- Reviewed by
Ildikó de Papp Carrington begins her book on the work of Canadian short story writer Alice Munro by asserting that hers is the most comprehensive study on "the full span" of Munro's published work to date. The book-length studies on Munro by W. R. Martin and E. D. Blodgett are incomplete, according to Carrington, because they omit Munro's most recent and most obscure unpublished [End Page 249] stories. Carrington then uses her own vague agenda to trip through the Munro canon at random, completely ignoring such essential Munro classics as "Red Dress—1946," "Day of the Butterfly," and "The Found Boat."
Unlike Martin and Blodgett, Carrington chooses not to deal with Munro's stories in chronological order or group them according to the collections in which they were published. After a rambling introductory chapter, Carrington divides Munro's work into four categories, according to her major thematic patterns, all loosely involving characters whose sense of control is somehow threatened. The first thematic category is defined by uncontrollability demonstrated through the eruption of external violence, either deliberate or accidental, which "suddenly bursts forth through the seemly surface of everyday behavior." Carrington's second grouping of stories is a bit more closely linked through Munro's use of similar metaphors to associate sexuality with death. The third section, and by far the longest of Carrington's study, concerns stories about "ambivalent" characters struggling for power, primarily the power to control sexual encounters, love affairs, and marriages. And Carrington's final category deals with the Munro stories about relationships between parents and daughters, stories which primarily focus on the daughter's failure to achieve emotional distance from her obsessive relationship with her parent, usually her mother.
Carrington's observations are clearest and most effective, particularly in the latter two sections of the book, when individual stories are studied in detail and when the logic behind the ordering of the stories dealt with is most apparent. The chapter on the mother-daughter relationships is particularly revealing, and Carrington blends in useful insights from several different Munro interviews to stress the autobiographical nature of these stories.
The difficulty in writing criticism and interpretation on Munro's work, aside from the sheer volume and wide range of Munro's unique stories, is her tendency to write paradoxical, objective, Chekhov-like stories that avoid making moral judgments or obvious, packaged intellectual statements. Munro's stories, as Carrington notes, give the reader "intense, but not connected, moments of experience." A critical work on Munro, however, must unearth some sort of intellectual significance, and it must connect the moments of experience communicated in the stories. Carrington's points concerning the significance of Munro's stories are not always clear or complete, and the Munrovian moments of experience with which Carrington deals are too often left unconnected, taken out of context, and aimless. [End Page 250]