Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro

I usually review one New Yorker short story per week but I've had to speed up due to the fact I've fallen way behind. That damn New Yorker just keeps coming...every...damn...week....

Issue: Oct. 21, 2013 (first appeared in the Dec. 27, 1999 issue)

Story: The Bear Came Over the Mountain

Author: Alice Munro

Plot: Tells the story of Fiona and Grant, a Canadian couple now in their late 60s/early 70s, and their struggles to stay together through Fiona's contraction of Alzheimer's disease. The story shows how Fiona's loss of memory brings out some of the dysfunction in their relationship and some of Fiona's lingering, deeply repressed resentment at Grant's infidelities over the years (Grant was a professor during the free-love, anything goes days of the late 60s & 70s). Ultimately, through her hospitalization, Fiona forgets she and Grant were married and begins to devote herself to another patient in the care home, Aubrey (male). Grant attempts to forge a relationship with Aubrey's wife as a way to cope and start over again.

Review: I'm 50/50 on Alice Munro, but there's no denying she's one of the masters of the short story and one of the Revered Elders of contemporary literary fiction, right up there with the likes of Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and you name it. In typical style, the story involves Canada, male infidelity, a terminal female illness, and has a bizarro, semi-scrutable ending. 

From a writer's perspective, one of the most difficult things to master, but one of the most essential elements of quality literary fiction, is the technique of telling a story in the present day parallel with a longer, over-arching story that takes place in the past and yet still comes to bear heavily on the characters' present day lives, i.e. the "action" in the story. That, my friends, is what it's all about. If you can do that successfully and engagingly, you are the real deal. 

And, Munro is simply a master of this, weaving past and present together so carefully, so skillfully, that the two sometimes seem indistinguishable; something that happened 40 years ago causes the characters to fight in the present day, etc. This works because it's a very real part of life. We tend to think of life as a big long chain -- one link for every year, stretching off until the great nothingness of death -- but it's more like you took that same chain and just piled it up on the floor; everything is all happening at once and we change less than we realize, we remember more than we realize, and people remember things about us that we've forgotten. 

That's what a great story like this can provide for you. It collapses time and makes us look at our own lives with a sense of heightened significance, maybe makes us re-evaluate our relationships or question certain choices we're making and how they'll echo down through the years. 

As for the nuts and bolts of the story, I will leave that to you, the reader. The story traverses too much time and emotional landscape for me to cover any one or handful of details here. And, furthermore, that's not what I took away from this story. Read this and relish in the work someone who is not only a master craftsman of fiction but also a wise old soul.  




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apo…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…