Story as House

“Everyone knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way. This is the nearest I can come to explaining what a story does for me, and what I want my stories to do for other people.” -- Alice Munro, “What is Real.”

In her introduction to Selected Short Stories, Munro extends this analogy --

”You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”

A house is “durable and freestanding.” It can also be be “luxurious and disorderly,” like the house in Munro's story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” It's a place where you finally get to sit down and think for a moment. A house brims over with signs of the person who made it, the person who decorated it, and it typically comes supplied with a kitchen sink, the symbol of one kind of realism.

But a house is also private, domestic, isolating: as Lydia Millet has written, in the context of an essay about Munro --

“If our deliberations about our personal lives, consisting of a near-infinite scrutiny of the tiny passages through which we move in relation to friends and lovers, constitute the best calling of art, must such self-scrutiny not also be our own highest calling and rightful task?”

“And if this self-scrutiny is the chief work of our lives, does the rest of existence not drop neatly away?”

Reading Munro sometimes makes me feel claustrophobic -- her stories tend to be excellent houses, but the stories I love the most seem to me not so much houses as entire worlds...

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