“Dear Life” by Alice Munro (Knopf, 319 pages, $26.95)
Called by some — and I wouldn’t disagree — one of the greatest living writers of short stories, Alice Munro, who is 81, keeps producing fiction of the highest quality.
“Dear Life,” the Canadian writer’s 13th story collection, includes 14 stories, though the last four, she writes, introducing a section called “Finale,” “form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.”
Yet even these last four have a structure, a pace and an epiphany that make them good stories, even Munro stories, despite her comments in “Dear Life,” the final story, that “this is not a story, only life,” and “It wouldn’t do in fiction.”
As I and others have noted, Munro’s stories have the feel of novels. They often encompass a character’s lifespan. And while they develop through a series of scenes played out in both physical and psychological detail, she suddenly will often move the narrative forward or backward several years or even decades.
For example, in “Train,” one of the book’s better stories — though it’s difficult to rank one higher than another — after we follow Jackson and Belle through many years of living together in a nonsexual relationship, he abandons her, and we’ve moved years ahead. Then we suddenly go back several decades to when Jackson was in high school. We’re in a different, though related narrative that provides insight into the one we were reading. Then we return to the present, and the entire story now makes better sense.
Munro often uses trains in her stories, including three here. Trains involve movement, provide means of escape and often lead to encounters with strangers.
In “To Reach Japan,” a woman leaves her husband in Vancouver and gets on a train with her daughter to go to Toronto, where she hopes to find a man she met at a party. She sends a message to the newspaper where he works that reads, “Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle — and hoping it will reach Japan.”
In “Leaving Maverley,” another of the better stories, Ray, a night watchman, is asked to walk a girl home from the movie theater where he works on Saturday nights as a ticket taker. These two end up leaving the town of Maverley for different reasons. Leah, the girl, runs off with the minister’s son, a saxophone player. Years pass, and scandal follows Leah, who leaves the minister’s son for a minister, who eventually leaves her for another minister. Meanwhile, Ray marries and, years later, goes to visit his wife in a hospital, where she lies in a coma. When she dies, he carries with him “something like a lack of air, of proper behavior in his lungs, a difficulty that he supposed would go on forever.”
Many of the stories are set in the 1950s, while often spilling forward into the 1970s or beyond. And Munro punctuates the stories with comments from the narrators about how things were back then. Greta, in “To Reach Japan,” notes that “feminism was not even a word people used.” And in “Amundsen,” the narrator mentions butter and comments that “it was called butter but it was really orange-streaked margarine, colored in the kitchen as was the only legal way in those days.”
Her women characters often face a world in which their options for work are limited to housewife, office worker, teacher or nurse, but they tend to find ways of fighting these limitations.
Munro’s language is so accessible and engrossing that it disguises the complexity of her stories. She also captures characters with apt descriptions.
In describing Greta and her husband, Peter, she writes: “She avoided anything useful like the plague. It seemed he did the opposite.” And later: “His opinions were something like his complexion,” which was light-colored, never flushed.
In “Pride,” a story about two sad, lonely people who move into a sad, lonely old age, the unnamed narrator, a man with a harelip who has cut himself off from friendship, describes Oneida: “She was laughing almost soundlessly, a laugh that might even indicate that she was in pain.”
We as readers are sure that these two will end up together, but in the end his pride keeps them apart. Munro wrests the story from being depressing by ending with an arresting image of baby skunks playing in a birdbath in the backyard.
Oneida says, “Have you ever seen such a sight?” The narrator says, “Never. I thought she might say another thing, and spoil it, but no, neither of us did. We were as glad as we could be.”
This is what Munro does in all her stories. She takes us into characters’ lives so that they feel real. She takes them through various experiences that don’t usually go where we expect. And while she refuses to concoct happy endings, her characters often come to places of deeper understanding that also bring readers a greater sense of the complexity and dignity of people’s lives.