New Yorker fiction -- August 29, 2005 issue
I read this a few days ago and refuse to reread it for this review, not just because it was fairly boring, nor just because I'm too lazy to turn off the Terri Gross Run-DMC/Chuck D interview that's currently blasting from the kitchen and I would have to do that to concentrate enough to read but not to write this, and not just because it's in slightly annoying present tense -- but mostly because as usual for an Alice Munro story it is loooooooooooooooong.
New Yorker stories, I have found, typically run in length from about 7 columns to 20. A NYer column contains 400-500 words (1.5 manuscript pages). This story is roughly 33 columns long. A full column is 59-60 lines, at somewhere around 7.5 words per line. 33x60x7.5 = 14,850 words (and we know they pay a dollar a word ... a nice chunk of change for Ms. Munro). At 300 words per page, this hefty piece would weigh in at 49.5 manuscript pages. Oh, the groans in the Dey House hallways when someone did that! It would easily qualify as a novella in Ethan's novella seminar.
Why are her stories so much longer than most people's? Are her plots more involved, does she bite off larger chunks of time and jump around in them more, does she include more character details or scene description than most writers, are her stories really micronovels? Maybe. Certainly it's working for her. She must be one of the top five most respected living short story writers. I won't spend time here praising her style, use of language, etc. -- her mastery of the form is well known.
But what I read the other day hasn't stuck with me much. I was glad it took place in 1818. That was refreshing. Scottish family on a ship, immigrating to Canada. Each character is given motivations and idiosyncracies and taken through various levels of development in the story. Then we flash forward to today and she describes their resting place, which is some graveyard in Canada by a highway. It's like she saw this family gravesite and made up a story about them. Why is this important enough to end the novella with? Search me.
I dare say I don't need a novella about these people. And I wonder whether this novella would be here at all, to not be needed by me, had it been sent to the magazine under the name, say, Jane Smith. I doubt it. For Munro completists only.