Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Review copy courtesy McClelland and Stewart

Review copy courtesy McClelland and Stewart

Dear Life is the fourteenth original short story collection from 81-year-old Alice Munro (and that total doesn’t include five other compilation volumes that have appeared along the way), so I am virtually certain that you have heard of her. The first, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 — every few years since, as regular as clockwork, a new volume has appeared. The awards have been almost as regular — three Governor-Generals (1968, 1978, 1986); two Gillers (1998, 2004); and the Man Booker International Prize (2009) are just the most prestigious in what is a long list.

The dates of those awards are proof positive that there has been a consistency of quality in that extensive publishing history. And, truth be told, there has been a certain consistency of tone as well; one captured for me more than a decade back by a fellow Shadow Giller juror (herself a well-known Canadian novelist and critic whose identity I won’t reveal since I haven’t asked her permission to repeat it). It was 1998, we were considering The Love of a Good Woman (which did end up winning that year’s Real Giller, although not the Shadow) and my fellow juror said “every time I read an Alice Munro story, it is like looking at the world through sepia-toned glasses”. That metaphor works both ways. If you like Munro, those sepia-toned glasses serve to soften the harsh, often cruel, twists and realism that lie beneath the surface of every Munro story. And if you don’t like Munro generally, or even a particular story, it also works — if I can mix the metaphor, sometimes there seems to be too much treacle in the tart to make it worth the effort to appreciate the savory nuggets that are embedded in the custard.

Dear Life continues to show that consistency, in both quality and approach, but, like other recent Munro volumes, it is complemented by a surprise. In her last collection, Too Much Happiness, for example, the title story departs Munro country and moves into Dostoevsky terrority. Dear Life has a similar departure from the norm for the dedicated Munro reader: the volume contains 14 stories but the author (and her longtime editor, the legendary Douglas Gibson) have deliberately separated it into two parts.

All Munro stories seem to spring from some observation made in her real life — the first ten in this book start with those kind of observations and then soar off into fiction. The last four pieces reverse the process: an introductory note (ominously titled “Finale”) says they are:

…not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.

I’ll get to those last four memory pieces later, but let’s look at an example of the “conventional” stories first (I put those quotes in because Munro is exceptional enough that no story is really “conventional”.)

Dear Life’s opening story, “To Reach Japan”, illustrates many of the traits of a Munro story and I would like to consider them in some detail. We meet Greta and her young daughter Katy as they board a train in Vancouver, destined for a month in Toronto. Husband and father Peter, an engineer who is headed north on an assignment that has provided the excuse for the trip, is bidding them goodbye from the platform, “uneasy that the train should start to move” — note how the author uses just a phrase to introduce uncertainty into an otherwise mundane scene.

Peter was born in Soviet Czechoslovakia — his mother had carried him to the West as a baby. When Greta hears the story, she says that kind usually ends with the baby crying and then being strangled so the whole escaping party would not be endangered. Peter said his mother would never have done that — but this excerpt illustrates how Munro has her own way of creating tension inside seemingly routine history:

What she did do was get to British Columbia, where she improved her English and got a job teaching what was then called Business Practice to high school students. She brought up Peter on her own and sent him to university, and now he was an engineer. When she came to their apartment, and later to their house, she always sat in the front room, never coming into the kitchen unless Greta invited her. That was her way. She carried not noticing to an extreme. Not noticing, not intruding, not suggesting, though in every single household skill or art she left her daughter-in-law far behind.

That will be Peter’s mother’s last appearance in the story — but it tells us a lot about Greta. As well, while the “action” in Munro stories takes place on the personal level, the author never neglects to supply a much broader context. In this story, that comes quickly when (with the train still in the station) we learn that Greta, apparently “just” an ordinary mother and housewife, is also a poet, a “peculiarity” that she has not revealed to her own relatives or friends:

It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was okay in that time and what was not. You might say, well, feminism was not. But then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia, and a political remark at an office party might have cost your husband his promotion. It was a woman’s shooting off her mouth that did it.

