The title of Alice Munro’s new collection seems aggressive and awkward at first, but it quickly pulls the reader into the “game” Munro is playing in these nine stories. The game, as explained in the title story, is played by two girls in an Ontario bedroom in the 1940s: write out your own name and then the name of a boy you fancy, cancel all the duplicated letters, then count the rest on your fingers saying, “Hateship, friendship, courtship, etc.,” until you reach the verdict about your future with that boy. (Try it out with partners past and present; it’s quite intriguing.)
How do relationships happen? Are they really as arbitrary as this child’s game would indicate? Or are they fated? And how do our chosen relationships with friends and lovers stack up against the ones we do not choose, with the family we’re born into and the children we bear? These have been Munro’s questions since the beginning of her extraordinary writing career in the 1950s, and they continue to fascinate and challenge both her and her readers.
Having just passed her 70th birthday, Munro might be expected to turn her formidable talents toward the subject of old age. But only the last story in the collection, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” explicitly does so. In it, a professor struggles with having to commit his lovely, Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife to a care facility, and then struggles with his jealousy and loneliness as she becomes close to one of the male patients. Munro is so often described as a master of psychological insight, which is indisputable, but a story like “Bear” also indicates her expertise at plotting, with surprising (yet totally plausible) twists on every page.
Two stories involve characters who end their own lives because of incurable illnesses. And one of the most memorable stories, “Floating Bridge,” takes the reader through the day on which the middle-aged narrator is told that her cancer is in remission. First she feels low, as if the cancer had given her “a certain low-grade freedom” that has now been snatched back. But then, through a series of wondrous encounters – with humans and with nature – she experiences “a swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.” The sombre, beautiful tinge of mortality hangs over all these tales.
The rest of the stories, though, ring new changes on many of Munro’s earlier themes: the subtle vicissitudes of class warfare in southern Ontario, the handmaiden role of young wives in the 1950s (“young husbands were stern in those days”), the miraculous change that throwing one new person into the mix can have on the settled, the thrills of secrecy, the dead weight of family responsibilities. The familiarity of her themes and settings in no way detracts from the small narrative brilliance of each individual story; if anything, it adds richness and depth to our appreciation of an ever-expanding canvas.
The most disturbing story in the collection is “Family Furnishings,” in which Munro turns her gift for devastating honesty on herself. (The story could be subtitled “Portrait of the Artist as a Cool Young Bitch.”) Ostensibly the story of the narrator’s aunt Alfrida, an eccentric family member who works for a small city newspaper and has affairs with married men, it tells the cruel tale of how a young girl sucks all the narrative juice out of her aunt’s life, puts it into print, learns that her aunt is upset at this exposure, and does nothing to make amends.
All she can do is ruminate on how dangerous it is for her, as a writer, to go home, “seeing my life through other eyes than my own – seeing it as an ever-increasing roll of words like barbed wire – intricate, bewildering, uncomforting – set against the rich productions – food, flowers, knitted garments – of other women’s domesticity. It became harder to say it was worth the trouble.” This is the writer’s dilemma and the writer’s curse. The selfishness is necessary to the creativity, but it distances the writer from the very people she most wants and needs to impress.
Munro is not a writer to flaunt her erudition, so if she throws in a Latin quote, it’s probably worth doing the translation. The title story ends with this admonition from Horace: “Do not ask – Heaven forbids us to know – [what end the gods have allotted] to me, to you ...” This harks back to a 1974 essay in which she wrote that everything around us is both “touchable and mysterious.” Alice Munro remains faithful to these two literary beacons, giving her readers clear, sensual realities to experience and then leaving them to wonder and ponder.