Why Do I Read Fiction?

I wish I could recall the exact moment when I first became aware of an author named Alice Munro. Perhaps it was years ago in the New Yorker that I read one of her stories.

I wish I could remember that split second of epiphany, that awakening within me upon reading my first Alice Munro story and realizing that I was in the presence of a genius; that I was reading, not a story, but an entire life.

There are two types of literature: one that takes the reader away from his or her milieu on a journey of imagination; the other delves into the complexities of human psyche and experience in such a deep way that it makes the reader view his or her own life in a different way. This latter type of literature makes the readers see not only themselves in fictional characters but allows them to recognize almost everyone they have ever known.

Alice Munro writes such literature. In fact, one reviewer said of her work, “Call it fiction,” meaning that in her stories life and art become indistinguishable and merge to create a spine-tingling reality. This type of literature allows us to relive our feelings and joys and sorrows and dilemmas through the characters, and even though the plot might be limited to an obscure part of the world, in a geographical, sociological, and ethnic sense it mirrors the entire human condition. Reading Alice Munro’s stories, I forget that I am reading about rural Western Ontario before the Second World War, which is the time and place in which many of her early stories are rooted.

Alice Munro is no John Updike. Her stories are not about upper-class professors in Connecticut swapping wives or making moves on their students. When you read an Alice Munro story, you are in a heightened state of consciousness. Because her characters are not nice, because they do things that are surprising and odd and out of the ordinary and totally unpredictable, you are always alert and vigilant while reading her work.
One thing I particularly like about Alice Munro’s writing is that she breaks all the rules. She tells rather than shows. Much of the action in her stories happens off stage. She doesn’t always have a clear premise that you can glean from a story. Her narrative moves in complex chronological patterns from past to present to future. In her writing, time is a distinct character in itself and it is her clever use of time that gives her characters their true complexity and depth. Alice Munro can tell more about a life in 20 pages than most novels do in 300. She can capture a young girl’s life and her passage into womanhood and motherhood and then into middle age, isolation, loneliness, and the recognition of mortality, weaving the narrative through all three stages simultaneously.

The story of hers that has most stuck in my mind is about a woman named Juliet and her passage through life. Alice Munro tells Juliet’s saga in three separate tales. In the first story, Juliet follows a casual acquaintance to a remote location of his residence and ends up marrying him. In the second story, Juliet visits her parents with her young child and realizes how she has drifted away from them. In the third and very poignant story, Juliet loses her own husband to death at sea and subsequently her daughter to a spiritual retreat, not realizing that she would never see her child again. Arriving at the retreat, she finds that her daughter has disappeared, leaving no forwarding address. Juliet passes through her life with the sense of utter loss, moving around the continent but leaving traces for her daughter to locate her, but never really taking drastic measures to find her child, as if unsure of her claim on her progeny, who she deep down believes she has wronged.

Alice Munro’s stories mostly have women as central characters, but they are not pretty and wifely and vulnerable and coquettish women; instead, they are strong, with rough edges, and sometimes they can be cruel and mean and vengeful.

Her thumbnail character sketches are legendary, as in this passage:

Louisa was twenty-five years old and had been in love once, with a doctor she had known in the sanatorium. Her love was returned, eventually, costing the doctor his job. There was some harsh doubt in her mind about whether he had been told to leave the sanatorium or had left of his own accord, being weary of the entanglement. He was married, he had children … After he left, they were still writing to one another. And once or twice after she was released. Then she asked him not to write anymore and he didn’t. But the failure of his letters to arrive drove her out of Toronto and made her take the traveling job … If she’d had anybody to tell, though, she would have laughed at just that notion. She would have said love was all hocus-pocus, a deception, and she believed that. But at the prospect she still felt a hush, a flutter along the nerves, a bowing down of sense, a flagrant prostration.

Or describing the scene and the house of a woman’s passionate folly that she goes back to 40 years later:

What was Grace really looking for when she had undertaken this expedition? Maybe the worst thing would have been to get just what she might have thought she was after. Sheltering roof, screened windows, the lake in front, the stand of maple and cedar and balm of Gilead trees behind. Perfect preservation, the past intact, when nothing of the kind could be said of herself. To find something so diminished, still existing but made irrelevant–as the Travers house now seemed to be, with its added dormer windows, its startling blue paint–might be less hurtful in the long run.

And what if you find it gone altogether? You make a fuss. If anybody has come along to listen to you, you bewail the loss. But mightn’t a feeling of relief pass over you, of old confusions or obligations wiped away?

It is the pleasure of discovering this kind of deeply philosophical narrative why I read fiction. It is because Alice Munro is still writing that I am still reading fiction.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.

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