"Too many things," a creative writing instructor tells the narrator of "Differently." "Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think." What does Alice Munro want us to pay attention to in her Selected Stories
? Everything, really, and so her narratives loop back on themselves, jump decades backward and forward in time, introduce characters who later drop out of the action, and generally break every rule in the short-story-writing book. In "Carried Away," for instance, a dead character makes a sudden, inexplicable appearance in what is otherwise the thoroughly naturalistic account of a librarian's disappointment with love. "The Albanian Virgin" is two stories in one: the first--the fanciful tale of Ghegs kidnapping a young Canadian woman--is told within the second, about a bookstore owner who has lost her own bearings after a divorce. There are stories that begin with their endings, and several more that end with beginnings; others are told from three or four different angles, each with varying degrees of reliability. Taken together, they form an intricate web of relationships and connections, falsehood and anecdote, a kind of fictional palimpsest laid over the faint traces of plot.
And yet Munro trusts her readers; she believes that we will pay attention to all these things and more. She aims to create the illusion that everything in her fiction has been left in, and it is this very capaciousness that sets her work apart, making possible the keen psychological insight of her stories about marriage as well as the cool violence of "Vandals" or "Fits." Hers is an unusual sort of realism, technically innovative and amenable--especially in the later work--to loose ends. (It also possesses a quick, flinty wit: "This was the first time I understood how God could become a real opponent, not just some kind of nuisance or large decoration," says the narrator of "The Progress of Love.") To call Munro the Canadian Chekhov is by now a commonplace--and yet she may have done more for the short fiction form than any writer since. These are stories that will be read, savored, and admired hundreds of years from now. --Mary Park