Dear Life is the fourteenth collection of short fiction by Alice Munro, almost universally acknowledged as the greatest short story writer at work in the world today. There are some who’d delete the words “short story” from that description, not least because the very meatiness and concision of Munro’s stories – which can run from a few pages up to 60-plus – means the reader emerges from each with the sense of deep immersion that usually attends finishing a particularly absorbing novel. And while the boilerplate summary of the short story form says that it should describe a change in state, the pursuit and acquisition of some object, Munro gives her stories more subtlety and clout; where one writer might draw a short piece to a close, Munro always gives us more.
In “Train” – her stories often have anodyne titles, empty containers waiting to be filled with the story’s meaning – a young man named Jackson hops off a freight train, in true opening-of-film fashion, and onto the farm of a lonely spinster, Belle. Over twenty years he will steadily gain her trust, until they resemble siblings more than lovers, and finally she reveals to him the chilling story of how her father committed suicide after bursting into her room when she was a teenager to stare at her naked body (an event whose horror, we understand, mixing as it does sex and death, is the reason she is a spinster). The story goes on, remorseless as life: Belle has told Jackson this story while she lies in hospital awaiting surgery for her cancer, and on hearing it, he walks out on her – “a person could just not be there”, Jackson realises; the air is of a jilting – and begins a new life as the superintendent of a small downtown hotel near Belle’s hospital. There are more twists to come, including a neatly recursive explanation for what Jackson was doing hitching on that freight train in the first place. It’s a novel’s worth of incident in 42 pages, by the end of which that title, right enough, stands for much more than the unadorned five-letter noun it seemed at the start.
The other trick to these stories – this has always been the case in Munro’s works – is the way they hide horror in full view
The other trick to these stories – this has always been the case in Munro’s works – is the way they hide horror in full view. All through Munro’s career children die, the injured are taken advantage of, husbands cheat, wives cheat, the unwell are exploited. Deaths – natural and unnatural – are commonplace, yet somehow you never think of the pages of these stories as littered with corpses. Even violent death is just another fact of life. Often the disaster happens because someone is momentarily distracted, or weakened, so the horror is that universal sort – the fear any of us might be inattentive at a vital moment. The most powerful story here, “Gravel”, plays on the sense of dread one brings to each fresh Munro story: how bad can this get? And of course, it gets very bad: a million-to-one alignment of circumstances – one moment of thoughtlessness, one premeditated experiment in misbehaviour (Munro is terribly good on childhood and the sense of power the girl narrator of this story feels when she withholds vital information is spot-on) – with consequences the characters will have to live for forever.
And they do: several of these stories are told in hindsight, sometimes to allow a narrator to look back at events she could not fully understand at the time. There’s also a delicious distancing effect: Munro frequently begins stories with formulations (“In those days”, “There was a magazine then”, “This all happened in the seventies”) which echo the storybook construction “Once upon a time” – a device which places the events that follow at a safe remove, while simultaneously generating a sense of the universal. The space carved out is a sepia-tinted legend-space, not the territory of “historical fiction”, which uses bonnets and bodkins as window-dressing to accentuate an Other it can then undercut by suggesting that these historical characters are, despite their funny costumes, “just like us”. As well as helping to make the events of her stories feel uncannily like things that could happen to us too – that are happening, as we read – these permit the horrors to mount up without feeling overdone. Fairytales routinely feature murders, poisonings, imprisonments, all manner of wickednesses, yet rarely feel horrific, and Munro’s stories, too, have this paradoxical power. (It has to be said that nothing in Dear Life takes the same open delight in storybook tropes as “Wood”, in her previous collection Too Much Love, a brilliant story and an almost literal fairytale which features a woodcutter, a haunted forest, and a woman awoken from enchanted sleep.)
