I’m writing you a letter about some stories by Alice Munro. Neither of us saw this one coming, huh? (Well, you did, because I texted you about it right before I began writing this. And then I kept bringing it up whenever I got stuck. Which meant this took a few months to wrap up. But you know what I mean.)
How do I start this letter? I think perhaps I’ll begin by acknowledging that this will be the least Munro-like commentary on Munro; and not in the sense that I won’t be writing in the style of Alice Munro (that would be amusing I suppose so perhaps I’ll give it a go), but in the sense that I’ve noticed how most reviews and discussions of her work take certain aspects of Munro (and certain values) for granted. They assume things that I find to be surprises and novelties, and sometimes they assume things that I don’t find to be present at all. So my approach may be from a different angle than most responses to Munro. After all, I am looking for, and satisfied by, different things than most New Yorker readers…
Additionally, I will be writing about Munro from the experience of having read Dear Life and almost nothing else by her. So this is actually more a conversation about Dear Life than Munro as a whole. I figured I should clarify that right off the bat.
I think I’ll need to break this letter up into three sections. There are too many things that I want to talk about, and in some ways they are only tangentially related (in the sense that all three are about Alice Munro). But they reflect on each other and function as supporting characters in each other’s Lifetime movies — so to speak. Anyway:
1 – BLURBS
Here are the first two sentences from the back blurb of Alice Munro’s newest collection, which I am reading as I write you this letter. Please read it carefully:
In story after story in this brilliant new collection, Alice Munro pinpoints the moment a person is forever altered by chance encounter, an action not taken, or a simple twist of fate. Her characters are flawed and fully human: their stories draw us in with their quiet depth…
Now here’s the blurb from a different short story collection:
In each of these tales Alice Munro deftly illuminates the single instant that shapes a whole life: in a few brief pages we watch as characters progress from the vulnerabilities of adolescence through the passions of youth into the precarious complexities of middle age.
Except the second blurb isn’t actually about Alice Munro; I substituted her name. It’s the blurb taken from a collection by Margaret Atwood, and is about as descriptive of Atwood’s twisty furious stories as “it’s alive!” is descriptive of actual Jell-o. Atwood and Munro are very different short story writers.
I have a suspicion that the same machine generated both these blurbs. (In fact, I am almost certain it was the same marketing/publicity/editorial/sales machine, since both the collections that I own were published by Vintage.)
But, while almost laughably incomplete and uninformative, these blurbs do their job neatly: they project a clean, ‘classic’ idea of how short stories should behave. And, in the way that they withhold and smooth over actual information, these blurbs essentially argue that their author is, and should be regarded as, an exemplar of contemporary short fiction.
This is simultaneously a marketing strategy (whether consciously so or not), a cultural/political power move (whether consciously or not), and a deceit.
A notion is reinforced that naturally Munro is a perfect example of a certain, conservative standard of short fiction (“you’ll certainly enjoy this, no matter your tastes – nothing to shock you, dear!”). A notion is proposed that Atwood is also a perfect example – should be awarded the same halo of benefits and regard and sales that come with that assertion – an assertion that is also fundamentally a power game that aims to place its author in a status beyond criticism – as wryly noted by some critics. (That Atwood got shafted with this attitude despite her spiky and blatantly pessimistic/feminist short fiction makes me imagine a scenario where the blurb-writing machine went “aha, another famous female Canadian author who is writing stories that take place in Canada, because, hey, Canada! And female! And short stories! They must have, like, everything in common! And speaking of which, may I recommend woman Kate Beaton’s comics, in which she short story deftly illuminates the single Canadian moment a woman person is forever altered by Canadian occurrence of middle age whole life!”)
Munro is NOT writing, nor trying to write, endless iterations of “the perfectly formed story” – just as neither is Atwood.
Blurbs are not indicative of content. But they are indicative of attitudes floating in the water at that point in time. And blurbs can be indicative, too, of the general tone of the conversation around an author’s stories: in magazines and articles and book clubs and all the rest – again, this aspect comes prepackaged along with the blurb, and it might reflect accurately on the book’s contents. Or it might not.
Which leads to a very strange situation where people discuss, defend, and deconstruct an imaginary conversation around a writer, instead of what the writer has actually put down on the damn page.
