Where to start with Alice Munro, the newest Nobel laureate for fiction

Where to start with Alice Munro, the newest Nobel laureate for fiction

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Alice Munro 

Why it’s daunting: Granted, calling the latest Nobel laureate for fiction a “geek obsession” is stretching it a bit. The Canadian author has been about as famous as any author of literary fiction of the past few decades, which is to say that she’s well known to a very small audience but not particularly well known beyond that audience, despite one of her stories being adapted by Sarah Polley into the film Away From Her. Yet hopefully Munro’s new title brings her to a wider audience, as her work should appeal to just about anyone who likes to read. 

Munro’s latest prize recognized her mastery of the short story form, and though she’s written a couple of books that could be called novels from a certain viewpoint, her true strengths lie in boiling human lives down to singular moments and revelations. Short stories about people who have brief, indelible encounters with strangers who seem to understand them as well as anyone else ever has are so associated with literary fiction that they’ve become almost ripe for parody. Yet to read one of Munro’s many takes on this basic tale is to remember how potent it can be in the right hands. Her characters are always deftly sketched, never overreaching for effect, and she is tremendously skilled at mapping out the contours of their psyches in the wake of those singular moments and revelations.

Munro has proven especially adept in her depiction of small-town life, which can be ascribed to her razor-sharp understanding of life in southwestern Ontario’s Huron County, where Munro was born, raised, and later made her home. (She lived for a time in West Vancouver and Victoria, where a bookstore she started with her first husband remains open for business.) Her characters can feel trapped and beaten down by their circumstances, but they are rarely defeated entirely. They brim with passion and often-unfounded hope, and they tend to pour all of those emotions into whatever is sitting right in front of them. At their best, Munro’s stories succeed because they understand that the entirety of any human being’s life can feel suitably epic when examined under the right scope. Everyone has the potential for grand drama and tragedy, and that’s without ever once leaving home.

Munro has threatened retirement before, only to return and release more story collections, but her announcement last year that her 2012 collection Dear Life would be her last felt more final than usual. If Dear Life is, indeed, her last book, she’ll have left behind a large body of work that might feel daunting for the sheer number of stories she published, were it not for the fact that to read Munro is to feel as if you’re understanding dozens of people you’ve never met. Though she’s had health struggles in recent years, with age her prose has grown ever more crystalline, and that makes her recent celebration all the more satisfying.

Potential gateway: Runaway (2004)

Why: To read the Wikipedia summaries of the short stories in Runaway, one of Munro’s latter short-story collections, is to scoff at stories and subject matter that feel almost like parodies of literary short stories. “A woman is trapped in a bad marriage,” reads the synopsis for the title story, and the next three center on a character named Juliet, who does such unremarkable things as visit her mother. While Runaway isn’t Munro’s very best book, it embodies so many of the strengths that it would make a fine starting point for anyone looking to launch into an exploration of her work.

Munro’s great theme might have been the boundaries people place between themselves and other human beings. In her best stories, those boundaries grow slippery and permeable, as our own boundaries can become with close friends or lovers, or even strangers we meet when we’re at a low point and looking for someone who might understand. Runaway is filled with stories like these, and it’s also particularly interested in how our ways of processing the world change as we get older. The three stories centered on Juliet explore her point of view as she goes from a young wife who has an affair, to a daughter struggling to understand her elderly mother, to an older woman herself who is struggling to understand her estranged daughter. In roughly a quarter the space of a novel, Munro outlines a woman as well defined and drawn as any in the literary canon, simply by choosing three points of her life worth looking in on.

Runaway also features the weird and unsettling “Trespasses,” which captures how emotional relationships can carry a strange horror beyond anything supernatural, and the more experimental “Powers,” which involves a psychic girl named Tessa. Despite her reputation, Munro was never content to simply just write what she knew, and she possessed a prodigious imagination for unusual relationships and psychological contours. Runaway is the best starting point for her work because it shows Munro’s many moods and makes each feel as vital as the last.

Next steps: Munro got better as she aged, and her finest work came in the 2000s—though anyone impressed by Runaway could pick up essentially any of her other collections and likely come away very happy. But the best place to head after Runaway is possibly Munro’s best book, top-to-bottom, 2001’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, in which every single story seems destined to end up in some later collection of her very best works. (In particular, fans of Away From Her will find its inspiration, “The Bear Went Over The Mountain,” closing out this book in quietly devastating fashion.) From there, it might be good to jump back to very early Munro, with either her first collection, 1968’s Dance Of The Happy Shades, or 1974’s Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You, both of which capture the author as a younger woman, writing in a more explicitly feminist vein. After that, it might be best to look in on her late-in-life interest in fictionalizing her life and the life of her ancestors, in 2006’s The View From Castle Rock and 2012’s Dear Life, the closest thing readers will ever get to an all-encompassing Munro memoir. For those who just want a strong collection of stories, 2009’s Too Much Happiness is one of her best, despite the title story being a bit of a slog.

Where not to start: Munro’s second book, 1971’s Lives Of Girls And Women, is a rewarding read, but it’s also the closest thing she ever published to a novel, with every story in it focused on the same central character as she comes of age. This is not to suggest it’s a weak book—Munro hasn’t written a weak book—but it may create certain expectations of what she does that aren’t strictly accurate. It’s worth looking at farther along in a jaunt through the author’s career.