New York, NY: Vintage International, 1994
Alice Munro is one of several winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature with whose work I had been unfamiliar. It is impossible to read everything, especially when I have to spend a lot of time reading stuff for work. So, on a visit to the San Min bookshop, the local Taipei bookshop, I decided the time had come to find out something about her work – there were several collections available and, not really knowing which was which, I chose this one slightly at random.
Open Secrets consists of eight quite lengthy short stories which range across space and time but which are, nevertheless, interlinked through the interactions between various recurrent characters. The most startling aspect of her work here is the way in which a story will begin, typically as the description of how a particular life or relationship develops but then the point of view abruptly shifts to a different but related character to take the story to the next stage. This enables Munro to provide multiple perspectives on the world she is describing and this is very effective.
The style itself is not overly reliant on fireworks. The first story begins this way:
“In the dining room of the Commercial Hotel, Louisa opened the letter that had arrived that day from overseas. She ate steak and potatoes, her usual meal, and drank a glass of wine. There were a few travellers in the room, and the dentist who ate there every night because he was a widower. He had shown an interest in her in the beginning but had told her he had never before seen a woman touch wine or spirits (p.3).”
This is a world of bourgeois manners in which escape or transformation is tantalisingly close but cannot ever be fully achieved. Perhaps that is a little harsh because some characters do achieve a measure of happiness (or at least the avoidance of unhappiness) and are able to move from place to place. The final story, for example, Vandals, includes a reasonably satisfactory relationship between an Englishman who left for the USA after the war and then established a successful career as a taxidermist and a woman who had previously drifted about the world somewhat like a ghost. Along the way, there are some minor satisfactions to be had. Overall, though, these are escapes from the boredom of everyday life. These are fended off with the creation of routines and schedules of actions to navigate everyday life. For example, in The Albanian Virgin:
“I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt that as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true skin. Sitting at the desk, I made a cup of coffee or of thin red soup last an hour, clasping my hands around the cup while there was still any warmth to be got from it. I read, but without purpose or involvement (p.106).”
Finding the significance in a moment of apparent mundanity is one of the points of short fiction and Munro proves herself to be both proficient and unexpected in her art. Her stories are long enough that characters find their actions have not only consequences but second order effects that resonate long into the future. These are stories and characters that linger in the memory and have the stamp of authenticity. I will be looking forward to discovering more of her work.