No reader of fiction in English needs to be informed that Alice Munro's stories have brought new meaning to the form, that they are distinguished both by complexity and accessibility, that they repay frequent re-reading, and that the more widely you read, the better they become. The appearance of her Selected Stories is not an occasion for an unnecessary appreciation or summing up. It is an opportunity, rather, to see what a writer of her craft is up to in this very act of selection.
Briefly, she is offering her readers a cyclical way of reading her work. She is placing herself among the great story-tellers, those narrative quilters who re-sew their patches and pieces into endless, kaleidoscopic renewal. Grasping this process is well worth a reader's effort.
Munro tells this one on herself: The twelve moons of Jupiter engage her at the time of her father's death. They give her a title for a story set at that time, and for the collection in which the story appears. He is a story-teller as well as a parent: his daughter dedicates her first collection to him, makes use of her material in "A Wilderness Station" (Open Secrets), and sees to the publication of some of his tales. He opens the present volume as the Walker Brothers Cowboy commercial traveller. Much of the author's imaginative life orbits about this man.
The moons that the narrator sees in her story are not the planet's actual moons; she would need a powerful telescope and a lot of time for that. What she sees are the images of the moons of Jupiter that dazzle the audience at the Toronto planetarium, near the hospital where her father waits. Those moons-actual or imaginary-swirl in a complex gravitational pattern fitting all of them into a single system. However disparate in age, size, and path, they each play their role within a cycle. They can beckon to us at a crucial point in our lives, seeming to figure patterns vaster than our personal ones. Those patterns, however, are remote, indifferent to our own phasing. Yet in their beguiling complexity, in the figure that they make, in the call that they make upon our own interpretive powers, they image the nature of this collection before us.
Like Wallace Stevens's snowman, any author's selected writings are as much about what is not there as what is. Munro, a tireless editor of her own work, often revises the periodical version of a story before hardback publication. According to her publisher, this has not taken place here, in the transition of twenty-eight stories from their original hardback collections to this volume. What has happened, however, besides the obvious exclusion of many items, is the rearrangement of the order of appearance in much of what remains. Since Munro has never arranged her stories casually, this intermittent shift merits attention.
As an example of this relocation, pay close attention to the selections here from her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. The original book opens with "Walker Brothers Cowboy", and closes with the title story. In between come "Images" and then "Postcard". Not so here: "Walker Brothers Cowboy" is instead followed by "Dance of the Happy Shades", and then by "Postcard" and "Images". Her father moves in this sequence from the gentle flirt of the first story to the confident figure who can defuse a threatening situation involving an outcast, in the sequence's final story.
Selected's readers may wonder about the criteria that eliminated such splendid (and frequently anthologized) pieces as "Thanks for the Ride" and "The Peace of Utrecht", from The Dance of the Happy Shades. They may also wonder whether that shift in the order of appearance is as simple as I make it seem. Complicating this further, Selected maintains the order in which the collections first appeared, even though (in three times out of seven) altering the order in which the stories themselves were listed.
(No material from Lives of Girls and Women surfaces here; Munro is underlining her previous statements that she wants that volume to be considered a novel. By including four stories from Who Do You Think You Are?, and excluding its title story, she is also indicating that, despite some critics' contention, she considers it to be a collection.)
Something is going on in the construction of this Table of Contents, something that she is meaning to tell us. This volume is not some Greatest Hits album reassembled into a medley. Without even trying, I made up a list of a dozen excluded stories that are as good as anything included. Unless my taste is abysmal, something is being said by the stories included here that the excluded do not. Finally, not every previous collection is equally represented: some contribute as many as five items to this Selected, two of them, only three. Yet the first story in every collection appears here, and in that order. The conclusion seems irresistible: we have to read this as a new presentation in itself, as a narrative on its own, and as a defence of her art, not just as a self-selected Munro miscellany.
Some readings are non-starters. Here is the first: the stories do not share a common theme, setting, character, or situation. For example, not every one of the stories about the narrator's mother and her lingering illness appears here. Nor do we have all the stories featuring her father. Not all the stories deal with Jubilee or Hanratty or Dalgliesh or middle age or horrible relatives or adultery or artistic performance or the equivocality of experience or the failure to love or bereavement, or any of the other commonalities of Munro's fiction.