In fact, it was Greta’s role as a poet– coupled with her inate insecurity — that sowed the seeds for this train trip. A few years earlier she had been invited to a party for the editor of a Toronto-based magazine that had published two of her poems. She feels out of place from the start and drinks far too many Pimm’s No. 1 and pink grapefruit juice far too quickly — she ended up being rescued and driven home by a visiting journalist from Toronto, who thinks about kissing her before dropping her off. This train trip east is her own hesitant way of seeing whether she can again make contact with him.

All that takes place in the first ten pages of a 28-page story. Munro stories almost always take unexpected turns — in this one it comes early in the train journey when Greta and Katy are joined by a couple of actors in the dome car of the train. Without giving too much away, that interior story-in-a-story will end with Greta desparately searching for a missing Katy on the train and discovering her huddled on those moving plates at the join between two cars. And, also true to Munro form, we will not discover until the final few sentences whether the obscure note that Greta has sent the Toronto journalist has produced results. (A lot of Munro stories end with a separated few sentences or paragraphs that invite the reader to soldier on and build their own continuing story.)

I feel somewhat guilty only addressing one of the 10 conventional stories in this review, but felt that looking at one in depth (sort of a “how-to” in terms of how KfC reads Munro stories) was the best approach. My fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes, faced a similar challenge with this collection and responded by doing separate posts on each story — you can find links to them here if you want to explore what each is about.

Which brings us to the four “not quite stories”, titled “The Eye”, “Night”, “Voices” and “Dear Life”. If all Munro stories are inspired by a memory, in these four pieces memory has proved stronger than imagination. For me, they offer intriguing sketches of how a story begins to take shape in the author’s mind. All of them involve innocent, but disturbing, childhood experiences that remain lodged in the author’s memory. Now that she is in the final stages of a long and rewarding life (and I don’t mean to imply that it will be ending soon), the reality of what they meant has acquired an even sharper focus, so strong that they can’t be turned into fiction. I was reminded when reading them of similar persistent memories that are developed in the childhood section of Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet, although Judt was only too painfully aware that his life was only months from ending.

If you aren’t familiar with Alice Munro’s work, I certainly would not recommend starting with those recollections — if you are, I suspect you will find them as intriguing as I did, although as “literary” pieces they don’t quite measure up to her normal standard. In fact, if you haven’t read Munro, I would not suggest starting with this volume — go back to the start with either Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) or Lives of Girls and Women (1971), because I am sure you will want to read more and it is wise to join the writer at the start of her creative journey. For those of us who have been reading her throughout a career that is approaching the half-century mark, Dear Life is proof positive that an extraordinary story-teller continues to produce work of outstanding quality, sepia-toned though some of it might be.

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12 Responses to “Dear Life, by Alice Munro”

  1. Clark Blaise Says:

    Just a small observation: many of Alice’s stories use buses and trains the way Californians use cars. But such motion is a combination of isolation and community. I don’t know what exactly to make of it, but it’s part of the sepia-tintedness of her vision, bringing back memories of the stagecoaches of 18th and 19th c. literature, or the European train-compartments. Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, The Third Man…

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I hadn’t made that connection but (looking over my shoulder) you are quite right. Indeed, one of the “conventional” stories in the book is “Train” which graphically illustrates your point: it opens with the central character jumping off a train that is returning him to his hometown (and betrothed) just a few miles before it reaches the station

      On the isolation/community combination, there is another example in one of the autobiographical segments (“Dear Life”, in fact) of a similar device that she often uses. Alice goes to school in the town proper, her family lives in a semi-community featuring a number of houses outside the town and the friend who serves to provoke the memory lives in yet another gathering of some lower-class homes. The three are separated by a river and assortment of hills (I couldn’t build a complete mental picture), with a number of bridges — so there is quite a web of separation/togetherness (with assorted mother-driven rules about what is appropriate behavior, depending on the circumstances) for Alice in each “venue”.

  2. Sigrun Says:

    I love this: “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact…” From a writers perspective ‘autobiographical in feeling’ is marking a position of creative freedom which is essential when making art, still it makes it clear that one doesn’t work in a vacuum, a space outside of the reality, even when writing fiction.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I meant to note in the review that Munro had also approached that reality/fiction overlap in a different way in a previous collection, The View from Castle Rock. A personal project to research her family history turned into a collection that starts in the Scottish Highlands, moves into frontier Ontario and ends up in the present. What I found interesting with the four in Dear Life was how close these acknowledged memories (from about 70 years ago) were to some of the fiction that she is writing today .

