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Blown Away by Alice Munro

Dear Life

by Alice Munro
Knopf, 319 pp., $26.95
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Derek Shapton
Alice Munro in her backyard, Clinton, Ontario, circa 2004

Alice Munro is not only revered, she is cherished, her stories handled lovingly, turned over and over, gazed at and studied and breathed in with something approaching awe. She has never, over the years, written the way any of her contemporaries have. Her stories are open, overflowing with life, unlike the curt and obscure minimalist stories so fashionable in the Seventies and Eighties. But no one could accuse her of being traditional, either. With all their fullness of narrative and character, her stories are elegant and sharp, pared down—sometimes shockingly so. Her new collection, Dear Life, is as rich and astonishing as anything she has done before.

Munro’s stories, in this book as in her earlier work, tend to be geographically concentrated, often based in a small town in Huron County, Ontario, or, sometimes, in Vancouver, British Columbia. They can, on the other hand, cover a vast expanse of temporal ground, passing through years, decades, eras, in a paragraph, even in a sentence. There are dramatic events: sudden deaths, disappearances, reappearances, beatings, misunderstandings, and improbable coincidences—but the stories do not often revolve around them.

This is one of the many, many delights of an Alice Munro story—the way she makes the ordinary jump out, like a lithe, muscular, startled cat, and the way she lets the extraordinary quietly take its place in line, hands folded, head down. A death will not so much happen as suddenly, matter-of-factly, have happened, somewhere in that white space between the paragraph you are reading and the one you just finished. She is the most elusive stylist going—I know of one celebrated writer who drew shapes for each section of a Munro story hoping that way to discover something of their secret—and the most satisfying. Munro is eighty-one years old and claims that this will be her last book. Dear Life is so full of momentum that this does not seem possible.

In “To Reach Japan,” a young wife and mother named Greta tells us of her husband’s escape from Soviet Czechoslovakia as a child: he was carried over some mountains, whose name Greta can never remember, by his mother.

“I’ve read stories like that,” Greta said, when Peter first told her about this. She explained how in the stories the baby would start to cry and invariably had to be smothered or strangled so that the noise did not endanger the whole illegal party.

There is no “invariably” in an Alice Munro story. Even when she is working with a character or theme or relationship she has worked with before, especially when she does, she makes us aware of the variable, the infinite variations life can throw at themes and landscapes and towns and girls and women and men and boys, the chance that propels every story. “In Leaving Maverley,” a night watchman named Ray is asked to walk a girl home from the movie theater where she works on Saturday nights. Leah is the ticket taker, but she’s from such a strict religious family that she’s not allowed to watch the movies or even listen to the dialogue. When she asks Ray why the audience was laughing one night,

He said that he didn’t get too involved in the movies, seeing them as he did, in bits and pieces. He seldom followed the plots.
“Plots,” she said.
He had to tell her what that meant—that there were stories being told.

Munro’s verb tenses are more varied and more involved in her storytelling than most writers’ are. It is part of what makes her stories so alive, so organic in feeling. She doesn’t say that the movies tell a story. She says stories are being told, and the continuous verb tense and passive voice bestow power and authority on the act of narrative itself. This sense of being caught up in the storytelling only adds to the great internal locomotion within Munro’s tales. Reading a single Munro story, or reading volume to volume to volume, one has the feeling not so much of following along, but of being miraculously included as, continuous and elementary, the story rolls onward.

And yet Munro sometimes seems to question the very validity of stories. Her characters, whether suburban housewives in Vancouver or farmers in rural Huron County or clerks in small-town offices, are suspicious of fiction, dismissing it as make-believe. “In the old days,” begins “Leaving Maverly,” “when there was a movie theater in every town there was one in this town, too, in Maverly, and it was called the Capital, as such theaters often were.” An old-fashioned, homey image—nothing irregular, not even the name, and anyway it was such a long time ago. The sentence itself is reassuring, the cadences beautiful and floating, balanced, rhythmic. The movie stories, Ray tells Leah, “were often about crooks and innocent people” and took place in nightclubs or with actors singing on mountaintops or wearing the costumes of the past or cavorting with jungle animals brought out from the zoo. But they are just stories, he says:

People getting up from being murdered in various ways the moment the camera was off them. Alive and well, though you had just seen them shot or on the executioner’s block with their heads rolling in a basket.

