In Search of Lost Time: Notes on Mad Men and Alice Munro 

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Alice Munro's literary stature—"our Chekhov," in the oft-quoted assessment of Cynthia Ozick—has to do with her classification as realist writer ("our Chekhov," in the oft-quoted etc etc). Her reality, though, is one in which time passes, and people change, often into something almost unrecognizable. In "Deep-Holes," from her her new collection, Too Much Happiness, out this month, a mother reunites with her son—first glimpsed at age nine, on a family outing—after he's spent years off the grid and out of touch. The meeting is tense, anticlimactic: she almost doesn't recognize him, he calls her by her first name, they fight over money. Afterward, she thinks: "He won't stop despising her, of course. Despising. No. Not the point. Nothing personal." That "nothing personal" is just brutal.

"Fiction," also from Too Much Happiness, is a story about how people who believe themselves to be settled discover otherwise. In the story's first section, Jon and Joyce are a husband and wife, a music teacher and a carpenter, living in a cottage in the woods they've restored themselves; over homemade wine, she laughs at his stories of his thick-set, literal-minded recovering-alcoholic apprentice, Edie—"Edie was like a pet, Joyce sometimes thought"—until, quite abruptly, Jon leaves Joyce for Edie.

The story's second section picks up again, decades later, at Joyce's husband Matt's 65th birthday. She is Matt's third wife; numbers one and two are in attendance, and their children. For their part, "[Joyce] and Matt have no children of their own. She herself does have an ex-husband, Jon, who lives up the coast... She invited him to come down for the party but he couldn't, because he had to go to the christening of one of his third wife's grandchildren... Her name is Christine, and she runs a bakeshop."

The years Munro elides here are like a cocoon: it's our job to figure out how the thing that goes in could possibly become the thing that comes out.

Munro, and this is something I've written about before so I apologize for repeating myself, is primarily an artist of time. These skips forward—and her flashbacks, her historical fictions, her pieced-together chronologies—are ways she has of telling us that who we are now is not necessarily who we'll be later.

In "Miles City, Montana," from 1985, a young husband and wife drive cross-country with their small daughters; it's the inaugural trip in the family car:

Andrew took a picture of me standing beside the car. I was wearing white pants, a black turtleneck, and sunglasses. I lounged against the car, canting my hips to make myself look thin.

"Wonderful," Andrew said. "Great. You look like Jackie Kennedy." All over this continent probably, dark-haired, reasonably slender young women were being told, when they were stylishly dressed or getting their pictures taken, that they looked like Jackie Kennedy.

The past tense and sarcasm should be a clue; still, it comes as a shock when the narrator mentions, casually, a few pages later, "I haven't seen Andrew in years."

Yet, in 1961, the trip goes on. In Miles City, Montana, one of their daughters, left momentarily alone in a pool, nearly drowns. Driving away, the mother reflects:

So we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that had first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous-all our natural, and particular, mistakes.

The story ends with our knowledge, fuller than hers, of what those mistakes will prove to be.

Life is a long shot, lived in close-up.


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