Editor’s note: It is with particular enthusiasm that we present the following review by long-time “Tennessean” book reviewer Roy E. Perry. In addition to the pride we take in publishing Mr. Perry’s work, we also rejoice that the Nobel Prize has made some of us (myself included) much more aware of the magnificent literary achievement of Alice Munro. For many years, I believed no literature of any particular note or value had come from North America in 40 years. Alice Munro forces us to reconsider.
BOOK REVIEW BY ROY E. PERRY:
First published in 1996, Alice Munro’s Selected Stories contains 28 stories (spanning three decades), 17 of which were originally published in The New Yorker.
Often moving forward and backward in time, these short stories explore the ambiguity of her characters’ identities and their troubled relationships—passion, cruelty, passive aggression, betrayal, and heartbreak.
Nietzsche once wrote, “Where I saw the living, there I saw the will to power.” A key motif in Munro’s stories is the agonistic interplay between her characters, a power struggle to maximize rights and advantages and minimize weaknesses.
“Relentless seekers of approbation and dispensers of blame,” writes Munro, “they exulted in wounds inflicted but also in wounds received.” A fragile balance exists between sadism and masochism, dominance and submission.
No mean philosopher or psychologist, Munro creates characters who have a public persona and a private persona, or, more correctly, multiple personae, changing masks like chameleons according to with whom they are speaking and with whom they are interacting.
Laying bare their motivations, Munro exposes their pretensions, prevarications, hopes, fears, ambitions, pride, vanity, and self-delusions. There are also numerous extramarital affairs, as in story #28: “She felt the first signal of a love affair like the warmth of the sun on her skin, like music through a doorway, or the moment when the black-and-white television commercial bursts into color.” One wonders if such descriptions are autobiographical.
An underlying theme permeating these stories is the tragic sense of life: the awareness of our mortality—that we are midgets in the immensity of space, mayflies in the infinity of time.
Munro’s fiction is remarkable in that she reveals depths and complexities in the most mundane, everyday experiences. The stories bristle with tension and conflict: “fake assurances, provisional comfort, earnest deceptions.”
Human relationships are freighted with crushing gravity, with heavy burdens and responsibilities. One thinks of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: “Hell is other people.”
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, John Updike said, “[Munro's] stories are like few others. One must go back to Tolstoy and Chekhov . . . . for comparable largeness.” I agree.
In Selected Stories one is relieved not to encounter—as in much contemporary fiction—one-dimensional, cartoon people, cardboard characters: not “artificial life, something contrived, not entirely serious,” but people who (although fictional) seem amazingly “real.”
Many of Munro’s stories boil down to this passage from story #25: “He lifted his head, gave it a shake, and made a pronouncement. ‘Love never dies.’ She felt impatient to the point of taking offense. This is what all the speechmaking turns you into, she thought, a person who can say things like that. Love dies all the time, or at any rate it becomes distracted, overlaid—it might as well be dead.” No wonder Shakespeare’s Puck exclaims, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
For other book reviews by Roy E. Perry, please visit:
David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter,” both now available at Amazon.com and XLibris.com. Dave is also a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising / marketing / public relations writer.
Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville by Dave Carew—which was praised by The Tennessean as “beautiful, haunting, powerful”—is now available in an all-new paperback edition. For more information, please visit:
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