I’m not sure it’s possible to read too many stories by Alice Munro. I’ve developed a taste for modern short stories that edge toward the weird, like the ones George Saunders writes: stories that play with form, that are futuristic, that have the sharp edge of good satire. Munro does none of this. Instead, she deals in close observation of the complexity of human behavior; dry, simple, often witty writing; and carefully rounded stories that bring us, blinking and with a faint feeling of surprise, to our own doormats. This is the third book I’ve read by her (the others were Lives of Girls and Women and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.)
Alice Munro sets most of her stories in southwestern Ontario, and there isn’t a lot of far-flung travel in space or time in The Moons of Jupiter. But there’s a huge amount of insight, humor, interest, and wisdom. In the first story, “Connection,” the narrator discusses her father’s scrupulous egalitarianism: he would never have admitted that there were superior or inferior people, let alone kowtow or snivel, she says.
There were times, later, when I wondered if it was a paralyzing prudence that urged this stand, as much as any finer sentiment, when I wondered if my father and I didn’t harbor, in our hearts, intact and unassailable notions of superiority, which my mother and her cousins with their innocent snobbishness could never match.
At the end of the story, the narrator’s horribly snobbish husband, who’s been nastily criticizing her garish aunt, gets his comeuppance:
He was still talking as I threw the Pyrex plate at his head. There was a piece of lemon meringue pie in it. The plate missed, and hit the refrigerator, but the pie flew out and caught him on the side of the face just as in the old movies or an I Love Lucy show. There was the same moment of amazement as there is on the screen, the sudden innocence, for him; his speech stopped, his mouth open. For me, too, amazement, that something people invariably thought funny in those instances should be so shocking a verdict in real life.
Her descriptions are wonderful. (“Lawrence wore a carefully good-natured expression, but he looked as if something hard and heavy had settled inside him — a load of self-esteem that weighed him down instead of buoying him up.”) Usually, the problem with short stories is that they can’t do enough in the space. Not with Alice Munro. The scope of the story is small, so she goes deep, deep.
I was surprised, with these particular stories, how anti-nostalgic they are. They don’t look back to a golden age, or try to think about the past in some way that makes it pretty. The past wasn’t always a very good time for women, and Munro thinks about the lives of women with accuracy and insight, the good and the bad. Why hearken back with nostalgia to a time when women had fewer choices, were less educated, had harder housework and more children? But it wasn’t any easier for men, or at least for some men:
There wasn’t any idea then — at least in Logan, Ontario, in the late forties — about homosexuality’s going beyond very narrow confines. Women, certainly, believed in its rarity and in definite boundaries. There were homosexuals in town, and we knew who they were: an elegant, light-voiced, wavy-haired paperhanger who called himself an interior decorator; the minister’s widow’s fat, spoiled only son, who went so far as to enter baking contests and had crocheted a tablecloth; a hypochondriachal church organist and music teacher who kept the choir and his music pupils in line with screaming tantrums. Once the label was fixed, there was a good deal of tolerance for these people, and their talents for decorating, for crocheting, and for music were appreciated — especially by women. “The poor fellow,” they said. “He doesn’t do any harm.” They really seemed to believe — the women did — that it was the penchant for baking or music that made the man what he was — not any other detours he might take, or wish to take. A desire to play the violin would be taken as more a deviation from manliness than would a wish to shun women. Indeed, the idea was that any manly man would wish to shun women but most of them were caught off guard, and for good.
Munro explores femininity and masculinity in these stories; connection and loss; class and identity; longing and betrayal and relinquishment and starting again. Some of them are funny, some acutely observed; some of the narrators know less than we do about their own hearts. They are wonderful. If you can’t find The Moons of Jupiter, find another book by Munro. I can’t imagine you could possibly go wrong.