There is no denying Alice Munro’s ability to weave a tale, but sometimes she is given more respect than might be due. I just finished reading “Child’s Play” a 2007 story of hers that appeared in Harper’s. Fair enough, but then to be included in The best American short stories, 2008? I am not so sure about this inclusion. The story seems overly hamfisted, an attribution I have probably never before given to Munro.
Part of Munro’s brilliance is her foreshadowing technique. Sometimes she is not even hinting at a future plot development, but is merely coaxing the reader into an odd setting. Instead of saying ‘we were at summer camp’ she goes through a mention of cots and coolie caps (and the discussion of ‘coolie’ as a way to set the time). These are particularly brilliant strokes, not at all unique to “Child’s Play” but unique to Munro. Her magic with dialogue is also … magical. I cannot even begin to unlock how she does it.
All that said (and if I did not discuss it, then consider it, at the least, well-done if not brilliant), the reveal in this story seems tired. I have the impression that Munro became tired of working her magic and decided to be a mere mortal about it. She just blurts out the event causing the grief, causing the story. It’s very sudden and sad to see a master not work her mastery. But there is a moment earlier in the story where this also occurs. Munro discloses her anthropologist eye and then tried to impress the reader with a clue about the secret dealings of women who just ‘click’. Yep, she subscribes to ‘clicking’. No explanation, no theory. Once that affinity is posited she then moves on to describe how that relationship functions.
It is precisely that explanation that bugged me. It seemed unnecessary, as a way to justify the way the two women interacted. Here is where I prefer Hemingway. He would have just done, instead of explaining. The explanation comes off as an apology, a kernel of self-doubt. It is possible that Munro anticipated this criticism, as not even one page later there is this gem: “I’ve felt less wary with men. They don’t expect such transactions and are seldom really interested.” This is why Hemingway could only capture relationships set against some background of overwhelming proportion.
Despite how good the story is, and it is a good one despite my comments, it is not even the best one I read this morning. For that I offer a section of E.B. White’s rescue of Thoreau’s Walden, a book which needs resuscitation.
Thoreau’s assault on the Concord society of the mid-nineteenth century has the quality of a modern Western: he rides into the subject at top speed, shooting in all directions. Many of his shots ricochet and nick him on the rebound, and throughout the melee there is a horrendous cloud of inconsistencies and contradictions, and when the shooting dies down and the air clears, one is impressed chiefly by the courage of the rider and by how splendid it was that somebody should have ridden in there and raised all that ruckus. (293)
Munro, Alice. (2007). Child’s play. In S. Rushdie, ed. (2008). The best American short stories, 2008 (201-229). NY: Houghton Mifflin.
White, E.B. (1954). A slight sound at evening. In J.C. Hallman, ed. (2009). The story about the story: Great writers explore great literature (291-300). Portland: Tin House Books.