No One Wrote About Sex Like Alice Munro – Vulture

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It’s not that the men are so special. They are not the best-looking or the smartest. And it does not take long for the protagonists, the women, to see this. Because Alice Munro wrote these women, their perception is as merciless as hers. In Munro’s 1997 short story “The Children Stay,” a young mother, Pauline, who is married to Brian, meets a man named Jeffrey at a party. “She had thought he was older than she was,” writes Munro, “at least as old as Brian — who was thirty, though people were apt to say he didn’t act it — but as soon as he started talking to her, in this offhand, dismissive way, never quite meeting her eyes, she suspected that he was younger than he’d like to appear. Now, with that flush, she was sure of it.” Jeffrey casts Pauline in a play; she soon learns he’s bullish and pretentious too. Because Alice Munro wrote her, Pauline runs off with him anyway.

A running off with, an abandoning for, a void leapt into. A flirt, a fuck, a disaster. In Munro’s stories, sex changes women like a downed line changes a puddle. They are charged with dangerous, unpredictable energy. Although Munro, who died Monday at 92, rarely depicted the sex explicitly — a man lowers onto a woman, a man pushes off of her — she wrote with such definite shading of looks and sound and erotically registered detail that you feel the shape of the sex more than you read it. And this gives it strength. In “The Children Stay,” Jeffrey tells Pauline it’s time for sex by crossing the room, bolting the door, then walking back toward her “with the whole story of the afternoon’s labor draining out of his face.” In the 1980 story “Dulse,” a man who the protagonist has just met beckons her to his bed with an open door and a wordless moan — and she considers it. Munro, a writer in total control of her instrument, spent seven decades building stories in which the most consequential moments of a life could be decided by a look that lasts just a second too long.


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Something to know about repressed societies: It’s what’s not said that is powerful. It’s important Munro was Canadian, and Anglophone, and born poor in rural Wingham, Ontario, in 1931. Canada can still be uptight, but there was a real starchy colonial residue to the place then, an irrelevant clung-to Britishness, and a severe case of tall-poppy syndrome. As is now obvious from Ontarian artists who came after Munro (David Cronenberg comes to mind), these would prove to be great conditions for ripening perverts and freaks. Two years in university were all her scholarship would cover, so Munro got an Mrs. degree at 20 and popped out some kids soon after. She and her first husband, Jim Munro, moved to suburban Vancouver, which she didn’t know till arriving was social hell. Men didn’t really want to talk to her. Most women didn’t either. At parties with other couples, she told The Paris Review in 1994, “There was a lot of competitive talk about vacuuming and washing the woolies, and I got quite frantic … The only outlet, I thought, was flirting with other people’s husbands at parties; that was really the only time anything came up that you could feel was real, because the only contact you could have with men, that had any reality to it, seemed to me to be sexual.”

She wasn’t stuck in that place, not entombed there. She and Jim moved neighborhoods, then cities; she met cooler women; the Munros opened a bookstore in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. She’d been writing since she was a kid, publishing a bit at university and in very tiny Canadian literary magazines. Now between vacuuming and woolies she wrote fiction, desperately. Short stories were a matter of housewifely convenience and then a matter of preference. (Munro never published a novel — something her supporters always seemed more sheepish about than she did.) In the manner of a lot of women artists in her generation and older, she only really emerged publicly once her children were teenagers, when she was 37: Her first collection, 1968’s Dance of the Happy Shades, included 15 years of stories. She’d publish 13 more original collections, plus compilations, as well as dozens of stories in The New Yorker, which became her most lasting editorial home.

But her characters aren’t writers — usually. They might be unenthused editors or spinster librarians. (“I wonder why I wrote about aging spinsters,” Munro told The Paris Review. “I didn’t know any. … I think I knew that at heart I was an aging spinster.”) Some of her women have children to corral, some are young and feckless, some old and lonely, some young and lonely, some divorced. Many are poor or grew up that way. What they share is a hypersensitivity to sexual possibility. Munro’s stories are some of the smartest about being an idiot in lust.

When a man is beautiful, her sentences run a hand along his face and fix eyes on the muscles in his back. When a man is awful, when he is petty, he’s so familiar it is sickening. In “Dulse,” protagonist Lydia (a Munro divorcée) shares first impressions of a boyfriend’s apartment: “No attempt had been made to arrange things to make a setting; nothing was in relation to anything else. Various special requirements had been attended to. A certain sculpture was in a corner behind some filing cabinets because he liked to lie on the floor and look at it in shadow. Books were in piles beside the bed, which was crossway in the room in order to catch the breeze from the window. All disorder was order, carefully thought out and not to be interfered with.” You can’t convince me this man isn’t living down the street from me now.

And of course Lydia goes for him anyway. She knows he’s absurd, she knows he’s not nice to her. She thinks of herself as a reasonable person — “But I am stupid and helpless when contemplating the collision of myself and Alex.” In the 1991 story “Carried Away,” a married man contemplates a spinster librarian who he’s realizing he’s attracted to. “He could no more describe the feeling he got from her than you can describe a smell,” writes Munro from inside the man’s head. “It’s like the scorch of electricity. It’s like burnt kernels of wheat. No, it’s like a bitter orange. I give up.” Since the story is written in close third person, that last sentence (rendered without the italics of thought) reroutes it. Is that Munro speaking? Is it the man? Is it us?

The sexual “I give up” is the Alice Munro experience. It can be pleasurable or it can be painful, this giving-over to what you can’t explain or excuse. Attraction just puts you in a headlock. As she got older, her stories roamed through time, moving backward and forward. Knowing how a character’s love affair shook out never made it seem simpler or less inevitable. Munro’s life loop-de-looped as well: After her divorce, she moved back to Ontario and ended up reconnecting with someone she’d known in university, Gerald Fremlin. They married and stayed together until he died in 2013, the year Munro won the Nobel Prize. Of their courtship, she would say she’d always had a crush on him, but he hadn’t noticed her when they were younger. When they finally went on a date in their 40s, she recalled, “I think we were talking about living together by the end of the afternoon.” When you know, you know. And when you don’t know, do it anyway.

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