Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Progress of Love

To me, short stories are all about artifice. They are about the creation of a moment, and the subtle way the author brings us to the moment. It seems that most short stories these days work on the subtextual level, rather than at the plot level. It's more about the epiphany that the characters reach or don't reach than about whatever happens, or whatever plot machinations exist. I mean epiphany in the Joycean sense, that is, an illuminating discovery, often putting the person's whole life into a new perspective, changing how they see themselves. An amazing example of this style of short story is any one story from Alice Munro's award-winning collection, The Progress of Love

These eleven stories gathered together create a vivid tapestry of public and private lives, often jostling together for superiority, juxtaposed and compared. Each story is densely plotted, surprisingly. These stories do not lend themselves to sporadic reading; each one demands to be finished once started.

The highlight of the entire collection is the gripping and poignant story, "The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink". It is the narrative of two cousins coming of age in Southern Ontario, it is the story of understanding of the secret internal world of adults and of adult affairs. The two cousins begin their sexual history by experimenting with the cleaning girl that lives and works in their boarding house. It all comes to a head when they think the girl has become pregnant. It is not until late in the main character's life does he understand the emotional ramifications of what has happened. 

It would spoil the story to divulge any more of the plot. This isn't to say that the story is rife with melodramatic moments of arguments, love-making, accusations. The betrayal that exists in this story and others by Munro are far more subtle and the consequences far more emotionally devastating. 

These stories are dense not just because of the complicated families, or the non-linear and complex timelines, but because the characters are so vividly imagined. In twenty or so pages, Munro deftly implies whole lives that we merely get a glimpse of, and not just of main characters, but colourful secondary actors, coming and going. 

It is said often that one of Munro's stories contains more than most novels. It is the artifice and economy that make Munro such a master of the form. With very few words, and those words precisely chosen, she creates worlds out of these lives, these lives wounded and broken by marriages, infidelity, the quiet broken friendships, the lies. 

The Progress of Love is a staggering collection of short stories presented by a true master of the form. With her plain but evocative prose, Alice Munro shows us numerous lives with stories to be heard, characters perfectly imagined. It is no wonder that she has been lavished with literary awards, praise, and comparisons to the masters, such as Chekhov. This is highly recommended.

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