By Alice Munro
Knopf, 323 pp., $24
The title of Alice Munro's latest collection is not only a mouthful, it's a handful, and it comes to us from one character's recollection of a girlhood game. It's a game unlike walking down the street with eyes shut or walking backward home from school or talking in some shared nonsense language with a friend, all games designed to catch anybody's notice and cause the adult world confusion if not concern. In this one schoolgirl game you're asked to stake something. You're asked to have someone in mind. It's a game that'll do for a lifetime.
You write out a boy's name and your own. The letters in common you strike out because they don't figure here. The remaining letters you count up and count off on your fingers according to the following five possible "verdicts": hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage. And there you have it. What you and that boy share in name doesn't enter the equation, an equation that makes a world of difference. Not unhappiness necessarily. Difference. What Munro's protagonists make of that world is never less than quietly ground-breaking and never less than what makes most of us tick. And what makes us tick is going five-for-five with a loved one before death, disease, divorce, accident, or sheer exhaustion declare time out.
Is there today a clearer eye than Alice Munro's on these matters, a better hand at writing these matters down in short-story form and wringing them for all they're worth of meaning? William Trevor, an Irishman writing in England? Possibly, but he's working within a larger political framework. Bernhard Schlink in Germany, writing after the fall of the Wall and writing across continents in his latest, excellent collection, Flights of Love (from Pantheon)? Hardly Munro's equal (yet) but very much following in her footsteps. Canada, though, remains Munro's province, from the farms and small towns of Ontario to the big-city streets of Toronto and Vancouver, from mid-20th-century families making a hard life livable on those farms and in those small towns to their educated, now-aging offspring trying to make sense of things and of themselves in a wider world. Add to this Munro's outlook: a Northerner's efficiency -- dialogue in short bursts but sounding exactly the notes needed, exposition without a waste of word, and everywhere this: characters in the throes of ... what? Definition, change -- quiet but seismic change, redefinition, none of it earth-shattering, all of it honest-to-God. And if you don't see yourself in all this, don't bother with a book. What you need is a mirror and an open pair of eyes.
There are nine stories here in all, and it's fruitless to single out one over the others. For their complexity and expert characterization, however, see the title story and its depiction of a woman dead-set on a new life and winning it despite false pretenses; "Queenie," the one instance in this collection of marital discord escalating into physical violence in a scene to give you the real creeps; plus Munro's closing story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." Late in that story you will be introduced to Marian, wife of Aubrey. Aubrey is physically declining and temporarily inside a nursing home, where he develops a romantic attachment to Fiona (and vice versa), who is wife to Grant, who is coming to terms with Fiona's Alzheimer's and with his own unfaithful past. It is Marian we immediately don't take a shine to, but it is Marian in the space of a single page of hard-nosed dialogue that turns this story inside-out and Grant's self-regard upside-down. That makes Marian, in the vocabulary of Flannery O'Connor, the world's least likely source of grace and gives Alice Munro a solid spot in the literary big league. She's earned that spot without resorting to gunfire, bloodshed, brute sex, or gutter talk. People call it artistry.
I'm guessing but something says Munro would have agreed with jurors who recently awarded this year's Memphis magazine fiction prize to Marjorie Rhem and her story, "A Detroit Connection." And it's not because bullets, blood, sex acts, or trash talk fail to make an appearance. It's because Rhem, who teaches English at the Memphis College of Art, succeeds in telling a simple story with not-so-simple implications for its lead character, a woman traveling alone from Saratoga, New York, through Detroit's airport, on her way home to Memphis. Technically, the writing is clear to the point of transparent, rich in coordinated detail, with every one of those details working toward one end, which is: to make this woman as vivid in readers' minds as she's unsure of herself. The end result: our full attention. And what's more to fine writing, good reading?
Rhem will be reading "A Detroit Connection" and signing copies of the December/January Memphis magazine in which it appears at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, December 6th, from 5 to 6 p.m. The magazine, a sister publication of the Flyer, hits newsstands December 12th.