BACK in the 1990s, when I was studying for my PhD, very few people, even those who read books, had heard of Alice Munro. Because I was researching a Canadian author, they would assume it was Margaret Atwood—that is, except for the writers, or more specifically, the women writers, for whom there was something special and inspiring in her work. There are still many well-read, discerning individuals who don’t ‘get’ Alice Munro. That’s fine. I don’t ‘get’ Roberto Bolano or Jack Kerouac. But those who admire her stories do so profoundly, feeling a strongly personal attachment to her writing despite her near-invisibility as a public figure. The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro conveys that personal investment in the responses of its contributors to the task of introducing her fiction to new readers. It is entirely appropriate that they are able to write eclectically as individuals in the service of their author, avoiding unnecessary jargon and speaking eloquently on their own behalf. Six out of ten are themselves creative writers. David Staines’s opening chapter, ‘From Wingham to Ontario: Alice Munro in her Canadian Context’ sketches in some biographical details, establishing her primarily as a Canadian author, mining a very specific home territory in Southwestern Ontario. This will be extremely useful for readers unfamiliar with the Canadian background, and gives us a real sense of how Munro has observed cultural change during her own lifetime and within the living memories of those she has encountered. However, this does run the risk of making Munro seem like a provincial figure, and it would have been useful to include more material about her place within the wider literary context, in particular the historical development of the short story. Moreover, the extent to which Munro’s fiction has stayed within geographical limits is often over-stated. As Staines acknowledges, their settings have ranged as far as Australia, Albania, and the Scottish borders. He might also have added that Munro has kept one foot on the western coast, in British Columbia, where she spent twenty formative years as a young writer before returning east after the break-up of her marriage to Jim Munro. (Poor Jim, labelled forever as ‘right wing’ on page 13, a term which is not historically inaccurate but seems a little over-the-top.) British Columbia, its inlets and its islands and the city and suburbs of Vancouver, recur throughout the fiction right up to the first story in what would seem to be her final collection, Dear Life (2012). Robert McGill’s ‘Alice Munro and Personal Development’ looks at this east–west dialogue through her deployment of trains, often in descriptions of the epic journey between Toronto and Vancouver. Observing how often trains are the location of fleeting encounters, McGill suggests that trains ‘gain a striking affinity with the short story as a form, which is a site for similar fleeting, desire-laden encounters between readers and authors’ (137). He goes on to suggest analogies between the train’s compartments and the stories within a collection; he might also have suggested affinities between the space–time compression of train travel and the elliptical properties of the short story form. Most audaciously, he interprets one of Munro’s seemingly less self-reflexive stories (‘Train’, Dear Life 2012), as a re-affirmation of her short story poetics in its protagonist’s resistance to ending the journey and his compulsion to make new beginnings. All the contributors praise Munro’s fiction for a subtle formal inventiveness that evades the taxonomies of realist, modernist, or postmodern literature. Exploiting the elliptical properties of short fiction, her stories resist neat conclusions and challenge the human propensity to order experience according to the narrative patterns we have learnt from storytelling. Maria Löschnigg shows how Munro’s reluctant feminism avoids simplistic ideologies, exploring the shifting balance of power between individuals. Coral Ann Howells investigates her appropriation and subversion of autobiographical form, across her career, which together constitutes its own set of poetics. In ‘Re-Reading The Moons of Jupiter’ W. H. New pays some welcome attention to the short story collection as a form in its own right, where self-contained texts must be arranged according to a logic that is not necessarily overt. Some of the stories in The Moons of Jupiter are obviously connected through recurring characters, but New also traces a ‘book-long conversation about authorship’ (130). In ‘The Female Bard: Retrieving Greek myths, Celtic ballads, Norse sagas and popular songs’, Héliane Ventura pursues some of the numerous intertextual references in Munro’s work. I had never previously made a connection between the title of ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ (Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968) and the 1960s band who sang ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, but she makes a persuasive case that the Walker Brothers belong to a cast of ‘shadow characters, the Happy Shades’; and that the Walker Brothers’ ‘inverted journey’ from the USA to success in the UK (157) inscribed a pattern of counter-epic linked to the father in Munro’s story. Ventura fails to mention that Walker was once the name of a chain of stores in Ontario. Was Munro humming a Walker Brothers song as she sat down at her writing table? Does it matter whether or not this is a conscious reference, as Ventura implies, or a trick of the text? I think in the end it does not, and that Ventura’s analysis shows that these texts are unfathomable, that every re-reading yields additional meanings. Jennifer Murray’s Reading Alice Munro with Jacques Lacan examines some of these possible readings through the intensive close reading of selected texts through the application of Lacanian theory. The irrationalism, even downright perversity, of many Munro characters invites psychoanalytical readings, as does what Munro herself has called the centrality of the mother figure (the Cambridge Companion closes with an essay on ‘The Mother as Material’ by Elizabeth Hay). An attentive reader, Murray is also alive to the tunefulness of Munro’s prose, itself a libidinous pleasure for the texture of its sounds. Murray notes that the linoleum which crops up so often in Munro stories is never reduced to mere ‘lino’.The four sonorous syllables roll around the tongue, making a pleasurable sound, but also signifying everything from a fore-knowledge of death to the indefinable object of desire. Murray’s analysis of the many symbolic uses of the lino ends her book with a triumphant demonstration of how everyday objects, the trappings of realism, furnish the unconscious in Munro’s fiction. The book is as much an introduction to Lacanian theory as a study of Munro, and if the prose is sometimes a little bit clunky that is compensated for by the clarity with which she explains key concepts in his work. Both books seem skewed towards the earlier collections, especially Dance of the Happy Shades and Lives of Girls and Women, which have already received their share of critical attention. On the other hand, those two volumes contain stories which are foundational to Munro’s oeuvre, and I would not want to do without Margaret Atwood’s chapter on Lives of Girls and Women, which identifies the peculiar sensation of shame as almost a guiding principle in Munro’s practice; and Elizabeth Hay’s ‘The Mother as Material’ takes us from an early turning point, ‘The Ottawa Valley’, to the final story of her final collection, closing ‘like a bell tolling—with the central haunting fact of her life’ (191). Is there any other writer whose work can be summarized in such a way, while they are still living? That Munro’s artistic project has not only been sustained but has flourished is itself a miracle. It is difficult to imagine a writer starting out today following the same trajectory. Despite the much-heralded renaissance in the short story, first collections are inevitably followed by first and second novels. Munro has kept faith with her chosen form; and she achieved her first share of international recognition when she was already past forty, going from strength to strength as she headed towards old age. Both these volumes testify to Munro’s importance in the canon, and to the qualities that make her unique. The Cambridge Companion will be especially useful to those new to her work, but also brings new insights for those looking to make deeper connections between the fourteen volumes she has published across her long career. Reading Alice Munro with Lacan is a useful theoretical addition to the expanding field of Munrovian studies. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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