When We Fell In Love by Alix Ohlin
I was at a dinner party with my parents, and I was bored.
Too old to play with the little kids and too young to hang out with the adults, I wandered around our hosts’ apartment, poking impolitely into the rooms. In a small study off the hallway I found something reassuring, a large bookshelf. A book of stories called Who Do You Think You Are? leapt out at me, both because of the aggressiveness of the question and the fact that I didn’t know the answer. I sat down in an armchair, opened it to a random story, and began to read.
The story was about a girl not much older than I was, traveling to a big city by train. A man—a priest; fat; ugly—sits down next to her and falls asleep. Accidentally, he lets his hand brush against her thigh. She lets it happen. Even once she realizes he isn’t, in fact, asleep, she doesn’t put a stop to it.
I blushed furiously and kept reading, hunched over in the chair, hiding the cover as if it were something dirty—and it was dirty, profoundly and interestingly dirty in a way that, no exaggeration, changed my life. The scene unfolds with claustrophobic specificity. The girl is not afraid; she is no victim. She looks out the train window and succumbs, not to the man himself, who is unrelentingly gross, but to her own thirst for experience; she gives in “to curiosity, more constant and imperious than lust—a lust in itself.”
I had grown up on a steady diet of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, wholesome, endearing stories that featured sweet girl-writer characters, books I loved but that came from a different era. This was a weirder, darker kind of girlhood. This was now.
The story was “Wild Swans” by Alice Munro. Years later I read Emily Dickinson’s remark “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” and I remembered and recognized that moment at the dinner party reading Munro as an encounter of just that kind.
After “Wild Swans” I read everything of Munro’s, studying the precision and intensity of her language. I discovered that she specializes in the unexpected reversal, often packing a single sentence with apparent contradictions that resolve sharply, elegantly, into meaning. Her tone is emotionally exact but never melodramatic, instead gathering its momentum stealthily, scene by quiet scene. More than once I have gotten to the end of a story and found myself weeping, thinking how did she do that? How did she get me again?
She taught me that a short story can be a whole world, can somersault in time, can house infinite rooms. Some of her work, like “Friend of My Youth,” I have read a hundred times, and somehow the last, mysterious sentence of that story—about a minister who, “in a mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world”—still gives me the shivers.
I teach in a writing program where everybody loves her so much that we joke about it. Want to learn how to plumb the interior depth of a character? Read Munro. Want to learn intricate narrative structure, or delicate subtext? Read Munro. She’s the answer to every writer’s question, the model to which we all aspire.
But to be perfectly honest I don’t read Munro for technique, however dazzling and gymnastic hers may be. I read her for what she did to me when I was thirteen and knew nothing of the world or of myself, for the way a strange and perfect story got inside my head, and took the top of it off.