The Highbrow

Tricked Up

Alice Munro rebels against realism.

Alice’s wonderland

Alice Munro is one of the best-selling short-story writers in North America, a remarkable feat for a writer who is renowned above all for her astonishing subtlety. She is regularly named Chekhov’s heir by critics who hail her eerie ability to capture character in a single brush stroke. (In a story discussed below, an ill woman is said to have a “fund of contempt” for those more fortunate than she, including her solicitous sister.) Yet look closely at a collection of Munro stories, and what you find when you pare everything down looks contrived—even, at times, melodramatic and lurid. Here’s a sampling of storylines from her most recent collection, Runaway: a mother searches for her long-lost runaway daughter; a suicide catalyzes a torrid affair between strangers on a train; a woman is abandoned to a mental institution by her callous husband, whose betrayal is discovered, years later, by a chance meeting with an old friend. In short, there is more of O. Henry in Munro than her admirers tend to admit.

Perhaps the contemporary bias toward realism in short fiction is so strong that it is difficult to write about Munro’s appetite for drama of a particularly symbolic—and bodice-ripping—nature. And perhaps this in turn explains why, though Munro’s taste for gimmick and contrivance is far more pronounced in Runaway than in any of her 11 previous books, few critics noted it. One who did, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, assumed it was a sign that Munro’s form is slipping. But scolding Munro for succumbing to “self-conscious, overworked tales” seems a little like complaining that Matisse’s cutouts don’t resemble real human beings. I’m exaggerating for effect—Munro’s experiments here aren’t as radical (or as cheerful) as Matisse’s. But Runaway reveals that Munro is up to some tricks of her own. It’s no accident that the story that most explicitly relies on theatricality and self-consciously classical plot devices is called “Tricks.”

“Tricks” is the story of Robin, a young woman who has “never had a lover, or even a boyfriend.” She takes care of her sister, Joanne, a delicate asthmatic who is likely to die young and has the above-mentioned “fund of contempt” for those more “fortunate” (and frivolous) than she. For pleasure, Robin takes a secretive yearly trip to a neighboring town to see a Shakespeare play, an eccentric indulgence she privately considers dangerous, given her sister’s precarious health. One year, Robin loses her purse and is stranded in the town without resources—a punishment, she thinks. Luckily, a friendly man with a dog appears, offers his assistance, and insists on making dinner for her. She acquiesces. They talk. It turns out he is a clockmaker from Montenegro, which accounts for the accent she can’t place. They eat, they drink, he walks her to the train. He kisses her passionately,and he mysteriously requests that she meet him in a year’s time in the same dress, with her hair arranged the same way.

Even for a writer whose plots regularly hinge on uncanny coincidences and fateful accidents, these stage directions are unusually, well, stagy. But this is a Munro story, so nothing unfolds smoothly. Robin returns the following year, flustered by the fact that she has had to wear a different dress—the old one, by authorially convenient contrivance, is still at the cleaners. When she arrives at Daniel’s, she is greeted by a terrible shock. Rather than welcoming her, Daniel approached, “bared his front teeth” at her, then cruelly shut the door in her face. She is crushed. She never sees him again—until, in a flash-forward in time, she meets an old man who looks just like Daniel at a hospital, only to discover that it is his deaf-mute twin brother, and that Daniel is now dead. She suddenly realizes: It was this brother who answered the door decades before.

In the hands of another writer, the story of why Daniel snarled at Robin might turn out to be metaphysically and existentially puzzling. (Imagine Haruki Murakami’s version.) Here it is presented as a rather preposterous case of mistaken identity. If only Daniel had mentioned that he had a twin! If only Robin had arrived 10 minutes later, at which point the real Daniel would have returned! Instead, the remainder of her life is spent resigned to solitude. To read this story is to feel manipulated by Munro. And yet you can’t shake it after you’ve read it. How could Munro be so cruel to her characters?

Provoking this reaction appears to be precisely Munro’s point. Time, the natural barometer of our lives, is also the most artificial, arbitrary force at work shaping our lives, she suggests. The careful steps we take to impose order, to stave off change—Daniel’s melodramatic request that Robin wear the same dress and fix her hair the same way—are as likely as not to backfire. What “Tricks” does, like most of Munro’s mature stories, is to radically juxtapose the linear narrative of experienced time with the recurrent time of memory, so that we learn how the casual cruelty of time does in Robin and Daniel twice over. It is an accidental trick of timing that Robin arrives at Daniel’s house just as he’s left his brother alone for a rare few minutes, and a far crueler trick that she finds out near the end of her own life, with Daniel himself dead. What galls about “Tricks” is that it so explicitly and self-consciously tries to bring the reader up short; the story’s drama is theatrically stylized. (That’s partly why Shakespeare has a role in the story.) The problem is that we’re so accustomed to realism we bridle at Munro’s insistence that storytelling like this has lessons of its own—what’s spelled out in the final paragraphs seems unfamiliarly overt, and it’s difficult to sort out what seems facile about this ending from its disorienting power to jar not just Robin’s expectations, but ours.

But why assume that this kind of artifice means the writing is bad? In fact, it’s a testament to Munro’s skill and her willingness to take risks that she would write a story as strategically concocted as this, and then, at the key moment of tragic realization, choose to describe Robin’s recognition of what transpired with only the barest verbal representations—the most minimal cutouts, if you will. As Robin puts down the hospital papers that reveal that Daniel has a twin (and that Daniel is dead), she thinks:

Outrageous.Brothers.Twins. Robin wants to set this piece of paper in front of someone, some authority.This is ridiculous. This I do not accept.Nevertheless.

This passage, strung as sparely along the page as an EKG line, seems as fine and ambitious as the word-thick realizations that spring from Munro’s more “Chekhovian” stories. It captures perfectly, for me, a bare  resignation, a confrontation with truth that lends a dark precariousness to the tidy denouements so often staged in short fiction. Munro’s decision to construct “Tricks” out of the tinder of contrivance is in this way well-earned: At the end of a life, she suggests, the “realism” and the “naturalism” we believe accurately describe our experience of the world are undermined by the strange theatricality of facing death, which radically alters the outlines of the world. “Tricks” is not an arrow that has fallen short of its target; it is, though, a kind of story we’re not used to reading these days—neither a wholehearted participant in conventional realism nor an energetically strange example of postmodern experimentalism.

Munro is hardly the first artist whose late style diverges from realism. “Tricks” reminds me, in some strange way, of Matisse’s late cutouts, with their free-floating outlines of movement and joy, and of Shakespeare’s late plays, in particular “A Winter’s Tale.” (Thanks to my friend Vanessa Gezari, an astute critic, for helping me realize this.) Shakespeare actually deploys a monologue by “Time” between acts to denote the passage of time (a device critics disparaged, wanting the play to be more naturalistic). The effect is self-consciously contrived—yet it haunts the viewer the way a sudden glimpse of a lost childhood self haunts you, revealing what seemed like continuity to be the wildest, most implausible kind of loss.

Anton Chekhov himself hated labels. “I look upon tags and labels as prejudices,” he wrote to a newspaper editor in 1888, defending himself against critics who wanted his writing to be more “traditional”—that is, to have a coherent sociopolitical outlook (the kind of thing that now seems old-fashioned). So perhaps it is fittingly ironic that “Chekhovian realism” has become the term of choice to describe Alice Munro’s short stories. It is a label she can, and does, feel perfectly free to flout. A writer with Munro’s storytelling intelligence is testing limits, not succumbing to them, when she reminds us that fiction is, in the first place, a bag of tricks.