A novel quite possibly won’t be good, and even more possibly will have not-good parts, but at least it won’t shape-shift on you; at least you can say that you’re halfway through and know that this maps onto some clear, visualizable chunk of narrative. At the end of it, if nothing else, you’ll have a nice solid opinion that you can pull out and set on the table like a business card or a ballpoint pen.
A short-story collection is harder to formulate pithy sentences about. Thinking about one is like being asked, after not having seen an uncle for years: So how did you like college? Well … does he mean the lonely Monday evenings in the dining hall eating plain penne or does he mean the glorious Friday nights on some dorm’s rooftop or does he mean the dull Wednesday afternoons in the middle row of a lecture hall, trying to see if it’s possible to sleep in one-second eye-blinks? The experience is too various, too private and complicated, to encapsulate, and so any encapsulating thought you came up with would have to be half a lie.
Which is why—particularly when you’re reading Munro—each short story in a collection ought to be considered alone. Clear a little space in your mind, lay the individual story down away from its brethren, and suddenly it becomes a much better specimen. It doesn’t take as much of your time, so you may need to bring a magazine down to the beach with you, but if you simply open the collection planning to read one story and then stop, your experience will have the pleasing cleanness, the clarity, of a single seashell resting in your bare palm.
There are, of course, good stories and bad ones—bad ones that will remain bad whether you read them in isolation or while spinning cartwheels through aisles of Norton Anthologies—but once you start reading the good ones this way, giving them enough space to spread their arms and show you what’s in their pockets, you’ll begin to appreciate the resemblances and hear the conversations between them in a way that’s much harder to do when they’re massed in a giant clamoring herd. You’ll stand up, having read a 20- or 30- or even, if you happen to be reading late Munro, 70-page story, and you’ll wander down the beach smiling faintly, privately, full of fondness for the Kadima-playing kids and a sense that somehow you’re seeing everything, the seagulls and the sand, freshly scrubbed.
And this is not—especially not in the case of Munro—merely a trick for swallowing the unpalatable, like squeezing lemon onto an oyster. It is, instead, like learning that you need to peel a clementine before you eat it; it’s a shift that changes everything.
Because now you’ll develop an appetite for her stories; you’ll read one, wait, read one, wait, and pretty soon you’ll forget which collection a particular story happened to come from. They’ll all come to seem to you like segments of the same fruit, each enclosed in a half-translucent membrane but sharing an essential sap.
And it’s almost incommunicable, the delight, the richness, in reading Munro this way. You’ll read a story about, say, a seventysomething woman wondering if she has breast cancer, and you’ll realize that you’re inhabiting it something like the way you inhabit your own life, with a half-visible contrail of memories and associations stretching off into the distance — there’s the same woman at 40 in “Moons of Jupiter,” visiting her ailing father in the hospital; and behind her the woman at 20 in “Jakarta Island,” adjusting to married life; and behind her the girl at 8 in “Royal Beatings,” sipping her chocolate milk in bed.
For a long time I thought of my life as a novel. One by David Foster Wallace or Don DeLillo or Ken Kesey, maybe, with many characters, a large-ish timespan, and a potentially troublesome proliferation of subplots, but one that would nonetheless hew to certain conventions of the form: there would be a final unity, a sense of plot-points mostly addressed, a considerable heft.
After a half-dozen or so years of reading and thinking about Alice Munro—and many more years than this of being disappointed in my life’s refusal to take on anything like a novel’s shape—I’ve changed my mind. The repetitions, the gaps, the preoccupations arising and falling away, the feelings of daily inconsequence and yearly hyper-consequence … Life, I’ve come to believe, is not a novel at all. It’s a waist-high stack of Alice Munro stories.
Excerpted from Shelf-Love, a Kindle Single about Alice Munro by Ben Dolnick, out now from Amazon.