Why it's impossible to sum up Alice Munro's writing

John Geddes on the author's particular 'clarity' and 'realism'

There’s something about Alice Munro’s writing that is impossible to sum up satisfactorily. The “bio-bibliography” posted today on the Nobel website, after Munro was finally awarded the big prize, takes a stab at it by describing her storytelling as “characterized by clarity and psychological realism.”

Clear and real her stories certainly are. Yet putting it that way might give you the wrong impression, if you haven’t read them. If you have, you already know they’re clear only in the sense that they offer an unimpeded view of the endless ways ordinary life frustrates expectations and confounds explanation. As for psychology, her characters feel real in the sense that, like everybody you’ve ever known, when you think about it, you can never really figure them out.

This could go for any of her stories, but I have in mind “Axis,” only because I recently listened to it in the car on a family road trip (the writer Lauren Goff recorded it for one of the New Yorker’s excellent fiction podcasts, which you can pick up on iTunes). There’s no point summarizing the plot. But it starts several decades ago, with two Ontario farm girls away at university, and questions about whether they’ll have sex with their boyfriends, and ends in about the present day, with a chance meeting between one of the girls and one of the boys, now of course grown old, on a train.

Munro is famous for the way she toys with time. Those decades passed like nothing. But the moment when one of the boys catches a fleeting glimpse from a bus of his girlfriend’s best friend on the street, and likes the look of her, seems never to end. Strawberry jam takes forever to boil in a farm kitchen; the earth’s crust carelessly tosses up an escarpment in a gesture.

If time doesn’t behave reliably, people are worse. In “Axis,” a young man shows himself to be a self-absorbed heel in throwing over a young woman. Later, though, we learn how, in an epiphany, he became captivated by geology, the way the world under our feet is made. His thing for solid rock is oddly appealing, especially set against all those unsteady moments between human beings.

Munro slips in contrasts and counterbalances like this so neatly that you never know what she’s up to until it’s too late to put up your guard, and then you’re left feeling as if struck almost by chance by some important insight. But you will never be able to put it into words, which is fine, since she already did.

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