Alice Munroe, master of short fiction

November 18, 2001|By Jan Winburn | By Jan Winburn,Sun Staff

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro. Alfred A. Knopf. 323 pages. $24.

If a good writer zigs where others zag, then Alice Munro is the great writer among good. Her unpredictable short stories deliver astonishingly deep and complex worlds, but rarely by following a linear path. Her new collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, contains nine such zigzagging wonders.

It is not merely twists and turns in plot that make a Munro story so surprising, though the Canadian writer is obviously a master of both structure and plot. It is the scope of her stories -- their psychological depth and emotional truth.

The title of this collection derives from a childhood game in which a boy's name and a girl's name are written down, the duplicated letters crossed out, and the remaining ones counted off in loves-me, loves-me-not fashion to reveal the couple's future: Hate, friendship, courtship, love, marriage. The author renders all of these -- and more -- on the small canvas of the short story.

Most of her protagonists are women, and Munro takes the reader deep into their psyches. In the title story, a lonely woman falls in love with a man whom she has come to know only through his letters. When his correspondence turns out to be a practical joke, played by two teen-agers, it matters not. By then, she has arrived at his door expecting to be married. "Nettles" portrays two childhood friends who meet years later and are caught in a storm. They cling together in a patch of stinging nettles. Covered with welts and blotches -- symbols of their sexual desire unconsummated -- they feel silly, sheepish and in awe of the power of the imagined.

In "Post and Beam," Munro pulls back the curtain on a household set out of kilter by a visiting relative. Lorna -- who is unhappily married to an egotistic university professor, infatuated with a crazy math genius, and worn down by two children -- faces the neediness of her visiting cousin Polly. "Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears ... but her outrageous demand to be folded in, rocked, comforted."

The complications of love, the demands of family, the appeal of the imagined over what is real -- these are universal subjects that fill libraries of books. But Munro manages to take the world of the novel and bring it into the scope of the short story without seeming to lose any nuance -- or power.

Several of the stories in this new collection explore illness, another world full of passion and sorrow. In "Comfort," the dying protagonist is a small-town science teacher who has lost his job by refusing to teach creationism. He is also dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, and his wife arrives home from her tennis game to find he has committed suicide. The decisions she now must make become complicated by her own past: a mild flirtation she once had with the undertaker.

In "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," an unfaithful husband named Grant puts his wife, Fiona, who is 70 and suffering from Alzheimer's, in a nursing home. He's told he can't return for 30 days, to give her time to settle in. When he does, he gets his comeuppance: Fiona, free of her memory of Grant and therefore free of guilt, has fallen for another man. At this point, Munro zigs to a complication that leaves the reader with more to ponder than the mystery of memory, love and betrayal -- as if those weren't enough.

That is the great joy of a Munro story. It may be short, but its effects are lingering.

Jan Winburn has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 20 years. Enterprise editor at The Sun, she worked at The Hartford Courant and The Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to Baltimore.

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