Any stylistic features in common? Multiple narrative foci, subplots, poetic imagery, temporal and focal shifts: these layerings are found, all or singly, in most of the stories here, but they are also found in most stories published today, whether by Munro or anyone else. Where does this leave us? In a search for the hole in the doughnut? Perhaps; yet all this evidence of selection and arrangement exists, and it seems sensible to seek a reason for it.
In her selections, Munro has pruned here a suite from each of her collections. Each successive suite builds upon what has gone before, as subjects, themes, and stylistic motifs recur, often in a more complex fashion. To move from music to narrative, a grand, often dark cycle of myths emerges from this composition, so that in the end the Selected Stories takes on that monumentality that we have always sensed in Munro's fiction, but which is now unmistakably apparent.
I have already observed that we might build a sequence out of the selections from her first collection. Let me try, in the space I have, to convey some of this by outlining and then juxtaposing two other such gatherings. I will then leave to you the task of assessing the cumulative effect of seven gatherings after your own reading.
I choose two suites, each of four stories.
Begin with a few likenesses between opposite numbers in each sequence: A1 and B1 contain tales within tales, involving grotesque violence (a public beating, an accidental decapitation). A2 and B2 involve sexual initiation and protective disguise (a child molester seems to be a clergyman; a woman cross-dresses to save herself from rape). The third in each sequence deals with cross-purposes in sexual relationships, with sad marriages and disputations about fact (an upper-class man misreads his socially inferior girlfriend's embarrassment in the face of his snobbish family; the identity of the killer of a brutal husband remains in doubt). Each final piece features one character's total misreading of another (Rose finds out too late that Simon has cancer; Bea fails to realize that the Liza whom she befriended is a destructive beast), and the humiliation of a woman by a masterful male.
Of course, these resemblances are abstract; close observation of the actual stories shows them about as identical as a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse. So let us catch these unlikenesses by observing a developmental aspect or two within each sequence: A moves in chronological order from childhood to adolescence to maturity to middle age, yet each unit can be seen as a meditation on the ambiguities of powerlessness and the satisfactions of victimhood. B offers variations on the theme of happenstance: protagonists are thrust into new lives by random events. A depicts experience as developmental, B as random. Or do they? Is there not a randomness to Rose's emotion-driven misperceptions in A? Haven't B's characters earned their disasters through their very selfhood?
Each of these suites moves towards a conclusion, but the conclusions differ as greatly as they resemble each other. While the stories in one suite vary widely from the other (A1 is set in Ontario, B2 in the Balkans; B3, unlike every other story in both suites, is set in a remote past), likenesses skitter back and forth. B3 is set back in time, but in Ontario. A1, B1, and B3 feature multiple voices and plotting, including the use of purportedly "outside texts". All the stories in A concern Rose, while a character, Bea, in B1 gets her own story in B4. A1 and B4 feature theatricalized acts of banal cruelty. A4 and B2 alike bear observers without the moral weight to comprehend what they behold. The clergyman in A2 is probably a fraud; the one in B2 is genuine. The first corrupts a young woman, the second preserves her, only to be diminished by the new life she brings to him. Draw a line between the columns from story to story whenever you detect a resemblance. Then draw a dotted line each time you recognize a difference. You have produced a cat's-cradle impossible to untangle-which is the stuff of myth.
Robert Calasso's 1993 bestseller, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, took many of the familiar classical myths and retold them as parts of one sequence. He lit up with a searchlight everything that I had ever read. He taught his readers the great lesson that we do not continue to read things in the order in which we first read them. And this restless recombination is what good reading requires. Try your own rearrangement of Selected Stories' twenty-eight stories in seven groupings: start with every fourth story, then try every seventh, then every second, and so forth (my version of numerology esteems even numbers, yours may not). You will find yourself holding a different text than the one I am talking about.
Putting this in another fashion turns this volume into Munro's answer to her critics. Yes, her setting is narrow, yes, her situations repeat themselves, yes, her motifs recur. Yes, her work is not avant-garde in style. But this selection, like some judo master, turns those seeming weaknesses into strengths. What we have instead is not narrowness, but intensity; not repetition, but variation upon a theme; not sameness, but ceaseless reshuffling. Here is contemporary fiction with all its obsession over the provisional nature of fact and the randomness of experience, but in prose that doesn't give you a headache. Here, in a word, is story itself, as powerful in seducing new readers as in delighting veterans.
Currently Craig Dobbin Professor of Canadian Studies at University College Dublin, Dennis Duffy is the author of-most recently-A World under Sentence: John Richardson & the Interior (ECW Press).