"Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" is the first story in Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories under the same title. To this unusual list of "ships", one would have to add worship, for the reader comes to and away from Munro's fiction with adulation. A Munro story is layered in time, place, and personality; it approaches novella status, a truncated version of a great Canadian novel.
Most of "HateshipÓ" focuses on the life of Johanna Parry, a housekeeper in a town in Southwestern Ontario. Johanna arrives from Scotland to take care of Mr. McCauley, but eventually moves out west to begin her own family. These two settings of Ontario and western Canada are hallmarks of Munro's fiction, and parallel her layering of past and present, as well as dual or multiple perspectives of characters who add to the complexity of the lives of girls and women, boys and men. Intricate patterns of imagery further contribute to the poetic quality of Munro's fiction. To follow the labyrinthine paths of these stories is to peal off layers of wallpaper, each with its own design.
Consider the opening sentence: "Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture." "Years ago" plunges us into a vague past of familiar fantasy ("once upon a time"), but also a present tense that seems equally unreal because it does not fit with the past. Munro's story is about misfits¨incongruities between past and present, between character and environment, hateship and marriage. The branch lines belong to system of other lines¨narrative, trains of thought, and anatomic lines. When she tells the station agent that the furniture will be going to Gdynia, Saskatchewan, he takes his pencil "to follow from line to line"¨a readerly process for any Munro story where place and chronology challenge our notions of linearity. In this region and universe of mis-fittings, the reader works at Munro's jigsaw and crossword puzzle.
After Johanna arranges for the furniture to be shipped out west, she goes into the local dress store for an outfit. The first outfit does not fit but eventually she finds one for her marriage. The mirror in Milady's reflects Munro's sense of proportion and distortion: "They set the mirror there so you could get a proper notion of your deficiencies, right away, and then¨they hoped¨you would jump to the conclusion that you had to buy something to alter the picture." In Munro's mimetic world pronouns and perceptions shift, and the reader alters the grotesque picture until it comes into focus. Like the agent at the station, the owner of Milady's "had no idea what kind of man she had lined up." Ironically, neither does Johanna, yet the misaligned marriage works out against all odds.
After Johanna leaves her employer, Mr. McCauley, he seeks solace in his neighbour's Shoe Repair shop, which resembles a cave, "and Mr. McCauley saw the man's whole life in this cave." In Munro's regional fiction, character and environment are inseparable, fit and misfit.
By the end of the story, the centre of focus shifts to Edith Schulz¨the daughter of the shoemaker, for she is responsible for Johanna's fate. After Edith forges a series of letters that lead to Johanna's moving out west (which should have ended tragically), Johanna marries and has a son. Edith's plot is never discovered: "it seemed only proper that the antics of her former self should not be connected with her present selfÓ. It was the whole twist of consequence that dismayed her." The narrator's twist of consequence forms part of Edith's translation of her Latin homework: "You must not ask, it is forbidden for us to know Ó what fate has in store for me, or for you." Edith's (and her friend Sabitha's) roguery progresses from hateship to loveship. The title of the story comes from a girl's game of writing down a boy's name and rearranging the letters. The permutations and combinations of the alphabet parallel the fate of writing in Munro's crossword puzzles.
The second story, "Floating Bridge", begins in medias res ("One time she had left him") and weaves back and forth in time, the temporal gaps acting in the same way as jigsaw puzzles or patterned and hidden layers of wallpaper. At the age of forty-two, Jinny is diagnosed with cancer, and her husband Neal hires Helen to serve as a caregiver. The centripetal and centrifugal forces of domestic care giving and running away from home propel many of Munro's regional stories. Behind these competing forces of liberation are Munro's aesthetic of involvement and detachment. After leaving her house, Jinny "felt herself connected at present with the way people felt when they had to write certain things down." She wants everything familiar and stable because reality now consists of "separate facts thrown up in ridiculous sequence." The new curtains in her room are ugly, part of the grotesque dTcor. But there comes a time when ugly and beautiful are interchangeable, "when anything you look at is just a peg to hang the unruly sensations of your body on, and the bits and pieces of your mind." The realignment of reality lies at the heart of many of these stories that recall the grotesque regionalism of Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner.
At Helen's house Jinny meets Ricky who drives her back home over a floating bridge on a country back-road. He kisses her: "a kiss that was an event in itself. The whole story, all by itself." "Story" is a self-referential watchword in Munro's fiction. The kiss of epiphany that connects characters summarizes the entire story: teenaged Ricky has never kissed a married woman before, and Jinny has never experienced a floating bridge before. The gap between their ages is bridged, and Jinny feels lighthearted compassion, like laughter. "A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of her sores and hollows, for the time given." The cathartic kiss overcomes the oncological reality, and the story's final phrase, "for the time given," returns to the opening "One time," for Munro's fiction has a way of transcending time.
Another story, "Comfort", also features the importance of a kiss. In "Family Furnishings", the narrator describes her perception of character: "Seeing it as an ever-increasing roll of words like barbed wire, intricate, bewildering, uncomforting." She is hooked on words, and in turn hooks her readers¨"more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories." Time and stories are given to Munro, and she relinquishes those gifts to us.
"Queenie" is about running away from domestic imprisonment; and the final story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain", deals with the vicissitudes of aging, and the accompanying twists and turns in plot. Munro writes the short story as much as the form writes her, for she condenses chapters into paragraphs filled with epiphanies along the regional and universal road from hateship to marriage. Munro's dTcor is familiar and surprising; she gets the "voice" just right: "It was just the way some people sounded¨particularly country people¨in this part of the world." ˛
Michael Greenstein is the author of Third Solitudes and numerous articles on American and Canadian literature. He is currently editing an anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada.