A Fitting Finale
Dear Life: Stories
By Alice Munro
Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages
Alice munro has been called “our Chekhov” so often that no one stops to ask what the title means anymore. It obviously means, for one thing, that she is among the best short-story writers now working—with William Trevor and Mavis Gallant, one of the top three—but something else must also be meant, some quality that is rare in English-language fiction (though not perhaps in Russian). Munro herself gives a hint when she describes the rural Canadian town in which she grew up—the small corner of earth to which she has returned again and again since beginning her career in 1968 with the Governor General’s Award-winning Dance of the Happy Shades—as “like a Chekhov village.” The world of her fiction is so particularized and unique, in fact, that it has come to be known as “Munro Country.” The local tourist bureau has even printed guidebooks for the literary pilgrim. To a degree that is almost unheard of among her peers south of the U.S.–Canadian border, Munro roots her stories in feeling for a specific place, a 1,000-square-mile section of southwestern Ontario along Lake Huron—maybe because people, in her view, know human contact only as a “humiliating necessity” and are never firmly rooted in one another.
But she is also like Chekhov in another significant respect. Her stories are never written out of a parti pris. Munro’s regard is unabatingly for the woman, the girl—less often, the man—as a mere human being, bereft of ideologies and political connections. When a political person appears in her fiction, he is confined to the margins. In her private life, Munro herself may be “very left-wing,” as she describes a character’s unseen wife in her most recent collection, but political theory does not shape her characters’ destinies. Her one duty as a writer, or so Munro conceives it, is to depict women, girls, and men fully, from the inside, and above all honestly. People’s lives, as she wrote in Lives of Girls and Women (her second book), are “dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”
Dear Life is her 15th book of fiction. It contains 10 new stories, including two that are as good as anything she has ever written, and a section Munro labels “Finale”: four autobiographical narratives, which she explains as “the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” Whether the autobiographical turn is intended as a finale to her career, or only to the present book, is not clear. “This is not a story,” she says at one point, “only life”—a fitting summa for a great writer who is now 81 and a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize in literature.
orn in Wingham, Ontario, in 1931 (her father raised silver foxes, as do several of the fathers in her stories), Munro made her literary debut at “the advent of the women’s movement,” as Margaret Atwood observed in the Guardian. She has been claimed—she has been championed—by feminists ever since. And it’s easy to see why. A woman’s “real work,” says one of her narrators, is “a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself.” In her fiction, Munro specializes in disappointed, but not bitter, women: divorced women or women who are living with a divorced man (without benefit of clergy), middle-aged women who are disgusted with their aging bodies (although they are stabbed by sexual desire), married women who find themselves in dispiriting affairs (although they are not especially unhappy in their marriages), attractive women who have to show themselves attached to a man, an interesting man, even though they are really alone. Munro’s women enjoy sex and are not timid about expressing their thirst for physical pleasure. Appearing on the literary scene just as John Updike’s Couples and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint were loosening the sexual taboos in fiction, Munro became one of the first women to write openly about sex, and from a woman’s point of view. She seemed to be celebrating women’s sexuality, which aligned her with the feminist demand for sexual equality.
If the stories in Dear Life are any indication, though, Munro has little faith in sex’s transformative power. In “Amundsen” (the best story in the book), a young woman named Vivien Hyde arrives at a provincial town to start her job teaching in a tuberculosis sanitarium for children. The antibiotic streptomycin is mentioned as being “on the way,” which would date the story sometime before 1946—a good two decades or more before the sexual revolution. The 10-years-older sanitarium doctor courts Vivien, beds her without much ado, and proposes to marry her. At the last minute, though, he realizes he “can’t do it.” He buys her a ticket to Toronto and puts her on the train. Vivien perceives that she might chase after the doctor, “demanding to know why, why, why.” She is not, however, a “person who can deal recklessly with humiliation.” Many years later, Vivien and the doctor run into each other, going in opposite directions across a busy Toronto street, unable even to slow down. “How are you?” the doctor calls. “Fine,” she answers, and then adds for good measure, “Happy.”
