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Personal Essay: Alice Munro’s fiction charts a course to addressing trauma with grace, writes Kerry Lee Powell

Photo by andrew Buzzell

(photo: Andrew Buzzell)

I read Alice Munro for the first time when I was living in a semi-abandoned cottage near an open-cast coal mine in Wales. We had no TV and no central heating and the nearest village was a two-mile walk down a railway track. I read her as a cure for homesickness at first: losing myself in her work was a way of returning to an adolescence spent in southern Ontario. I worked my way through every book of hers in the village’s small library. At the time I felt like I had little in common with the genteel characters she largely wrote about, or the atmosphere of repressed longing that informed so many of her stories.

But then another Munro emerged, who offered frightening glimpses of an underworld beneath the spell of dream-like narratives, one who understood exactly the kind of alienation I was experiencing, who wrote about darkness and savagery with a formal ingenuity that made the hairs on my neck prickle.

As early as 1989, Gary Draper bemoaned critics and reviewers who called each new short fiction writer “the next Alice Munro.” An Internet search of the phrase 27 years later yields the names of wildly divergent writers: Doretta Lau, Sarah Selecky, Merilyn Simonds, Gail Anderson-Dargatz. To accuse reviewers of laziness strikes me as ungenerous; despite the fact that poor sales prove otherwise, well-intentioned enthusiasts routinely herald the revival of the short story, and Munro occupies a position enjoyed by a rare few, even among Nobel laureates. Her work is accessible but uncompromising; she is an artist of singular focus and immense integrity.

It’s difficult to distinguish between the form and our perception of Munro, a perception shaped largely by readers more accustomed to novels. Munro’s most well-known contributions to the short story – the multiple registers, the shifts from past to present, the Proustian complexity of her characters’ inner lives – could all be described as novelistic. Recurring themes of loss, memory, and trauma in her work are shared by many 20th- and-21st century writers.

I worry that our casual use of the phrase “the next Alice Munro” speaks more to a studious insularity than a true appreciation of her art. Many of my contemporaries chafe, often with great wit, against the conventions of CanLit and its privileging of certain kinds of experiences: the confrontation with nature, the chronicling of a self-effacing middle class. Perhaps we shortchange ourselves, and even Munro, in our attempts to define a national literature. In emphasizing her Canadianness, we lose sight of the peculiarities that make her so remarkable, peculiarities that serve as beacons for any writer determined to find their own voice. To be like Munro is to be paradoxically “unlike” Munro. I can’t think of another author who is so quietly, defiantly herself, delving again and again into the same subjects, the same landscapes, the same themes. She is able to refashion these materials into something new and compelling, a testament to her evolution as an artist.

Her wide readership gives hope to writers more preoccupied with the grace notes and nuances of language than plot mechanics or the issue-driven grandeur that makes so many contemporary novels a hard slog. A close reading of her work is the best creative-writing lesson I ever had. Her prose has the depth and perfect pitch of poetry. She has a poet’s ear for the way words sound and work together. The ease with which she handles complex narratives is dazzling. I know of at least a dozen writers, none of whose work bears any superficial resemblance to hers or even to each other’s, but who nonetheless claim her as a significant influence. What inspires me most about Munro the writer is her persistence in trying to, in her own words, “account for the inexpressible.” Reading her, I get the sense that as an artist she is moving always into uncharted waters, fraught with potential danger and unsettling news about humanity.

When I read of an author lauded as the next Munro, I wonder to which Munro they’re referring. I intentionally echoed the opening line of Munro’s story “Royal Beatings” in the first line of Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush as a nod to her, but at the same time, as a way of staking out a little territory of my own. The worlds in my book are unlike Munro’s on the surface, but engage, I think, with some of the same philosophical and existential dilemmas. There are several writers I feel have as much of an influence on my work as she has: J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones. But I am indebted to the music of her sentences, the play of light and dark in her work that both mesmerizes and unsettles. She made me understand that I could write about trauma without sacrificing grace.

 


Kerry Lee Powell’s story collection Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is published by HarperCollins.