Saturday, March 19, 2005

Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You

On the last page of this early collection of stories, Alice Munro reveals a little bit of the secret of her magic:
"If I had been making a proper story out of this, I would have ended it, I think, with my mother not answering and going ahead of me across the pasture. That would have done. I didn't stop there, I suppose, because I wanted to find out more, remember more, I wanted to bring back all I could. Now I look at what I have done and it is like a series of snapshots, like the brownish snapshots with fancy borders that my parents' old camera used to take."
Alice Munro's stories are not "proper;" they refuse to obey the rules of short stories, to confine themselves to a single moment, a single incident. As I have written with regard to a couple of her other collections, her short stories have the sweep of novels, spanning years and great distances, in some cases.
She always wants to "find out more, remember more," to flesh out where others in this form leave tantalizing gaps.
Actually, in Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, from 1974, Ms. Munro hews closer to the rules than in her more recent, glorious collections such as Open Secrets and Runaway. These early stories are less expansive than her later ones, but nevertheless begin to break away from the conventions of the form. So we get small digressions from the main plot line, a bit of filling in of characters' backgrounds and peculiarities, a side story here and there that clarifies the main thread.
Read in the light of these recent masterworks, Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You reads like a practice volume. You can perceive the author honing her craft in these 13 tales. There are many pleasures here in these stories of messy relationships, familial and marital. As always, Ms. Munro makes you understand what the characters believe should have happened in their lives, in contrast with what really did.
Alice Munro is a treasure.