Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Dear Life

by Alice Munro

Critics have been saying for so long that a typical Alice Munro story is as rich and textured as any novel that they seem not to have noticed that her recent stories don’t resemble novels much at all. Beginning (roughly) with Runaway (2004) and continuing through to Too Much Happiness (2009), Munro has gradually shifted away from the complex, oblique narratives and intricately layered portraiture of her mid-career work toward a pared-down, almost expressionist form of storytelling.

This shift – or evolution – is not surprising. Munro had just about exhausted, in the best way possible, the naturalist long-story format by the time she wrote 2001’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. There was no reason to think such an exacting craftsperson would try to repeat past successes.

With Dear Life, Munro moves deeper into this new territory. Major characters’  crucial backstories are often deliberately sketchy or filled in at incongruent points in the narrative. Even the story titles – “Amundsen,” “Pride,” “Haven” – have a fragmentary quality, sliding past the reader’s peripheral attention like road signs on a dreary country highway.

Many of the plots are marked by ab­rupt reversals and departures, premonitions and portents, and personalities twisted by strange religious and secular ideals. In “Train,” a returning soldier leaps off the back of a passenger train just before it delivers him to a long-anticipated reunion with his fiancée. No coherent reason is given: “He is in luck and it’s not to be wasted.” “Corrie,” which follows an extended love affair between a wealthy eccentric and a married architect, builds to a shattering revelation, only to lurch forward to the possibility of deeper intimacy.

In “Leaving Waverly,” a young policeman forced to care for his sophisticated, ailing wife becomes quiet­ly obsessed with a religious teenager who disappears in a blizzard. When the policeman, now a janitor in a Toronto hospital, crosses paths with the object of his obsession many years later, the reader, deeply immersed in his strange internal landscape, shrugs off the unlikely coincidence.

By actively suppressing so many chronological and biographical markers, these new works capture qualities of memory and consciousness that, in Munro’s earlier stories, were embedded in larger, detailed narratives. The result is a less complete but more startling accounting of character types familiar to Munro’s readers. We’ve encountered these people before, the reader thinks, but not with such stark, almost surreal insight.

This is not entirely new for Munro. Her stories often turn on a seemingly inconsequential detail that moves to the fore of a tightly circumscribed life, tormenting and liberating the protagonist. In her new work that progression has become the dominant motif.

Munro also gives more prominence to the Gothic element long present in her writing, without indulging in the genre’s lurid overtones. Violence, illness, and reputations ruined by a single indiscretion are accepted in Munro’s secretive, repressed communities as a kind of levelling mechanism, rough justice for those who dare to strive for something finer.

“Gravel” brings these stylistic innovations together in a story of a married woman who casts aside convention in one blind leap by taking up with an itinerant performer from the town’s new summer theatre festival. The story opens with the verbal equivalent of a slap – “At that time we were living beside a gravel pit” – before filling in the details of the affair. The narrator, one of the woman’s daughters, makes up for the gaps in her memory by concentrating her recollections on her older sister, who was more cognizant of the minor scandal caused by their mother’s abdication of respectable town life.

Munro uses understated comedy to trace how the postwar revolutions in social mores and gender roles filtered down to the level of gossip, jokes, and new forms of snobbery in the outposts of cultural power. The summer theatre “was a new thing at the time, which some people were enthusiastic about and others worried about, fearing that it would bring in riff raff.” Of the jilted father, she says: “When he spoke about this time, later on, he said that he had always approved of the arts.”

The story comes to a harrowing conclusion that feels inevitable and cathartic. An unquiet order is restored. Lives move on – sort of – before intertwining once again in new configurations. Just like in novels, but not quite.

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