The most depressing example that I saw was Patricia Duncker’s review of Munro’s Dear Life, which I came across while writing/researching this letter (there were other reviews that were close cousins, but Duncker discusses Dear Life and only Dear Life, which makes her review most relevant to this letter). There are a few perfect ironies in Duncker’s review, one of which is that she blasts Munro for not producing the sort of stories that are precisely what Margaret Atwood wrote in Wilderness Tips. The traits that she finds lacking in Munro (“an agenda”; “challenges to conventional values and received opinions”; “smothered or blazing rage”) are abundantly present in Atwood’s collection.
Not that you’d know that from comparing the blurbs, of course.
But another amusing curiosity in Duncker’s review is her blindness to what Munro actually wrote (despite having read the book), though she is precise as a sniper towards the idea of what Munro must surely write. Duncker set out to skewer a strawman representing risk-free bourgeois writing, and skewer it she did. I guess that if you open a book grimly expecting it to fold out a certain way, there isn’t much that will stop you from finding what you’re looking for. As a consequence (and to paraphrase Wallace Shawn paraphrasing Beckett), much of Duncker’s review reads like someone biting into a carrot and exclaiming “My god! This turnip is terrible!”
Most ironically, she accuses Munro’s stories of lacking any irony or ambiguity.
In the spirit of “Fire the Bastards!”, I am giving Patricia Duncker a fat red F- in reading comprehension.
I am grateful for Duncker. She perfectly encapsulates an attitude that I have definitely encountered occasionally wholesale yet more often in shards and pieces, scattered throughout nearly every discussion of Munro’s stories. But shards and pieces are hard to collect into as direct an affront as Duncker’s classy review.
I think it is like how some people think of Romeo and Juliet as a passionate love story, and it makes you wonder whether they’ve ever actually seen or read the play, or even the summary, or SparkNotes at least.
I think it is how people assume that Kafka’s The Castle is about a castle, even to the point of certain editions of The Castle featuring an actual castle on the cover, with turrets and a drawbridge and all, perched on a distant cliff. It makes you wonder if anyone involved in the cover design actually read the book.
And I’ve had intelligent conversations with people who had never read the Alice books but still had a certain, strong idea about what to expect, based on the movies and on a popular culture notion of Alice – which of course is absurdly alien to what the Alice books are actually like. (In fact, this sort of conversation happened to us very recently during that picnic lunch! You were there! You witnessed it happening! And I’d already written down this part of the letter before it happened too, which just goes to show you…)
I don’t think the cloud of notions around an author or a book is always so misleading; but nonetheless you can get people like Patricia Duncker attacking the notion rather than the book itself – despite supposedly having read the damn book.
Usually Munro gets praise instead of condemnation. The praise, again, seems to miss its mark half the time, since it too is targeting a certain notion of Munro and not Munro’s actual stories.
“Our Chekhov.” (John Cheever was also called “our Chekhov” while he was alive. I’m assuming it was originally supposed to mean something like “a writer who captures their generation’s moods in their idiosyncratic prose” which applies very oddly to Munro, who is writing, half the time, about the generation prior to her own. Maybe she is small-town Canada’s Chekhov, but she sure ain’t our Chekhov, and it feels somewhat condescending to shove her into that cozy/thoughtless/safe position just because John Cheever has vacated it. She is not nearly as “safe” a writer as this compliment might allude.)
“Illuminates the lives of ordinary people.” (Ordinary, as in, boring? Or ordinary, as in, not eccentric or Faulkner-like? Well… see Coda.)
“Simple sentences, perfectly polished.” (I’d replace that with “Simple sentences, occasionally with strange structure, deployed peculiarly, often loaded with multiple layers of subtext.” That gives a more accurate impression of Munro’s snow-like prose.)
The three quoted phrases above are especially common, which is why I’ve quoted them. They are common to the point that a New Yorker review/tribute went so far as to do the neat trick of taking the phrase “Our Chekhov” as its starting point and briefly examining it as a way to approach Munro – again, like I said a few paragraph earlier, the discussion around Munro ends up deconstructed more often, it seems, than the stories themselves. Almost as if it needs to be dismantled before her stories can be fairly discussed.
Well, that got awfully self-referential really fast.
2 – “AMUNDSEN”
The first story in the collection, “To Reach Japan”, roughly slotted into this pre-conceived notion I had inherited of what a Munro story could be (based at least in part on that stupid blurb), though it was already more interesting and nuanced than I had anticipated.