And the real story here turns out to be not at all like those on the movie screen or Ray’s descriptions of them but one longer and odder, frayed and unresolvable. Leah escapes the town by running off with the minister’s son, a saxophone player. Ray abandons the town in order to be near his wife, who becomes terminally ill, in the hospital in the city. Years pass, the Seventies are in full swing, for Leah there is more scandal (she leaves the minister’s son for a minister who eventually leaves her for another minister), but for Ray there is just the wife he loves, unconscious in a hospital bed. When she dies, “what he carried with him, all he carried with him, was a lack, something like a lack of air, of proper behavior in his lungs, a difficulty that he supposed would go on forever.”

The narrative threads are knotted with social change and loyalty and disloyalty, with a censorious dying town and shallow cosmopolitan liveliness, with every variety of loss. Loss is Munro’s subject. Distance provides a kind of grammar. She narrates from a careful remove, her command as the storyteller more important than intimacy. But what is curious and glorious and unlikely is that this distance never makes her characters emotionally remote. In fact, it allows us to move in closer to them than we could if they were the kind of aggressively personal characters we associate with intimate narrative.

In “Haven,” for example, Munro tells a seemingly simple story—of an oppressively narrow husband, a doctor, and his devoted submissive wife who recklessly defies him in a small but resonant way—from the point of view of their young niece, staying with them while her parents are in Ghana. The distance between the progressively brought-up girl and her strictly conventional relatives is there from the start. In addition, the niece is looking back to this episode, which took place in the Seventies, from the present day. But to create an even greater remove, Munro tells the story in a seemingly offhand conditional voice:

It was probably then that my aunt picked up her fork and began to eat. She would have waited until the bristling was over. This may have been out of habit…. What could dinner have been? I want to say curry, but maybe that’s because my father didn’t like curry…. Whatever Aunt Dawn had served, it wouldn’t have been a deliberate provocation…. I don’t know how much my aunt revealed to the neighbors…. She did, I’m sure, explain that the doctor could not be present on that evening, but she would never have gone so far as to tell them that the gathering was to be kept a secret from him…. She must have wondered…. She would have indicated…. Hard to say…. She must have gone around dazed…. I can’t remember…. I can’t pay attention…. I think I remember….

What Munro has done with this distancing, what she does so powerfully in all her work, is not to withdraw us from her characters or her characters from us, but to create room around them: room for sympathy. They are not always easy to sympathize with, either. The inhabitants of Munro’s stories are troubled, peculiar, pinched, violent, prideful, ignorant, envious, meddling, superior—as imperfect as human beings get. She does not hold back in revealing the wormy crawling activity beneath the rocks of small-town life, the disgust with anyone different or ambitious or literary or imaginative or, worse yet, all these and female, too. But Munro, like some brisk clear wind, reveals the errors and evils and simultaneously blows away our own initially judgmental reaction.

In “Haven” the niece gradually stops sending sarcastic descriptions of her aunt and uncle to her parents in Ghana, finding their situation more and more complicated the longer she stays with them. So do we. And it is partly those conditional verbs, full of questions and possible errors of judgment, full of the possibility of alternate explanations, that have allowed us the freedom of empathy. It is hard to be harsh and judgmental in the conditional. And all of human life, Munro tells us, is lived in that ineffable tense.

There is a surprising sense of possibility everywhere in Dear Life that is almost optimistic. Even in “Leaving Maverly,” a tragic spinning out of seemingly meaningless lives, of leaving a small town and ending up nowhere, Munro leaves a crack of light. The heavy “lack” Ray felt when his wife died was one he “supposed” would go on forever. The reader is left with the possibility, however slight, that he is wrong.

Many of Munro’s stories, and three in this collection, involve trains, befitting a writer who writes so often of escape, of unforeseen encounters, and of alienation. On the train, her characters are compartmentalized, literally, from real life, separated from their pasts, on the way to the future—or back again. In one of the stories, which is called “Train,” Jackson, returning from the war, never makes it home to his fiancée. He jumps off the train, instead, into a field a few stops from home:

Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation…. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on a train and just looking out the window…. A sense of being watched by things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.

His response to just the song of birds in the trees and the sound of wind rattling their leaves is taut with the self-conscious, solipsistic nature of alienation. And then this:

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Over the hill came a box on wheels, being pulled by two quite small horses…. And in the box sat a half dozen or so little men. All dressed in black, with proper black hats on their heads.
The sound was coming from them. It was singing. Discreet high-pitched little voices, as sweet as could be. They never looked at him as they went by.

Jackson experiences the quaint horse-drawn cart, the Mennonite children’s tinkling voices, and the clip-clop of tiny pony hooves as bizarre, chilling. He thinks they are dwarfs.