      • Trevor Says:

        And even to some of the fiction she wrote in her first collection. “Dear Life,” in particular, has flavors of both “Walker Brothers Cowboy” and “The Peace of Utrecht.” In fact, the version of “Dear Life” published in The New Yorker, explicitly referred to a scene in “The Peace of Utrecht,” but for some reason that was cut out of the version published in the collection.

  3. Trevor Says:

    Hi Kevin, I’ve been anxious to see your review! Going through these stories one by one was one of the highlights of blogging for me. Thanks for pointing out my project :) .

    Out of curiosity, which of these were your favorites? I found that, while I have some favorites, each story was one I went back to revisit. She has a way of making you realize at the end that you need to go back to the beginning.

    I’m happy to say that I’ve already got the first couple of stories of Dance of the Happy Shades ready for their individual posts. Someday, someday, I will have them all covered.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      In much the same way that Munro has memories that bubble to the surface for a period and then retreat back into storage, I have favorites that come to the front for a while and then go back on to the memory shelf. I can’t really rank them but, in order of appearance in the collection, stories I particularly liked in Dear Life would include To Reach Japan, Amundsen, Corrie, Train and Dolly. I don`t really have a `favorite`from the memory pieces — Dear Life was probably the one that rang the most bells for me.

      One of the interesting ways that Munro influences me is that I don`t remember her stories without prompting (I had to get the book out to produce that list and flip to the start of most of the stories). But when I re-read the first sentence, the entire story immediately moves to front of mind. That`s part of why that `sepia-toned` reference sticks with me — I have to flip through the whole photo album to bring back the memories.

      I`ll be heading back to Dance of the Happy Shades later this year of as part of my 2013 Canadian re-read project. I`ll admit I deliberately scheduled it for December, the last in my project, since I knew I would be reviewing this collection early in the year.

  4. Lee Monks Says:

    “One of the interesting ways that Munro influences me is that I don`t remember her stories without prompting (I had to get the book out to produce that list and flip to the start of most of the stories). But when I re-read the first sentence, the entire story immediately moves to front of mind.”

    Exactly the same here. I remember at one point thinking that Corrie was my favourite story, then not being able to remember quite what unfolds so doubting my appraisal, then reading the first sentence and it all instantly falling into detailed place. How curious, and what strange alchemy!

    I have really appreciated both yours and Trevor’s coverage of this, but I find it hard knowing quite where to begin with a response that would begin to do justice to a) how good the book is and b) the voluminous amount one could easily rant on about each story. So I’ll just say I thought the book was majestic and that, as it stands, ‘Train’ is my favourite. Astonishing piece of work.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I fully agree with your last paragraph. Every time that I sit down to review a Munro collection, I have the same problem: How to provide an overview of the collection without going on forever (or doing a post for every story, as Trevor did)? That’s also why I’ve given up trying to pick a single favorite from any collection — even with the older volumes, I find that a quick scan brings several immediately into the first rank of memory.

  6. Trevor Says:

    What’s also interesting is that now that I’m writing up posts on each short story I stil find that there is just too much I want to say. I just did a post on “Walker Brothers Cowboy” and chose to focus on one facet that deals with unfathomable time and the narrator’s waking up to this since I felt it meshed well with what I just read in Dear Life. But I didn’t even touch on the fact that this is also a coming of age story, a story about failure and coping, a story about failure and not coping, a piece that includes the texture of the hard times of the 1930s, maybe even a story about betrayal. She just manages to get so much in there.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      “Walker Brothers Cowboy” illustrates another aspect of Munro — she keeps returning to some common experiences that influenced her. The failing silver fox farm that features in this first story of her first collection, also shows up in one of the four autobiographical pieces in Dear Life. And in between it also is central to a couple of stories in The View From Castle Rock, the collection that came about when Munro investigated her own familly history. Let’s face it, literature students will be investigating her work for a long time to come.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A very nice review Kevin, and very helpful too to see the suggestions for where to start with Munro.

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