I have been learning to knit lately, and I'm still at the stage
where each stitch is awkward and laborious. Watching my friend and
teacher do it is quite different --- smooth and rhythmic, neither
too much tension nor too little. I see that knitting is a
mysterious architecture of wool and soul in which every loop and
turn depends on every other, and with a single missed link the
whole web can collapse.
Reading the Canadian writer Alice Munro is similar to this. Her
stories are woven with such craft that it seems almost as if she is
describing something that really happened rather than inventing it.
And the consequences of a lucky encounter or a fateful decision are
still playing out years later.
I must admit that I was intimidated by the prospect of reviewing
Munro's latest collection, RUNAWAY, named one of the 10 Best Books
of 2004 by the New York Times. She is probably my favorite
living writer, and so unpretentious about what she does that the
last thing I want is to describe her fiction in words fancier or
more self-conscious (in one review, I found adumbrate,
transformative, sustenance, and salvation)
than the language she uses herself.
I'm not alone in feeling perplexed. Jonathan Franzen, writing in
the New York Times Book Review (November 14, 2004), was so
reluctant to do an ordinary review of this extraordinary writer
that instead he produced a (brilliant) list of "guesses at why
[Munro's] excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame." And it's
true: She is revered rather than celebrated --- no Pulitzer, no
Nobel, not even a National Book Award (though she has won plenty of
other prizes). Possibly (Franzen mentions this) it has to do with
literary form: Short stories (Munro has written only one novel)
have not been --- since the days of Chekhov (with whom she is
regularly compared) and Saki, Katherine Mansfield and O'He