‘Family Furnishings’ by Alice Munro

Family Furnishings by Alice Munro, 2001 Continue reading


‘Train’ by Alice Munro

Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel prize in literature

Train by Alice Munro, 2012

The magic trick:

Tracing a man’s lifetime in one (longish) short story

Alice Munro is that rare author who eschews the novel in favor of the short story. Personally, I think that’s pretty cool, but if you find yourself dying for an Alice Munro novel, reading “Train” isn’t a bad substitute. Munro covers a novel’s worth of ground here. The story’s central character emotionally checks out and physically leaves a situation when it gets difficult, rather than stay and address his feelings, weaknesses or needs. The story’s structure follows a similar path then, ditching one plot and picking up another without warning. The end result is the picture of a sad, fractured life and a trail of unhappiness left behind. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.

The selection:

Tears came into her eyes and she turned pettishly away.

“I want to go home.”

“Soon you will.”

“You could help me find my clothes.”

“No I couldn’t.”

“If you won’t I’ll do it myself. I’ll get myself to the train station myself.”

“There isn’t any passenger train that goes up our way anymore.”

Abruptly then, she seemed to give up on her plans for escape.


‘Bardon Bus’ by Alice Munro

Munro, Alice 1982

Bardon Bus by Alice Munro, 1982

The magic trick:

Establishing the narrator’s reliability with two key sections of the story

This isn’t the first time we’ve run into a story that mocks the concept here at the ol’ SSMT website. “Bardon Bus” is an especially obvious example, though. The notion of breaking this story’s magic down into some easily explained writer’s trick is pretty silly. I read it three times this week, and I still don’t know how she did it. Sometimes art – in this case, writing – can feel attainable in spite of its brilliance. The reader finishes the story and wants to start writing a piece of his or her own, feeling like, “Yeah! I get it! I can do that! It’s not impossible!” This story produces the opposite effect. Any would-be writer will likely put down “Bardon Bus” and swear off writing forevermore, feeling like, “Holy hell, Bardon Bus, I could never in a million years capture emotion like that in a story! I give up!” Or maybe that was just me. Anyway…

Munro taps into emotion her so intense, so true, it’s kind of scary. Her narrator is analyzing and rationalizing and lamenting and analyzing some more a short-lived relationship with a man that ended some months before. As I said, I really could never explain how Munro presents the raw emotion. If I could, I’d be a far better reader and writer. I will at least say that she works hard to establish her narrator as a reliable witness.

We get two sections – one at the beginning and one in the middle – that go a long way to convincing us of our narrator’s level head. The introductory section shows her quite poetically, if ominously, admitting that in another time she could very easily follow the path set by some of her ancestors as an obsessed old maid. Then later in the story, she breaks from her tale of woe long enough to discuss her roommate’s love life. She assesses her friend with maturity, wisdom and only light judgment. These sections do much to validate the narrator, so that when she tells of her heartbreak elsewhere in the story, the reader can take it at face value. We don’t read her as a drama queen; thus the raw emotion is that much rawer. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.

That’s my best guess anyway. I’d highly recommend you read this one yourself –don’t even bother to figure it out, just enjoy the ride.

The selection:

Once she disguised herself as an old woman, with a gray wig and a tattered fur coat; she walked up and down, in the cold, outside the house of the woman she thought to be her supplanter. She will talk coldly, sensibly, wittily, about her mistake, and tell discreditable things she has gleaned about her lover, then make desperate phone calls. She will get drunk, and sign up for rolfing, swim therapy, gymnastics.

In none of this is she so exceptional. She does what women do. Perhaps she does it more often, more openly, just a bit more illadvisedly, and more fervently. Her powers of recovery, her faith, are never exhausted. I joke about her, everybody does, but I defend her too, saying that she is not condemned to living with reservations and withdrawals, long-drawn-out dissatisfactions, inarticulate wavering miseries. Her trust is total, her miseries are sharp, and she survives without visible damage. She doesn’t allow for drift or stagnation and the spectacle of her life is not discouraging to me.