly exhausting. The sheer weariness one gets from reading each story is not a criticism or an insult, of course. It is praise. As a fiction writer and a critic, it is impossible for me to read a story just to be amused or entertained or to find an insight into reality. In reading, I also take note of character development and their growth, the structural integrity of the whole narrative, the precision of the tone, the accuracy in the details rendered in both character and setting, and most of all, the language employed, the choice of words, the turn of the phrase, the length and elegance of a sentence, where the gorgeousness of the narrative resonates from. Each story in the collection is tireless in achieving perfection in each attribute. It is deeply invested in each aspect that understanding how it all works in harmony and in such equality is arduous, laborious, but worthwhile. Analyzing each story, one would not wonder why she is a master of the prose narrative, why her stories, towers over everybody else’s. Certainly, one other thing that radiates in this collection is the stories she weaves. The truths she decides to convey is breathtaking, transcended and relevant. Each story presents an emotional wasteland of such immensity and deepness, which the readers have to traverse. This emotional wasteland, I believe, is what every piece of literature aims to achieve.

The regular manner in which I do my review of prose narratives will not be sufficient. Such a rushed encapsulation of my favorite narratives, a summary of each, is an insult. It is heresy. This is not a book of biases and preference. The stories are equally excellent and awe-inspiring. Such reviews are cliché, of course, a downer, or proof that my critical eye is heavily clouded, enough reason for me to go back to criticism class or take another stab at a fiction writing workshop. But there are rare moments like this. There are rare moments when you want to find your inner Michiko Kakutani but simply cannot. There are moments when you try to find and channel the notoriousness of someone like Martin Amis but simply fail to. I love all the stories in this collection, the kind of love that will not fade away, love in every sense of the term, none of the semantic and cynical bull found in Roland Barthes discourse on love. Moreover, I want to keep each narrative preserve in an ethereal glass, untainted, uncorrupted, and eternally beautiful. And so I leave Johanna from the title story in that scene I remember, where she’s awkwardly trying on a dress in Milady’s, scared at the prospect of love, of sex, of a commitment, yet prepared to abandon her familiar life of servitude for happiness. And so I leave arrogant, frail and sickly Jinny while standing on the floating bridge, kissing a stranger, betraying all what she knows for a couple of seconds. And so I leave Nina, in front of her husband who had just committed suicide, desperately looking for a note, for a final goodbye. And so I leave Meriel, in bed with the doctor who tried to save the best friend of her husband, an accident that would haunt the rest of her life and future. And so I love all the other characters in the collection, the setting, the moods and tones, safe and uncompromised, in those four good days spent reading my battered, dog-eared, folded and post-it filled copy of the book.

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