Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Required Reading

I have a confession to make. Despite being a big reader and having been through four years of the modern writing workshop process, I have never read more than a single story by Alice Munro. Munro is probably the single most-respected short story writer of the last thirty years. Her name alone conjures up ideas of perfection and relevance. But I never had enough exposure to her work to make much of her as a writer.

So when I had the chance to check out her new story collection, Too Much Happiness, I figured I better absorb it while I could. I wasn't disappointed. There's a reason Munro has so much clout in literary circles. Her writing is tidy but hides vast spectrums of human experience and emotion. I was particularly impressed with the way she uses tense and narrative. A single paragraph might slip in and out of verb tense forms, making time morph into single moments. Munro's stories are all about memory and definitive moments reflected on over time, so these little touches in sentence form are really quite masterful.

I also admire the way Munro writes without judgment. Her characters are perfect little pieces of human nature that she never labels or treats unfairly. I might not like them as people, but I can't argued that they aren't well-crafted characters. I love the way the people in her stories constantly bump up against each other, affecting each other in unknown ways. Her characters have impacts on each other that they don't even realize, just as people do in reality. Old friends have unspeakable, even horrible, bonds that they fail to forget as they'd like. Children and parents can be equally guilty in their failures to communicate. Munro just gets humanity, and it makes her stories quite fantastic.

Be warned, though, that Munro isn't in the business of cute premises or wrapped-up endings or feelings of human comfort. Some of this stuff is pretty dark, particularly "Child's Play," and stories like "Deep-Holes" are almost painful to encounter. Personally, my favorite stories in the collection were "Fiction," which is getting a lot of praise among critics and does some really awesome things with narrative and the nature of telling stories, and "Face," which is quite heartbreaking and features a pretty incredible final sentence.

All in all, this should be required reading for anyone who writes or reads short fiction. I have to admit that the book has already begun to influence a piece of writing I'm currently working on. So obviously Munro made an impression.

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