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ALICE MUNRO, WRINGING THE EXTRAORDINARY OUT OF ORDINARY LIFE

THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN:
Stories
By Alice Munro
Knopf
340 pages, $24

The eight stories Alice Munro collects in this book are indeed peopled by girls and women aspiring to do good and be good, to love and be lovable. You'll encounter several good women in this collection, which in various ways is about family life, about being "trans-formed into a wife and an employee" and about becoming one's mother.

There is Enid in the title story, for example, dedicating her life to nursing the dying and privately thrilled with the "self-denial, the wholesale sacrifice." There is the narrator of "Cortes Island" who surprises herself when she adapts with gusto to the role of "little bride." And there is Karin, the 1-year-old protagonist of "Rich as Stink" who, over the course of a day that ends in near-disaster, tries, at first playfully and then frantically, to please by turns her mother, her mother's lover and the wife whom that lover has betrayed.

People who have already read Munro will know better, however, than to let themselves be guided by the suggestion of heartwarming family entertainment she embeds in her title. Munro is an English-Canadian institution. She's a familiar feature in the cultural landscape, one of Canada's household saints. But Munro has a peculiar, sly relationship to the (now fading?) Canadian reputation for clean living and reliable (but dull) propriety.

One of the best critical discussions of Munro is titled "Mothers and Other Clowns." The title captures Munro's cunning sense of how the ludicrous dogs our projects of sanctification and civility. A good woman like Enid may begin clearing out cupboards, planning to make her house "a place that had no secrets from her and where all order was as she had decreed." But the worlds Munro's prose conjures into being are places in which muddle looms. (Muted and unremarkable as it can seem, Munro's prose has a deadly precision. Her deadpan can leave the orderly and normal in smithereens.)

These are also worlds in which ordinary people vanish without warning and in which the relation between virtue and sin and rewards and punishments may abruptly go out of kilter.

And love for Munro is not the tenderly ceremonious, placid affair that you might associate with good women. Take the question that the narrator of "Before the Change" asks as she brings her long goodbye letter to her fiance to its close. She sends him her "love" and then asks: "What if people really did that -- sent their love through the mail to get rid of it? What would it be that they sent? A box of chocolates with centers like the yolks of turkeys' eggs. A mud doll with hollow eye sockets. A heap of roses slightly more fragrant than rotten. A package wrapped in bloody newspaper that nobody would want to open."

Munro has a sense of the contingency of all those cultural arrangements and ways of being in the world that can seem, in her words, "as solid as dough and as ordinary." Somehow Munro arranges matters so that the apocalyptic comes to dwell in the homely little Ontario towns that provide her with her customary settings.

Readers who already know Munro will know that the descriptive powers she trains on places such as Guelph or Peterborough are a gift to Western New Yorkers, too. They can help us retrieve a sense of what is wondrous in our own humdrum landscape. The account of an early spring day in 1951 in "Love of a Good Woman" did that for me. Describing the river flats outside town after the thaw, Munro writes about how "with the runoff from the fields and the pale sunlight on its surface, the water looked like butterscotch pudding on the boil." As it does every year, the flooding river has swept off "a good number of surprising or cumbersome . . . or homely objects." A cow's hipbone has been caught "on the branch of a sumac -- which seemed proper, because all those smooth branches were like cow horns or deer antlers."

This latest collection of fiction supplied many more of such gifts, ones I've come to expect from Munro. Here, for example, Munro once again proves that she is not only Canada's poet of the matter-of-fact but also its sociologist: someone who scrupulously annotates how communities establish the small ceremonies that script the lives of their members.

Other features here are familiar. As she has before, Munro insists in these stories on the otherness of our bodies. "Who Do You Think You Are?" was the original title of Munro's fourth short story collection. In part, it's being inside a body that makes that question so baffling. Munro knows there can be something humiliating (even ludicrous) about being made of flesh, and that women especially can see themselves as betrayed by their hormones, the pain and mess of childbirth or the encumbrance of "maternal poundage."

Munro has a way, too, of being relentlessly honest about the animal banality of lust. That honesty informs the title story here: the descriptions of the dreams of random copulations, of matter-of-fact depravity, that take possession of Enid every night over the course of her last nursing assignment. But even while she goes over familiar ground in this collection, Munro manages to shock me. It's not only that she is extending her range, taking on more harrowing material, as in "Before the Change," and experimenting with the intensities of first-person narrative. There is a new Gothic note.

Be sure to read "My Mother's Dream," the story of a young mother's inability to cope with the implacable demands, uttered in a "waterfall of shrieks," of her newborn baby. Up to the end Munro leaves us uncertain about whether the daughter who is recounting the story of her mother's failures at mothering survived or died, about whether this narrator is a ghost. "We were monsters to each other, Jill and I." The line made me gasp.

Here was "Frankenstein," on the back streets of southern Ontario. Only Munro, of all the contemporary writers I know, would have the nerve to show us how Mary Shelley's birth myth gets played out in everyday places, every day.