Happiness as an afterthought: The conclusion is characteristic of Munro’s vision and method. Her characters stand at the edge of a distant world, trying to decide whether to take a step and enter it. They are snared between responsibility and freedom, and though they invariably choose freedom, they don’t find a meaning for their lives—they “just go on to a different life,” as Munro observed in an interview. She doesn’t moralize at all, but the reader can’t help being disappointed at her characters’ choices.
In “Train,” for example, a World War II veteran named Jackson hops off a home-bound train, abandoning without explanation the girl who is waiting for him. He makes his way to a dilapidated farm, where a woman named Belle, 16 years his senior, is hanging on after the deaths of her parents. He starts to work on the place, fixing up the house, repairing the roof, hiring himself out at the next farm, taking Belle to town for shopping. There is no possibility of a sexual relationship between them. “To mention it, even to joke about it, would spoil everything,” Munro writes. “She was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man.” In town, she is understood to be his sister. For a decade and a half he cares for her. She needs him: At some point in life she had stopped developing and “remained a grown-up child.” When Belle falls ill with cancer, Jackson drives her to Toronto for treatments. And then, without warning, he deserts her in the hospital there. When he had jumped off the train so many years before, he’d had the sensation of “life coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.” Now, ducking out on his responsibility to Belle, he feels anew “the possibilities of life.” And the reader feels sad for him, while understanding exactly why he is running away, perhaps even sympathizing with him.
Although Munro’s stories contain a great deal of knowledge about human life, it is not knowledge that can easily be reduced to propositions; nor is she more knowledgeable than her characters. There are no aphorisms, no detachable authorial commentaries. And though she clearly is in the Jamesian mold, Munro has no patience for James’s fine psychological discriminations. There is, instead, a frank admission that every story has gaps that will never be filled, a deep curiosity about what might fill them, and a matchless ability to plumb the truth of interpersonal situation and simple gesture. Here, for example, is a poet who is invited to a party for the contributors to a little magazine:
She had a thought. She thought that when she went with [her husband] to an engineers’ 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.
Her affirmation of human life is deeply ambivalent (“As if we needed it, more of life”), and yet her stories are not despairing, because her characters keep trying to find happiness, keep hoping it may be found in the next town, the next job, the next affair. While their refusal to accept their fate is not quite noble, it is encouraging. The reader keeps hoping, too—hoping they might be right.
As a story writer, Munro labors under a practical disadvantage. From its 19th-century beginnings in the English-speaking world, the short story has been a magazine form. As William Dean Howells complained over 100 years ago, volumes of collected stories are met with “popular indifference.” He wondered why. “A condition that the short story tacitly makes with the reader, through its limitations, is that he shall subjectively fill in the details and carry out the scheme which in its small dimensions the story can only suggest,” Howells wrote, and perhaps the effort involved is just too exhausting when repeated throughout a collection. Over the past half-century, however, the magazine story has become air-tight. An eye-catching first sentence leads across a verbal surface without imperfections to an exquisitely shrunken epiphany. Munro has written her share of such well-made stories over the years, fitted with all sorts of “tricks and trap-doors,” as she calls them. As she has gotten older, however, her stories (by her own testimony) have grown “more disjointed and demanding and peculiar.” They have also grown longer. Her best stories are miniature novels.
Alice Munro once explained that she began to write stories instead of novels—she had hoped to write the novels—because, as a housewife and mother, she was too busy for the time-consuming commitment of the longer kind. “A child’s illness, relatives coming to stay, a pileup of unavoidable household jobs, can swallow a work-in-progress as surely as a power failure used to destroy a piece of work in the computer,” she said. “You’re better to stick with something you can keep in mind and hope to do in a few weeks, or a couple of months at most.” Although she may not have known she was doing so, she was also giving the best possible defense of the short story—Munro’s kind of short story, at least, which can be read at a sitting during a busy life, while gaining all the riches of the longest novel.