marginalia || Open Secrets, by Alice Munro

Another collection of interwoven stories: Open Secrets, from an old favorite of mine–considered the doyenne (hate that word) of short stories, Alice Munro. From Harold Brodkey to Alice Munro, a rather jarring transition: Munro is just so calm. I’ve never noticed that about Munro’s stories–and I’ve been reading her for years–but these ones were just so calm. Oh, things happen, revelations come. But the narration is a leisurely glide through all those dark secrets. I suppose that’s a good thing. Then again–I say this, of course, comparatively. [Which I don’t like doing much.] Brodkey’s raving drunk with his language. Munro’s dreamily sloshed. I am not making sense. Coming from Brodkey, there’s just a noticeable stillness in Munro’s stories.

So. Some notes from Little Red Moley:

Munro, she writes about us girls and women. [Cue reminiscences about her collection/novel The Lives of Girls and Women.] The men, of course, are present. But it’s the women’s stories that are made richer. I don’t see any problem with this, haha. Here, a quote, from the short story, “Open Secrets:”

The girls played cards, told jokes, they smoked cigarettes, and around midnight began the great games of Truth or Dare. Some Dares were: take off your pajama top and show your boobs; eat a cigarette butt; swallow dirt; stick your head in the water pail and try to count to a hundred; go and pee in front of Miss Johnstone’s tent. Questions requiring Truth were: Do you hate your mother? Father? Sister? Brother? How many peckers have you seen and whose were they? Have you ever lied? Stolen? Touched anything dead? The sick and dizzy feeling of having smoked too many cigarettes too quickly came back to Maureen, also the smell of the smoke under the heavy canvas that had been soaking up the day’s sun, the smell of girls who had swum for hours in the river and run and hidden in the reeds along the banks and had to burn leeches off their legs.

She remembered how noisy she had been then. A shrieker, a dare-taker. Just before she hit high school, a giddiness either genuine or faked or half-and-half became available to her. Soon it vanished, her bold body vanished inside this ample one, and she became a studious, shy girl, a blusher. She developed the qualities her husband would see and value when hiring and proposing.

I dare you to run away. Was it possible? There are times when girls are inspired, when they want the risks to go on and on. They want to be heroines, regardless. They want to take a joke beyond where anybody has ever taken it before. To be careless, dauntless, to create havoc—that was the lost hope of girls.

My favorite story’s definitely the first of the collection, “Carried Away.” It begins with correspondence between the town librarian and a hometown boy who’s off soldiering (WW2). The beginning, well, carried me away–I’d rarely encountered such an old-fashioned romance in Munro. I was excited. Plus, this was about a Librarian, capital L.

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.

But, well, of course, its not old-fashioned romance. Because tragedy strikes, and the story just veers off from what “premise” you thought it offered. That’s the thing about Munro’s stories–one story holds just so many. Munro puts entire lifetimes in one story. [Sometimes, brainstorming for stories, I have to stop to think, “Wait. Those are three different things. You can’t cram them all in one.” But Munro. Man, that Munro. Hers is just so natural, so seamless. It doesn’t feel crammed or forced or cramped. It’s just right. How do I do that, dammit?] Munro does not balk at lengthiness. It’s where she most shines, I think.

Her language is just so rich, and so effortlessly so. The revelations come slowly, but easily. And her observations–the asides, too, for that matter–manage to be both quaint and poignant–as are her stories and this collection as a whole, me thinks.

He was pleasantly mystified by the thought of grown people coming and going here, steadily reading books. Week after week, one book after another, a whole life long. He himself read a book only once in a while, when somebody recommended it, and usually he enjoyed it, and then he read magazines, to keep up with things, and never thought about reading a book until another on came along, in this almost accidental way.

[By the way. A couple of years ago, I wrote a story called “Open Secrets.” It was published. I swear on my goldfish Bubbles’ grave that I did not know Munro’s book/story existed then. I swear. Besides, that title rocks.]

7 thoughts on “marginalia || Open Secrets, by Alice Munro

  1. I’ve not read this collection – only read the one Munro (Runaway) and loved it. You’ve hit the nail on the head by using the word “calm” to describe her stories, but I do love them.

    1. Runaway was the first Alice Munro collection that I read, and I actually like that one more than this one. :] That was more solid, I felt, and she seemed to take more risks there, with the language. I just love my Munro, haha.

  2. I agree. Calm is the word. I’ve been meaning to read this particular title for that lovely cover. Unfortunately, I bought a different one (my fave cover: Hateship Friendship..) while at the bookshop and when I came back, the copy of this one was gone. I’m waiting for them to re-stock.

    1. I do that too, wait for the cover I want. It’s difficult to explain without appearing dorky, haha. And, yes, I have two different editions of some books because I couldn’t just say no to that new pretty cover. Jane Eyre is one book that I think I have four copies of. Eek. My boyfriend lazily collects Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Is this a sickness? :]

      And I haven’t read Hateship because I’ve been waiting [for a LONG time] for the bookstores here to stock a cover I want.


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