The second story, “Amundsen”, was the one where I began to suspect I’d been unfairly deceived.
“Amundsen” is told from the voice of a young schoolteacher, Vivien, come to teach at a children’s tuberculosis sanitarium during WWII. She’s there so that the children don’t fall too far behind in their studies (in case they survive the tuberculosis – the irony of trying to provide education to a child who might not live past the semester is not lost on Vivien).
This exchange happens six pages in, between Vivien and her employer, a Dr. Fox:
He wanted to know how I would like living up here in the woods, after Toronto, whether I would be bored.
Not in the least, I said, and added that it was beautiful.
“It’s like—it’s like being inside a Russian novel.”
He looked at me attentively for the first time.
“Is it really? Which Russian novel?”
…It was not that I hadn’t read Russian novels. …But because of that eyebrow, and his amused but confrontational expression, I could not remember any title except War and Peace. I did not want to say that because it was what anybody would remember.
“War and Peace.”
“Well, it’s only the Peace that we’ve got here, I’d say. But if it was the War you were hankering after I suppose you would have joined one of those women’s outfits and got yourself overseas.”
I was angry and humiliated because I had not really been showing off. Or not only showing off. I had wanted to say what a wonderful effect this scenery had on me.
He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.
I find this exchange to be lovely, because it serves two important and largely unrelated purposes. The first one, which is central to the surface and fabric of the story as a whole, is setting up the relationship between Vivien and Dr. Fox, which remains largely similar to this dynamic for the whole story – she gives credence to his opinions and his feelings, is interested in his approval, and tries to engage with him based on assumptions of mutual pleasantness and trust. He does not return the favor.
In the one instance when she tries to lay a Foxian verbal trap for him, it springs shut successfully but nonetheless feels clumsy and has no effect — not because her trap was poorly laid, but because he simply has no interest in whatever she might think of him, even as he purportedly courts her — so he does not even notice the trap, is not even aware that he is supposed to have lost face, because he can’t conceive of the idea that one could lose face to a woman.
The second reason this exchange is important because War and Peace is not the right novel. And this refers to the subtlest layer of all.
Here is a quote, after he has begun to woo her. The other women in the sanatorium, who have been cold and uninterested in Vivien, suddenly warm up to her:
“Enjoy your supper [with Dr. Fox] the other night?” Their tone was friendly, they seemed to approve. It looked as if my particular oddity had joined up with the doctor’s familiar and respected oddity, and that was all to the good. My stock had risen. Now, whatever else I was, I at least might turn out to be woman with a man.
Now, the story’s climax takes place on a train station. Dr. Fox and Vivien are driving to be married, and Dr. Fox, after courting her and having sex with her (Viven being, until then, a virgin) and everyone knows all about it in a small town like this, Dr. Fox abruptly decides to break the whole thing off. Cold feet. On the way to get married, in their proper clothing and all. Oh well.
The subtext regarding the effects of this break-off is unfortunately blaringly clear. If Vivien has sex as a woman engaged, it is one thing. By being paired with a man, her social value has increased in this town, and oh, well, premarital sex is expected if not precisely talked about. No harm done – she’s not a loose woman, she has a man, she is spoken for.
As a woman no longer engaged… Well. He drops her off at the train station instead of the church because, for a woman in this particular culture in the 1940s, engagement and marriage may give you prestige and cultural acceptance, and they may provides the benefits of being a “real” member of society, but sex out of wedlock (as this will turn out to have been), for a woman, is social excommunication – especially in a town this small, where everyone knows, and everyone responds accordingly, everyone maintains the status quo. That is why they must act so fast – either marry, or vanish without a trace.
Vivien wonders out loud, before being put on the train, how many girls Dr. Fox has put on the train before her. Dr. Fox is not amused by her comment. Of course not. He never reacts pleasantly to attempts to point out his own hypocrisies to his face.
There are, of course, no real consequences for him. He’s not the one who needs to vanish, for fear that a life-ruining scandal will attach itself to him and follow him permanently. The standards are different for men – and he takes full, knowing advantage of that imbalance to get what he wants without regard of the consequences to the women.
Keep in mind that none of this stated in such a clunky way – subtext, subtext! It is a brief, subtle scene. There are only a few lines. It’s all contained within a few lines.