One of Munro’s most charming characters, a woman some years older than Jackson, living in benignly shabby eccentricity, owns the farm where he has landed. The story progresses through years of his aloof, neutral amiability and her good-humored, neutral amiability, the two of them living together in a symbiotic asexual coupling, two misfits comfortably arranged. Time passes, jumps like a spark between paragraphs, barely noted by either Jackson or Belle, as if they were in a fairy tale, complete with dwarfs and Belle, the Sleeping Beauty. It is in fact only when Belle wakes up, after she has gone to Toronto to the hospital to have a tumor removed, after she has awakened cured and giddy and slightly drugged, after she tells Jackson a personal, intimate story she has never told anyone before, that the fairy tale ends. Belle has broken the spell.

That might be where a more conventional short story would end, but this one reels forward, aimless and driven at the same time, like Jackson’s life. He abandons Belle and the farm just as he did his fiancée and hometown, and then abandons that new life, too, all beginning with a long walk away from the hospital, “just waiting for the inevitable turn he had been expecting, to take him back to where he’d come from.” The spot where Jackson jumped off the train was determined by chance. His decision to stay there with Belle was arbitrary, the intimacy with Belle as unlikely as a cart of singing dwarfs in bowlers. But it is the inevitability of chance that propels so many of Munro’s stories.

In “To Reach Japan,” Greta, a poet, rather dreamily yet craftily takes the train from Vancouver to Toronto on the off-chance she might get together with a man she had met once at a literary party, a grim, insular, hostile gathering of egoism and sycophantish snobbery, as only a literary party can be:

She thought that when she went with Peter to an engineer’s party, the atmosphere was pleasant though the talk was boring. That was because everybody had their importance fixed and settled at least for the time being. Here nobody was safe. Judgment might be passed behind backs, even on the known and published. An air of cleverness or nerves obtained, no matter who you were.

Thirstily downing several glasses of what she thinks is lemonade, Greta winds up drunk, happily sitting on the floor with her uncomfortable shoes off until a man helps her up and drives her home. There is a moment when he wants to kiss her and doesn’t. He lives in Toronto, is just visiting. A chance encounter, a muted, attenuated passion, a physical separation: but this is not A Brief Encounter, it is an Alice Munro story. When a chance to housesit for a friend in Toronto turns up, Greta takes it. And sends him this unsigned note, the closest thing to a poem she has written in a long time:

Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle—
And hoping
It will reach Japan.

One of the astonishing aspects of Munro’s work is how similar, how recognizable, so many components of her stories are, and yet how vital and new and essential they become within each story. She seems to be embarked on a journey of constant adaptation, as if she were her own species. It’s one of the qualities that give her work an almost epic quality.

Another is the ease with which her plots seem to carve their own intricate and far-reaching designs. In “To Reach Japan,” for example, the man from Toronto fades into the background as the train makes its way toward that city. Greta and her daughter Katy make friends with two young actors, one of whom Greta ends up sleeping with. She’s left Katy in her compartment, asleep, the curtain carefully buttoned closed. When she leaves the actor’s berth, she is exhilarated, “weak, shocked, but buoyant, like some gladiator—she actually thought this out and smiled at it—after a session in the arena.” And then, back to compartment, where the unthinkable has happened: Katy is gone.

The description of Greta’s reaction is quick, direct, and harrowing, beginning with, simply, “She went crazy.” She finally finds Katy in the cold, noisy area between two cars, “not crying, not complaining, as if she was just to sit there forever and there was to be no explanation offered to her, no hope.”

The train, cut off from real life, slicing through the landscape, gives Greta the freedom to seek one lover and to find another even before she reaches Toronto. She is, as in an old melodrama, punished by losing her daughter on the train. And even when she finds her, the punishment lingers, a curse on a woman who has dared to let her mind wander toward art, as well as love, toward “the work of poetry that it seemed she had been doing in her head for most of her life,” which often kept her attention away from Katy. “Now, because of the picture in her head of Katy alone, Katy sitting there amid the metal clatter between the cars—that was something else she, Katy’s mother, was going to have to give up.”

Munro mentions in this story how hard it is to describe to younger people the atmosphere before feminism, the dismay at a woman’s ambition, the restrictions on her activity. Women sometimes seem to be gasping for breath in her stories, whether they are being choked by the expectations for a suburban housewife or for a little girl in a remote town who is suddenly deemed too old to decently ride a bicycle in public. Katy’s mother, like so many of Munro’s women, has taken an enormous, reckless chance, and the gods seem to have lined up with provincial society against her. Until, chastened by Katy’s narrow escape, Greta and Katy get off the train in Toronto. The freshly attentive mother gives a careful, simple explanation of what will come next to the child: the tunnel, the escalator, the taxi, the new house. And then, someone “took hold of Greta, and kissed her for the first time, in a determined and celebratory way.”

