The View from
Alice Munro Knopf
The Ballad of Narayama, a Japanese movie from 1958, depicts a feudal-era village where it’s decreed that all citizens must climb up a nearby mountain to die when they reach the age of 70. The movie climaxes, wrenchingly, as a son accompanies his mother up the skeleton-strewn mountain — but then, in a succession of three shots taking up perhaps 15 seconds of screen time, director Keisuke Kinoshita cuts to the present day, to tourists waiting for a train at the foot of the ski resort the mountain has become.
This kind of cosmic flash-forward occurs frequently in the work of Canadian short story writer and de facto national treasure Alice Munro, and to similar effect. Her stories are distinguished by their wealth of psychological nuance (“Chekovian” is the default critical adjective), often characterizing the lives of women navigating the up-heaving social and sexual mores of the postwar years, and by the correspondingly deep-rooted sense of place conveyed in her clear-voiced descriptions of rural Ontario. And when she closes one of these narratives by widening the focus, the unexpected breath of connections reveals the meticulously realized, emotionally full-bodied world of the story as an artificially enclosed piece of the undifferentiated whole.
She uses such an ending in the title story of her new collection of linked stories, The View from Castle Rock. The longest of the bunch at over 60 pages (lengthy even by Munro’s novelletish standards), its narrator hopscotches between the various perspectives of a Scottish family, the Laidlaws, making the crossing to North America in 1818. Within the cramped quarters of the ship, Munro opens up pockets of inner space for her characters: for unmarried Aunt Mary, who finds a near-religious purpose in caring for her two-year-old nephew, though her protectiveness seen outwardly appears desperate; for Agnes, the child’s mother, who permits herself to favorably compare the doctor who delivered her baby daughter to the husband who fathered it; for Walter, a teenager who sneaks off to a private deck to keep a journal of the voyage. And then, at the end of the voyage, she skims across the remainder of their (often unlikely) lives and comes to rest on their gravestones, in a churchyard “well within sound of Highway 401.” In a few pages, she reframes the characters’ interior lives as part of the landscape on which her country is built.
More than that: Laidlaw is Munro’s maiden name, and The View from Castle Rock is based on accounts of her ancestors’ emigration, including Walter Laidlaw’s journal entries. For ‘No Advantages’, the first of Castle Rock’s two sections, Munro uses the diary and epistolary writings of previous generations (she is, it seems, the latest in a long line of writing Laidlaws) as a template, often excerpting her forbears at length; she herself is the occasionally present “I” in these stories, speculating on the liberties she’s taken in revivifying her own heritage. ‘No Advantages’ introduces the family’s rocky Scottish cradle, ‘Castle Rock’ follows, and ‘Illinois’ and ‘The Wilds of Morris County’ are almost self-contained stories, magnified scenes within the eras of settlement and development of the rural Ontario where she would grow up, and eventually set much of her fiction. ‘Working for a Living’, the last story of the section, reaches her father; as he was Munro’s tangible link between herself and her family history — to say nothing of the dominant figure in her young life — the story is more expansive, sifting through a lifetime of incidents.
In the beginning of ‘Differently’, from the 1990 collection Friend of My Youth, Munro offered a cheeky definition of her writing style, one that reviewers have been obediently quoting since. To follow suit:
Georgia once took a creative writing class, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it. Georgia herself thought that it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story.
Winks aside, this seems to describe the motivating impulse behind Munro’s stories (it’s no wonder she’s become so interested in genealogy). Her Narayama endings are simply the most dramatic technique within a body of stories that inevitably span decades, continents, and perspectives (a key example here is ‘The Albanian Virgin’, from 1994’s Open Secrets, which alternates between a woman kidnapped by Albanian tribesman in the 1920s, and that same woman in Canada in the 60s, as seen through a narrator who has recently fled her husband and lover). And in ‘Home’, the second part of Castle Rock, Munro’s project — lives understood as part of a wide social history, and through emotional links only visible in the fullness of time — is brought to bear on her own life.
Munro, more even than most authors, has borrowed from her life to make her fiction, both structural elements and specific details. It’s hard to say how autobiographical these stories (drawn largely from her youth) are; Munro, in the Introduction, says they “pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.” But her use of the conditional voice (she allows herself to “suppose” far more liberally than usual) and the presence of episodes or rituals recognizable, in different forms, in previous Munro stories, creates at least the impression of memoir.
Her father is again a primary presence in ‘Home’, especially in its titular story, set some time in the early 70s. In it, Munro (or at least “Munro”) returns to her childhood home, significantly made over by her father’s second wife. As they’re sitting at the kitchen table, “she tells me… he has said that he wished that she’d always been his wife, and not my mother.” And, as the two of them tend to him when he’s hospitalized with life-threatening heart trouble, Munro begins to wonder if he meant it. It’s a process of reckoning from a new angle of insight; the story ends by alighting on a childhood memory, one poignant for its simultaneous distance and proximity to the present.
This is, essentially, what Munro’s been doing all along, and The View from Castle Rock almost functions as summary: the last story, ‘What Do You Want to Know For?’ sees Munro weathering a cancer scare while simultaneously tracking down the history of an old crypt glimpsed from the passenger seat of a car, with digressions on the topography of Canada as it was formed by the last Ice Age.
All Munro’s stories seek to unearth the skeletons beneath our ski slopes, or to imagine the ski slopes built over our skeletons; this book gives them, and possibly her, the same treatment. The book ends with a brief epilogue, and its last lines encapsulate Munro’s writing as neatly as anything she (or any of her admirers) has ever written: a snapshot of the author as a young girl, a seashell to her ear, hearing the infinite within herself, and herself within the infinite. •