As Vivien waits at the train station, being forced to depart so immediately that her things will have to be sent after her (so as to avoid the instant patina of disgrace), “fantasies are running” through her mind.
Even now it might not be too late for me to jump from the train. Jump free and run through the station to the street where he would just have parked the car and is running up the steps thinking not too late, pray not too late. Myself running to meet him, not too late.
This set of sentences does not go where we think they are going to go. “Even now it might not be too late for me to jump…” That is because the correct Russian novel is not War and Peace. It is Anna Karenina, and Munro trusts that we will make that connection.
Making this connection, though, is not the really important part. Because the important part is to notice that something is off. We need to think to ourselves: why was that there? Is this curious reference to Anna Karenina just a sort of pretty ornamentation? “Amundsen” is not Anna Karenina; it follows a different path and, in Munro’s own words, it is about different types of people, it is about a girl who “has her first experience with a helplessly selfish man—that’s the type that interests her. A prize worth getting, always, though she ends up somewhat more realistic…”
So why the buried reference? I know literary fiction sometimes undertakes this sort of intellectual ornamentation of extraneous symbols and themes and references, and often for seemingly little purpose than the sake of the ornamentation itself. This is often the point of how ornamentation works, so there’s nothing particularly wrong with using it that way. But is this really what Munro is doing? The story is so spare; the paragraphs are often so short. The subtext packed in so carefully, on several layers. And this is not how Munro always writes. Every word in this particular story feels even more carefully placed than usual. The notion of ornamentation feels somehow inconsistent.
The point, really, is that Anna Karenina is the shadow-ghost to Vivien, both stronger and more decisive about her fate, and yet just as powerless, really. Hemmed in at all sides by the end of her story. Placed, maybe half by chance, but also somehow inexorably, at the fateful train station. The parallels (though, more especially, the deliberate contrasts) between Anna and Vivien could inspire many overly studious college papers, but the real point here is the way that the lives of both women end up defined and determined by their ratio to men – less by their personal choices, and more by the structure of the societies they live in.
The parallels, once noticed in this way, should not feel so parallel. The stories are set in two very different times, and the characters come from very different backgrounds. Chaining them together is the sort of neat move that a debate club would applaud: to compare a thing to a totally different thing – surely they have nothing in common? – but they do, they do, and you find yourself admitting to a truth that otherwise you’d be easier off skating over. Certain ideas about life, and about gender, and about personal value, which ought to have somehow evolved, have not. 19th century Russia and 1940s Canada are too similar for comfort in this regard. This is the conversation, a political sort of conversation, which is half-buried in the story, a story which can otherwise be said to be largely about individuals and their individual lives.
I did a Google search for “Alice Munro Amundsen” and I found a good deal of discussion and a good deal of writing available on the topic of this one story. Yes, mostly people talk about the characters, in the rather topical way that people do talk about characters when discussing contemporary New Yorker-ish fiction. But one person who really talked about the story was talking about gender. He indicated it as a quiet yet pervasive and omnipresent layer to the story (instead of, I think, its most blaring one). But I am nonetheless glad for his careful and studied analysis, because he does show how gender is very consciously a subject of the story. He points out the myriad subtle, technical little “gender gestures” that Munro seeds into her words, so that the conversation about the treatment and placements of men and women is shown to be present, fractal-like, in practically every paragraph.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Munro herself is on record as saying that this story gave her some of the most trouble, out of all the stories in Dear Life. It is certainly one of the most delicately/powerfully constructed. And in the same sentence, she names it as a potential candidate for her favorite story out of the collection. It is a very good story, and for me, this is largely because not only are there so many layers, but there are somewhat different conversations to be had about each layer; and each layer is as well-crafted and thought-provoking and precise as the others; but it also communicates with the others, in a way that creates a larger and more interesting whole. (Am I getting self-referential again?)
I was going to write something else here to connect to the next bit, but there’s some really ridiculous drunk person falling down outside my window right now, and it’s really distracting and their voice is so high-pitched and squeaky and making it hard to concentrate, so I’m just going to skip to the next section without preamble.
3 – HOARY CHESTNUTS
ONION, isn’t it a nice sensation to talk about an author I enjoyed reading and know, also, that she is enjoyed (and for her actual qualities) by many intelligent people? That there are reams and reams of discussions about her, some surely happening even as I type this sentence? After all, if enough intelligent people read an intelligent author, there’s an increasing chance that the author will be written about and appreciated for the qualities that are actually present. (In theory, at least.) It feels like a rare experience to me, especially when so many of the authors we read and enjoy are poo-poo’d by people who publish well-read and well-publicized essays and reviews.