The title Dear Life is pure Munro: economical, alert to ambiguity, with the reassuring familiarity of the cliché concealing a bite that becomes evident only as you pause to consider the preciousness and costliness implicit in the phrase
An intriguing insight into Munro’s working methods is gained by comparing a story which appears here, “In Sight of the Lake”, with an earlier iteration of the same story which appeared, some nine months before Dear Life’s publication, in the British literary magazine Granta (Issue 118). It’s instructive to read the two drafts in parallel: for the most part – despite the central character undergoing a name change from the terse Jean to the more resonant Nancy – the story unfolds more or less unchanged in both versions, right up to its final twist. We follow Jean/Nancy wandering an unfamiliar town in search of the doctor’s office where she has an appointment for tests of her mental acuity, the terrible irony being that she can’t remember the name or address of her doctor. Finally she becomes trapped in a surreal reception hall whose every doorway – including the one by which she’s entered – is locked. Here we have the change. In the Granta version, the final section, as Jean is rescued by a nurse named Sandy, we realise that she has all along been in a home of some sort, and has dreamed, hallucinated or fantasised all that’s come before. This version runs to an economical 200 words, in which we learn a little about Sandy which might be conjecture or facts Jean knows but her dementia makes her believe is conjecture. It ends with Jean’s lengthy, frantic attempt to explain herself, and a gut-punch of a final line from Sandy:
“… You see, I have an appointment to see a doctor whose name I can’t seem to get straight but I was supposed to find him here and I have followed some directions as well as I could but no luck. I felt that I’d got into some ridiculous sort of trap and I must have a tendency to be claustrophobic, it was alarming –”
“Oh, Jean, hurry up,” said Sandy. “I’m behind already and I have to get you into your nightie and all. That’s the same thing you tell me every time.”
By the time of Dear Life, more than 100 words have been cut from this final section; we don’t need to know anything more of Sandy than her name and that she’s a nurse, and that killer last line is oddly softened and muted by the revisions. “What did you dream about now?” she asks Nancy, and when placid Nancy’s able to recall the type of car she used to drive at the time she was dreaming of, the nurse replies: “See? You’re sharp as a tack,” says Sandy, and it’s ironic enough, capturing a sort of absent-minded bare minimum of care and kindness – but somehow not mean enough for Munro. In some ways, reading these two drafts in parallel is a kind of instructional masterclass, showing the kind of material a ruthless “compressor” will cut out of a story. On the other hand, to my mind the Granta version is unquestionably superior which, subjective though that assessment is, makes me wonder what prompted the revisions, the slackening of that final scene, and whether Munro’s famous gift for “compression” has sometimes made her stories suffer.
With this in mind, Dear Life strikes me as a more uneven collection than some of her previous books. Partly this is down, I’m sure, to the phenomenon of “anticipointment”: how could any book live up to two years’ worth of buildup as “the possibly final book by the writer widely acknowledged as the greatest teller of short stories in the world”? But “Pride”, the story of two misfits, limps by without ever gripping, and there’s a squib of an ending to “In Sight of the Lake”. I wasn’t totally convinced, either, by what seemed a pat conclusion to the opening story, “To Reach Japan”, whose central character seems to get her (tainted) reward altogether too easily (though the rest of the story is masterful). Looking back, it’s often been the case that Munro’s collections include one slightly too neat deus ex machina, one convenient cataclysm to bring a story to a close as though she’d lost interest.
But of course, hits outweigh misses here considerably. “Train”’s onward charge of incidents like carriages is a masterclass in ignoring received wisdom about how a story should operate; the conclusion to “Corrie” carries such a weight you instantly re-read the whole story to see how it’s changed by the climactic revelation (slipped, in typical Munro style, into an utterly unremarkable sentence, so the reader shares the narrator’s dawning realisation of what has, all along, really been going on); there’s the way accidental and deliberate neglect combine to devastating effect in “Gravel”. And all along, there’s so much to admire in Munro’s ease of touch, her control, her wisdom lightly worn. The title Dear Life is pure Munro: economical, alert to ambiguity, with the reassuring familiarity of the cliché concealing a bite that becomes evident only as you pause to consider the preciousness and costliness implicit in the phrase.
I find it odd that so much has been made, in reviews, of an author’s note which introduces Dear Life’s final four pieces. These are, Munro writes, “the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life” (again that hint of the Final Statement). Readers who’ve glutted on Munro’s works will likely feel they have assembled a sense of her autobiography through the consistent repetitions of certain tropes (a rural upbringing, a rather distant father, a more or less volatile relationship with her mother), and it’s unsurprising that this quartet of “not quite stories” act as corroborating evidence. Alice Munro is 81 now, and one might expect Dear Life, from its title, to be some concluding chapter to her career. In truth, she so long ago conquered the short story form, and honed her stories’ air of rueful wisdom hard-earned, that this section seems oddly superfluous – I would rather have had one last glorious story than these four comparatively dispensable pieces. C
Read more literary criticism by Neil Stewart at saintthefireshow