So, we’re slightly late – read: well over a year – to this one, but we couldn’t have a Munro-shaped hole in the great façade of Bookmunch Towers, now, could we? She’s the behemoth of short fiction, which makes her a figurehead for literary staunch-mindedness: while the broadsheets clutter themselves with bereavement notices for the poor, sickly story in its collection-shaped shroud, Alice Munro got on with picking up her Nobel Prize. If you’ve grown up on the near-overwhelming verbosity of DFW, the demented dislocated realities of George Saunders, the puns and luscious prose of Lorrie Moore, or the tangential near-obscurities of Joyce and those who’ve copied him, then you might find Munro a little startling. Her works are (typically, if not universally) long; they tend not to trace an epiphanic moment, but the unraveling or circuitous oddities or tragedies of entire lives; like Hemingway, she eschews rhetorical flourish, but unlike Hemingway’s, her narrators are contemplative and self-analytical. She flips about in time, and she sticks, mainly, to small-town and rural locations and early/mid twentieth century settings. She writes men and women and children with equal and careful insight. Like everything, her stories aren’t for everyone, and thanks to her status as a famous female (shock!) short story writer (horror!) she’s right in the firing line for all the naysayers: but never mind the b***ocks – try it for yourself.
Dear Life is (was) her fourteenth book, and it’s no throwaway volume, either, containing ten stories and four shorter pieces, which she describes as being ‘not quite stories’, but ‘the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life’. More on this later. In the meantime, how do the rest shape up, both for fans and for newbies?
The first ten stories – the bulk of the book – make for a mixed bag. The semi-rural Canadian settings will please (or tire) Munro fans, and will probably delight newbies; her evocation of the simultaneous simplicity and beauty and frustration of isolated communities, combined, usually, with the upheaval of post-WWII life, is vivid and detailed without becoming overbearing or, heaven forbid, educational. Her stories, as rooted in place and time as any individual instances may be, are still overwhelmingly character-based. She writes life stories, and her characters’ lives are as miserable and bewildered as any of those in great fiction (we’re proper depressives round this way). Here, we’ve got seductions and betrayals (‘Amundsen’, ‘Corrie’); relationships that falter or never even make it as far as the alter (‘Leaving Maverley’, ‘Pride’, ‘Train’); and imploding families (‘To Reach Japan’, ‘Haven’). So far, so good – except, though, that there’s a flatness to several of them that we don’t recognize from Munro’s earlier work. In ‘Corrie’, a man double-crosses his lover by faking blackmail so that he can treat his wife – an ingenious and despicable act, but one that left us cold. In ‘Amundson’, the doctor’s callousness was rather too predictable; in ‘Haven’, the wife’s quiet act of disobedience was too quiet, and the denouement at the funeral was too pat for our liking. Our least favourite, perhaps, was a bitter-sweet failure: ‘In Sight of the Lake’ struggled to maintain the balance between stringing out the narrative tension of the main plot (the narrator tries to find her doctor’s office) while portraying an unbalanced mind; while the story is predominantly and suitably sad and entertaining, the ending errs far too close to mawkish cliché for the piece as a whole to work.
All that said, of course, this is nitpicking about the size of the stitches on a very fine lace. Munro is a stylist and a storyteller and even the shakier of the stories comes off on at least some level. And when she’s good, she’s outstanding. ‘Dolly’, the story of a crisis in the late marriage of an aging couple, when an old flame of the husband’s pops up unexpectedly, is a proper winner: superb prose, a vitriolic and empathetic main character, a fantastically idiosyncratic supporting cast, and, finally, a sobering meditation on what one would, or wouldn’t do, for love. It’s up there with her finest. And the last four pieces, the semi-autobiographical non-stories that comprise what Munro has labeled the ‘Finale’, are triumphs. In details both of setting and characterisation, they’re reminiscent of much of her earlier work – and, if you’re bothered (which we’re generally not), of her own early life, her parents, their careers, and the small towns in which she once lived. The actual works tell of a funeral, a murderous insomnia, the peculiar proto-sexual thrill of meeting a local prostitute, a mad neighbor who might, or might not, have intended to snatch the narrator from her childhood cradle. The prose is wry and inquisitive, and not tempered, as much memoir is, by nostalgia; instead, the narrator, or narrators, are cutting and self-condemnatory and yet tolerant of their own failings: ‘We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.’
Any Cop?: If this isn’t Munro’s strongest connection, we’re not going to hold a grudge: the best of this collection is wonderful, and the worst is still pretty bloody good, indeed. We’re only sorry we didn’t get around to it sooner.