Though, I have the strange and rare experience of my own reading and understanding of an author suddenly clamoring with hundreds of others, all searchable and available on the internet… Most of the books I want to write about don’t even have a single decent discussion online, much less an in-depth analysis. My favorite Kelly Link story has one analysis available online, and it gets it so infuriatingly and distressingly wrong (and concludes, stupidly, that the story must thus be one of her weak ones) that me taking my own reading and analysis and putting it down in writing (and uploading it to our blog) would be an active battle-challenge to the available conversation… rather than a drop in the bucket.
But hey, every drop has its value I suppose… And I was setting out to clarify my own actual impression of Munro’s stories, in challenge to the perceived notion of what her stories are like… I find the key to this to be in her use of technique.
I was talking about Anna Karenina as a sort of twinned ghost to Vivien, who appears very briefly as a tangential thought after reading the story…
Well, if I’m going to lay out my own impression of Munro and what she writes and how she does it, based on her actual stories in Dear Life, that’s an excellent point to start with. Munro frequently trades in several techniques, and almost always in relatively eccentric ways, and one of her favorites is a technique I think of as Lit-Fic-style Inexact Doubling (LID from now on). John Baxter talks about it at great and well-researched length in his essay “Rhyming Action”, though since he limits himself to only canonical literature, his essay feels a bit shallow and pompous if you are also a reader of other things (see upcoming Appendix for my informal tangent on this!), or, hell, if you’re even a regular patron of the theater. (Sherry Kramer would probably refer to his essay on “rhyming action” as a crippled explanation of her far more plastic concept of doubling.) But LID is an old, uber-classic technique. Charlotte Bronte made good use of it, and I’m sure there are earlier authors who did it well too, but Bronte pops to mind for me, because she did it prominently in several of her novels. Baxter refers to “rhyming action” largely in terms of structure and metaphor, but Munro uses it more like Bronte did, where the doublings are designed to emphasize the differences between the two rhymes – to create a gap between the expectation and the reality, a gap where the real meaning and real thought can operate.
Negative space. A useful phrase here. Kelly Link is so good at it. Munro, too.
There is that type of LID in “Amundsen”, by the way, and not just as that mournful Tolstoy-inspired echo, but between Vivien and Mary, a prominent schoolgirl character whom I haven’t even mentioned till now because I was too busy blabbing about one layer of the story, and the doubling between Vivien and Mary is all on another layer. Vivien and Mary are very different from each other, and respond to similar rebuffs in very different ways, but both are seeking the attention of Dr. Fox – and if you pay careful attention the first time you read the story, Dr. Fox’s behavior towards Mary is an uncannily accurate predictor, on several levels, for how the story must inevitably end.
There is LID, I think, in many of the stories in Dear Life, and sometimes it is subtler and sometimes it is more blatant. Often enough, there is a sense of the perceived rules of LID being played with.
Some of the stories in Dear Life seem to be direct naturalism, far more so even than “Amundsen”, with no hint of ornamentation or half-submerged conversations. Even these tend to have moments when your expectation of the rules of “how this story can work” get pulled out from under your feet. “Gravel”, which I think is one of the better examples of this, has a moment when the sweetly unselfconscious narration of the younger sister is suddenly skipping like a damaged record, and you realize that something very important has just happened and the narrator is in such a dark emotional place that she has quietly skipped ahead by perhaps half an hour; has been concealing and avoiding this dark heart of the story the entire time and you didn’t even notice; she has been self-consciously crafting this pleasant faux-naturalist narrative from the start — this unselfconscious narration was not unselfconscious, but protective.
The way the naturalistic narration breaks down completely and unexpectedly… it is a moment that is simultaneously stylistically a brilliant move for engaging with the heart of the story, and naturalistically the only real way to talk about an event so violently strong and unforeseen that it leaves its thick scars over the memory of everyone involved for the remainders of their lives. Negative space. It succeeds on more levels than just one.
