By critical acclaim, popular demand, and the fiat of New Yorker fiction editors, Alice Munro is the doyenne of American short-story writers. The Canadian author’s 10th collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, had a relatively vast first printing of 50,000 copies.
Munro, a dean of the domestic, draws characters with an eye for microcomplexities, and she does so in a smooth prose style. No linguistic sizzle here – the language moves in a casual flow that occasionally bubbles with musical metaphor. Seamlessly integrating flashbacks and anecdotes, she gives the dense particulars with gentle directness, and the stories just float. Her turf: half-satisfied couples and strained family bonds and uneasy new alliances and often all of the above. Her theme: the ironies of intimacy.
So in the course of ”Hateship”’s ”Post and Beam,” we get a heavy sense of the anxious confusion of Lorna, a young mother in British Columbia. And of the remoteness of her professor husband. And of the desolation of her country cousin, Polly, who’s on the verge of begging Lorna to take her in and free her from a life grown tedious. By the time Polly and Lorna square off (”Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted”), we feel, with Lorna, the force of Polly’s need and maybe understand a bit more about need in general.
And yet we sometimes get close to the hearts of Munro’s characters only to find those hearts in a weirdly genteel flutter. Here, for instance, is one extramarital flirtation described in ”Hateship”: ”They greet each other with…[a] laugh, by which it seems many things are conveyed and understood.” And another: ”A look that was in its way quite cold, yet deeply respectful and more intimate than any look that would pass between married people.” And again: ”Jinny had flirted with them occasionally, in a way that she could never be blamed for. Just a gentle tone, a way of making them aware of her soft skirts and her scent of apple soap.” In bulk, such accounts of emotional transactions – romantic and otherwise – are grinding.