Back at the beginning of December, the idea of reading Alice Munro’s stories from the beginning, through her most recent collection, Too Much Happiness, just seemed like a good idea.
But now that I’ve actually begun. Now that it’s moved from the sphere of the possible to the sphere of the immediately readable, I’ve changed my mind. It’s not simply a good idea: it’s an amazing idea. It might be the best reading idea I’ve had for this reading year.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Alice Munro is one of my MRE (Must-Read-Everything) authors. I’ve read (and re-read) more than half her collections, and a chunk of stories from the remaining collections, and the idea of filling in the gaps had instant appeal. But, even so, I was expecting less from these early stories.
I thought there would be a sense of something missing. I expected that I would enjoy them well enough, but constantly have my reader’s gaze focussed on the later stories that I had so admired. But what did I know? The stories in Dance of the Happy Shades are every bit as good: just as ordinary and startling, just as thrilling and everyday-ish.
Walker Brothers Cowboy
The story opens with the narrator going for ice-cream with her father in the small town of Tuppertown. “Then the town falls away in a defeated jumble of sheds and small junkyards, the sidewalk gives up and we are walking on a sandy path with burdocks, plantains, humble nameless weeds all around.”
It’s not fancy: you can see that immediately. And the story’s central plot isn’t fancy either: it recounts the narrator’s beginnings of recognizing that her father is not uncomplicated, that he has an existence beyond that which she knows of him.
“Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started.”
Her father is both more and less than she believed him to be. There is just a hint of this really. Most of the story is told in scenes, each vivid and revealing, but the undercurrent of the narrator’s discovery is strong.
The Shining Houses
And there often is an undercurrent in these stories. That’s something I mis-remembered. I thought the tendency to include an element of darkness — sometimes outright violence — was something that had developed in her later collections (it seemed particularly prominent in Too Much Happiness), but maybe I simply overlooked this aspect of her storytelling earlier.
In this story, we meet Mrs. Fullerton through the eyes of Mary, who buys eggs from the older woman. Mrs. Fullerton’s house is considered an eye-sore by other members of the community. The community being the Garden Place subdivision. Mrs. Fullerton’s house has always been on Wick’s Line, but it’s now on Heather Drive, surrounded by the “new, white and shining houses, set side by side in long rows in the wound of the earth”.
The old houses like Mrs. Fullerton’s were “dark, enclosed, expressing something like savagery in their disorder and the steep, unmatched angles of roofs and lean-tos”. It’s dangerous. The earth has been wounded and the “rent in the clouds had been torn wide open” even though “the sun was shining”. It’s disturbing, threatening, and it’s in your backyard.
But “The Shining Houses” is about ordinary families, parents who want the best for their children, wives who seek to support their husbands’ efforts and ambitions, children who play with all the other neighbourhood children at birthday parties. Ordinary and haunting.
And there is one particularly haunting image in the third story in this collection. But mostly it’s the recounting of a few hours spent in the company of Ben Jordan (the father from the first story) and his daughter, out checking his trapline.
If it doesn’t sound like there is a lot of plot in these stories, that’s a truth and an un-truth. There is a lot of detail and often a place is described in great specificity (but it’s also a commentary on the story as a whole) and there is a lot of reflection and observation; depending on the story’s perspective, the action might be primarily internal. But each of these stories does have a central plot point — sometimes a surprising one — and I’m not discussing those, because they’re yours for the reading of a dozen pages if you’re so inclined.
However, sometimes it’s the quiet bits that I love most. I know passages like the following are not to every reader’s taste, but I love the way that the language takes hold, forces an image to take shape in the rhythm of the prose, and in the arrhythmic, the bursts of words and the gaps between. (This is written in paragraph form, but I’m dividing the lines to make it easier to absorb the detail on-screen.)
“The whole basin of country drained by the Wawanash River
lay in front of us — greenish brown smudge of bush with the leaves not out yet
and evergreens, dark, shabby after winter, showing through, straw-brown fields
and the others, darker from last year’s plowing, with scales of snow faintly striping them
(like the field we had walked across hours, hours earlier in the day)
and the tiny fences and colonies of grey barns,
and houses set apart, looking squat and small.”
You can feel the land stretch out in front of you. You can imagine the houses, punctuated with ‘squat’ and ‘small’, appearing almost like afterthoughts across that vast expanse.
I am only three stories into my Alice Munro Reading Project, and I can see how I might have been overwhelmed by the thought of so many collections and so many stories yet to read. But, instead, I am heartened by the idea of them stretching out in front of me.
If you want to read-along, here are the dates on which I’ll be posting about the remaining stories in this collection.
Thanks for the ride; The Office; An Ounce of Cure JAN26
The Time of Death; Day of the Butterfly; Boys and Girls FEB 16
Postcard; Red Dress – 1946; Sunday Afternoon FEB23
A Trip to the Coast; The Peace of Utrecht; Dance of the Happy Shades MAR2
If you’re still not sure whether her writing is “for you”, you can check out this brief video snippet:
Diana Athill in Conversation with Alice Munro