There are a lot of subtle moments like these to admire in the stories. There is a story that has a twist ending (yes, a good o’l twist ending, can you believe it?), but never quite how you expect it, or quite where you expect it. It tells you everything you need to know in how it begins (Munro is fond of using the sheen of naturalism to conceal a coldly symmetrical construction – the ending really is in the beginning half the time – or, at least, that’s the case with the stories in this collection; felt like I had to remind myself of my limited exposure). The story I’m thinking of begins from the narration of one character, who describes two people in his imagination, one of whom is a real woman and one of whom is the type of man he condescendingly imagines would be drawn to her.
And then the story quietly shifts to the far more interesting perspective of the woman in the story, and we assume the important part of his thoughts was his description of the woman, and it’s such simple misdirection. This story, this one with the twist ending, is perhaps one of my favorites, because it simultaneously contains: a twist ending that you should have seen coming; a quiet subversion of naturalistic narratives; LID; even an epiphany if you want to call it that – and a half-submerged conversation that is, once again, about gender and patriarchal hypocrisy, but never quite in the way you might think it would be. It could be mistaken for having all the old techniques that people think of when they think of short stories as a calcified art. A rattling bag of hoary chestnuts. But it is tricky to pick it apart into discrete elements; they are too synchronous in their function. The story gives the impression of having been conceived Athena-like, in a single instant – even though I am certain it probably took a lot of work, because the “emerged full-born and perfect” effect always does take a lot of work (and sure enough, when I Googled this story, I learned that Munro had revised the ending twice, so that three versions of this story exist; the final one, which I read, satisfies me the most, and I’m not entirely sure I agree with most online readers’ interpretations, since they seem to totally ignore the beginning, which I will argue not only signals that coldly symmetrical structure, but also contains the “oh dear…” context for fully understanding the inner life of what’s happening in the end).
Not all the stories in Dear Life satisfied me as much as the stories I chose to talk about, but that’s alright. At her least interesting, the stories were well-written and left something shaped like a question mark lingering in my mouth (which is a compliment, coming from me, referring to their subtleties). At their best, they continually expanded the longer I looked at them.
By the way, I am not naming the story that I termed “a rattling bag of hoary chestnuts” because I’d rather you find it for yourself. I also somehow wonder whether most people will be as taken with it as I am. But that’s alright. We all read looking for different things.
What sort of writer is Munro – based on the experience of reading only one of her story collections? What have I concluded from reading Dear Life? Munro is easy to read, but never cozy – not if you’re paying attention. She is actually frequently political and sarcastic (so fuck your lazy opinions, Patricia Duncker!), but never on the easy-to-access layer – because she is also patient, with both her readers and her characters, and she is completely uninterested in pre-packaging any of the judgment for you. She makes damning remarks so quietly and pleasantly that you don’t quite realize how completely you’ve been insulted.
But: that only holds up a mere portion of the time. Because she is also a writer of careful naturalism. But: also sometimes a writer of artificial formalism disguised as careful naturalism. And, in one story that comes to mind, a writer of careful naturalism disguised as artificial formalism. (It wasn’t my favorite story, but still — it happened!) She also changes the drape and fold of her sentences depending on the story – the first two stories, for example, both employed a distinctive and eccentric structure to their sentences that I didn’t notice anywhere else in the book. (So much for “simple sentences, perfectly polished” nonsense.) She can be despairingly earnest, and she can play the fool and be self-deprecating if it serves the purpose of the story (or the interview, come to think of it), and she can be coyly satirical in her pleasant observations, and leave you unsure of what mode she’s in until you reach the end of the story.
What sort of writer is Munro?
Alice Munro wrote a sixty-five-page narrative-shifting story called “Powers” which is about, among other things, a woman with freakin’ psychic powers, and ends in what may or may not be a surreal dream.
To anyone trying to align the “idea” of Munro with what Munro actually writes — make of this what you will.
Much love and affection,
 It appears in Jane Eyre, in which Jane is doubled with Bertha, as famously observed in The Madwoman in the Attic; and Bronte did it in Vilette for Lucy and the ghostly nun, and she also did it for both certain major and minor characters in Shirley. She may have done it in other things too; I do not know because I have not read them.
 Like, really. It’s kind of brilliant, because I remember reading the story and thinking “oh my god how will this end, HOW WILL THIS END” but if I’d been paying attention, the inherent inevitability should have been striking me upside the head. Munro loves this sort of structure in her stories – inherent inevitablity – the ending precisely placed in the beginning – if you are just looking for it from the right angle.