Short Stories by Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates

This Salon Intensive offers a one-meeting study that ambitiously considers two short stories in one big, energetic gulp. Participants have described this as a wonderfully dynamic approach– we work hard and have a joyous time.

Our short story study will take two of the genre’s ruling voices, with Joyce Carol Oates’ Mastiff and Alice Munro’s Labor Day Dinner. These two works consider themes around self-knowledge and relational identities, but our focus will be on a holistic consideration of each individuallyand in their comparison. Note how the techniques of language and style probe the murky interior spaces. The Joyce Carol Oates story Mastiff is available here: The Alice Munro story is in the collection The Moons of Jupiter.

Here is an extract from Lorrie Moore’s wonderful introduction to the Munro collection:

In so many tales told of romantic love, beauty casts spells that are often greeted or countered by other spells. Jupiter’s mythic moons have lives of deformity and transplant, and the moons themselves are known for their erratic orbits. How like the characters of Alice Munro. Though her protagonists are not explicitly turned into animals or cupbearers or loved by any actual omnipotent, tempestuous god, the wanderings, transformations, mischief, and anguish of possessive love—the kind of love everyone really values, “the one nobody wants to have missed out on,” according to the narrator of “Hard-Luck Stories”—are her most abiding subjects. Like the ancient Greeks, Alice Munro has always known this is where the stories are. Fate, power (gender and class), human nature (mortal strength and divine frailty) all show up there to be negotiated and expressed.

“Life would be grand if it weren’t for the people,” says a Munro character in “Labor Day Dinner,” who also offers up the line perhaps most often quoted from this collection, that “love is not kind or honest and does not contribute to happiness in any reliable way.” It is an acerbic balance to the alkaline lilt of Corinthians 1:13, also quoted in this story, which informs us that “Love suffereth long, and is kind.” That both ideas can be held simultaneously within the same narrative is part of the reason Munro’s work endures—its wholeness of vision, its complexity of feeling, its tolerance of mind. For the storyteller, the failure of love is irresistible in its drama, as is its brief happy madness, its comforts and vain griefs. And no one has brought greater depth of concentration and notice to the subject than Munro. No one has saturated her work with such startling physical observation and psychological insight. “He knew he had an advantage,” she writes in “Connection,” the book’s inaugural story, “and we had reached the point in our marriage where no advantage was given up easily.” And in the final story: “You touch a man that way to remind him that you are grateful.… It made me feel older than grandchildren would to see my daughter touch a man—a boy— this way. I felt her sad jitters, could predict her supple attentions.”

The style in which people circle one another, their mix of lunacy and hard intelligence, the manner in which our various pasts revolve simultaneously around the present, the way that children are always in a parent’s gravitational pull, even when out of sight, the fact that filial love has an infinitude of stories: all these are signalled by the book’s title and in the title story. “I found my father in the heart wing,” it begins, and the very many things it can mean to be a daughter are echoed through three generations gathered in that wing. Munro brings both a warm and cool eye to the project of loss: “I saw how the forms of love might be maintained with a condemned person but with the love in fact measured and disciplined, because you have to survive.”

If you would like to request this study or have any questions about it, please contact us.



Posted on

January 18, 2018