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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.  


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