The special winter fiction issue of The New Yorker includes a new story by Alice Munro. That is always cause for gladness. The Contributors section informs us that she has a new collection, Too Much Happiness, coming out in late 2009. That is cause for even more celebration.
It is not just my opinion, but the opinion of practically every reviewer and critic I have read, that Alice Munro is our greatest living short-story writer--the Chekhov of the twentieth and twentieth-first century. Some might vote for William Trevor, but these two greats seem to have no rival.
It seems to me that if one could get at what makes these two writers such masters of the short story, one could formulate some tentative understanding of just what unique characteristics the short story as a genre has.
Perhaps not. Maybe if one could formulate the basic characteristics of Joyce Carol Oates' stories (And Lord knows she has written a lot of them), one could formulate such an understanding of the genre.
However, one basic difference between the stories of Oates and the stories of Munro, it seems to me, is that whereas one could learn how to write stories like Oates, one could not learn how to write stories like Alice Munro. Why is that?
Perhaps more on this at another time. What I want to discuss vis a vis the new Munro story in The New Yorker, entitled "Some Women," is the relationship between memoir and fiction, particularly a memoir anecdote and a short story.
Although the Munro piece is labeled "fiction," it begins like a memoir: "I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am. I can remember when the streets of the town I lived in were sprinkled with water to lay the dust in summer...."
The narrator is an old woman (we don't know how old) who recalls a summer when she was thirteen and got her first job. We don't see her, so we do not know what she looks like; we only hear a voice and imagine a thirteen-year-old girl having the experience of assisting an old woman care for her stepson, who has come back from the war, gone to college, studied history, got married, and then got leukemia. He and his wife, Sylvia, who teaches summer school at a nearby college, now live with the stepmother, "Old Mrs. Crozier." He is referred to as "Young Mr. Crozier." He is in an upstairs bedroom. The girl has few responsibilities--bringing him water, pulling the shades up and down, adjusting the position of the fan.
Into the household comes a young masseuse named Roxanne, who gives Old Mrs. Crozier massages. She is loud and boisterous and not a little vulgar--telling dirty jokes, spending more and more time with Mr. Crozier, teasing, and flirting.
On the narrator's last day of work, Mr. Crozier asks her to lock him in his room and give the key to his wife when she comes home. Roxanne tries to get in the room, but cannot. She wants to call the police, fearing he may try to kill himself. Old Mrs. Crozier tells her to mind her own business. Roxanne leaves; Sylvia comes home and goes into the room and talks to her husband, although this happens offstage, so we do not know what they say. She then takes the narrator home, and the story ends. The brief postlude informs us that Sylvia takes her husband to a rented cottage on the lake and that he dies before winter. Roxanne and her husband and children move away. The narrator's mother contracts a crippling disease. Old Mrs. Crozier has a stroke, recovers, and buys Halloween candy for children whose older brothers and sisters she had ordered from her door. The last line of the story is: "I grew up and old."
Those are the characters and the events of the story. So what makes it a short story rather than a memoir? Is it merely the question: Did it really happen or did Alice Munro make it up? Or is there something else about a short story that sets it apart from a recollection?
I have some suggestions about this, but would prefer to hear from some of my readers before I contaminate the discussion with my ideas. I hope you read the story. But even if you do not, perhaps you would venture some notions about the general issue of memoir vs. fiction. I will wait a week and then rejoin the discussion of this issue.