Katy lets go of her hand, but she doesn’t try to run away. Or escape. And in this story, the wailing child does not have to be smothered to save the group escaping over the mountain: “She just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.”

In Dear Life, Munro’s outlook is too matter-of-fact to be called optimism. She does not suggest that everything will turn out well, just that it will turn, and in ways we can’t predict. But there is also an appreciation, an affection almost, for the random twists of life’s narrative. In one lovely story in this volume, entitled “Pride,” she turns her attention to the lives of two sad, lonely people moving into a sad, lonely, alienated old age in a town they no longer recognize, that no longer belongs to them. The narrator is a man with a harelip, a physical deformity that has deformed his entire life. He is nameless in this story, lives with his mother, and has cut himself off from any kind of friendship in order to escape pity, until, accidently, passively, he drifts into a friendship with a woman named Oneida.

“I must have run into Oneida during those years, and kept track of her life,” he says of the 1940s.

I would have had to. Her father died right before VE-day, mixing up the funeral with the celebrations in an awkward way. The same for my mother’s, which occurred the following summer, just when everybody heard about the atomic bomb. My mother did die more startingly and publicly, at work, just after she said, “I’m going to have to sit down.”

Oneida is the daughter of the most prominent man in town, the banker. She knows the narrator slightly, the way one does in a small town; and rather arbitrarily—he is a bookkeeper, she sees him on the street—asks his advice about selling her house. She is aimless, hapless, acting on whims, and as time passes she is more and more drawn to the narrator, who is an unchanging bit of her past. She blithely ignores his advice, selling her house at a pitifully low price to a man who says he wants his children to grow up there but in fact tears it down to build an apartment building. And as aimlessly as she sells it, she moves into the top floor of the apartment building. She likes the view, her view.

Oneida, just as casually, begins to appear at the narrator’s house in the evenings, and they drift into a pattern of eating dinner together in the living room watching television. When he gets ill, Oneida stays there and nurses him back to health, then suggests she might as well move in. It seems an obvious solution to the reader, it is where the story is leading. But Munro is not following the story, she is telling it, and the narrator’s wonderfully characteristic yet utterly unpredictable response is to put the house he’s lived in since birth up for sale the next day.

On moving day, Oneida appears for an impersonal, desultory, slightly depressing conversation about very little, considering how long they’ve known each other. Then, suddenly, she jumps up—she’s seen something out the window, an old birdbath:

It was full of birds. Black-and-white, dashing up a storm.
Not birds. Something larger than robins, smaller than crows.

Skunks. Baby skunks. The two of them stand side by side, each watching from the vantage point of their disappointed lives:

But how beautiful. Flashing and dancing….
While we watched, they lifted themselves up one by one and left the water and proceeded to walk across the yard, swiftly but in a straight diagonal line. As if they were proud of themselves but discreet. Five of them.
“My Lord,” said Oneida. “In town.”
…We were as glad as we could be.

The limitations of the narrator and of Oneida, the plodding sameness of his life, the aimlessness of Oneida’s—all this is allowed to take on a kind of dignity, like those five glorious skunks flashing in the water. No other living writer is as capable of exposing the dreariness of a life, but what makes Munro’s work so heartbreaking is that there is no person, however stunted, who we’re able to dismiss, no landscape, however barren, that we can skip. “But how beautiful!” A hapless, spoiled spinster, a pinched and damaged recluse, and five baby skunks in the sunlight.

Munro’s compassion fills the spaces between characters like air, fills the silences, the distances with an expansive, elemental inevitability. There is ample room for odd behavior in Munro’s world, room that world may not always have afforded her. She affords this generosity toward her own life, however, explicitly in the four pieces at the end of the book, the last of which is called “Dear Life.” Munro says these pieces are not stories and not quite autobiographical either. The details of a life already familiar to us through her fiction, a life we have observed intimately through the stories, are then presented: the unsuccessful fox farm she grew up on, the beatings described so unforgettably in The Beggars Maid, her mother’s illness:

You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going. It wouldn’t do in fiction. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember that time as unhappy…. Against several odds, I believed myself a lucky person.

Of course it has “done” in fiction, in Munro’s particular fiction. Her stories feel like the stories people would tell, if only they were Alice Munro. They have the fantastic inevitability of fables, the profundity of myths, the sudden turns of fairy tales; the rhythm and authority of a story told out loud, repeated, passed on, altered. In Dear Life, the story and the collection named for it, there is everything we have come to recognize in an Alice Munro story and long to recognize as many more times as Alice Munro will grace us with one.

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