I'm sometimes asked about my favorite writers and answer citing too many to make much of an impression--either about my taste or the writers themselves. One writer who always makes my lists, however, is Alice Munro. If that sparks any interest, and I'm asked what I like about her, I say that she writes short stories with the qualities of novels, possesses an almost perfect, meditative narrative style, and surfaces the weird from the mundane without ever losing her dignity or judgment
Quite a mouthful. Alice Munro has long been, in other words, an accomplished writer of somewhat unique gifts.
The way she achieves those novelistic qualities in short stories isn't too hard to figure out. First, she starts on one subject or character, then she moves to another subject or character, then years often pass (lots of them) and the seemingly unrelated first and second beginnings of her stories are woven into their endings.
A word for this is discursive. A little of this, a little of that, some magic and coincidence and long-lingering passion and life, which seldom makes even fleeting sense, blossoms in a beautiful concluding sentence or two.
When I say "almost perfect, meditative narrative style," I'm referring both to her discursiveness and her relatively straightforward language, adorned here and there by a startling image (something out of keeping with her characters' pretensions but absolutely lined up with their dark memories and fears.) Munro doesn't follow the threadbare prescription: show, don't tell. She tells a lot. This is the sin of exposition, which didn't used to be a sin.
Is she speaking in her own voice or a made-up voice drawn from a principal character? Usually it's the latter. Usually that's what gives the story heft and credibility. But at the same time, her narrators purl along smoothly, sluicing this way and that around the rocks in the streambed.
Finally, "the weird from the mundane," what's that mean? It means life caught up with itself in an unexpected way. It means Munro doesn't spell this out so much as build it into her story without explanation. It means the reader gets it without having to be told: life is full of panic attacks, surrenders, inconvenient encounters, and the like.
In her new story collection, Dear Life, all of what I describe above is present, and there's a little more: a few autobiographical sketches at the end that read like "Goodbye." I've heard she's said this is it, no more, she's eighty, enough. I don't know whether that's true or not, but going to the source of some of her qualities and sharing them with us does suggest she may mean it: here's where I came from, this is what I and my family were like, you can guess why I've always been caught imaging country life when I'm in the city, city life when I'm in the country, Toronto when I'm in Vancouver, Vancouver when I'm in Toronto.
I think I've read all of Alice Munro's stories, and I'm not one to suggest that a writer necessarily loses it when she grows older or that Dear Life isn't a good book, but I wouldn't say it's the best she's written. One or two stories could have been left out. "In Sight of the Lake," about an older woman either losing her mind or having an anxious dream, is just another tale about the elderly getting everything wrong. "Dolly," about the reemergence of an old flame who temporarily incinerates an aging couple's "On Golden Pond" experience is a little bit shaky. I'm not sure whether we're really seeing the couple undertake a suicide pact at the beginning (before the old flame shows up) or why the old flame's appearance is so devastating to the female partner.
Stories like "To Reach Japan" and "Leaving Maverly" have a certain bite to them that I like. The autobiographical pieces, let's say "Voices," wherein Munro realizes her mother swept her away from a dance because a gaudy prostitute had shown up, also reach home. Perhaps for the first time, Munro writes the word fuck. I could be wrong about that, but it catches your attention and makes you realize that they did that back in the 1930s, too…or wanted to.
In one of her books, Munro writes about how she has always written: full of dissatisfaction, always disconcerted by where the next sentence is leading her, wondering if she'll ever get an actual story out of the scenes and characters and sudden incidents she imagines. Probably the fitful quality of her approach to composition lends itself to the delightful wandering nature of her work; probably it also helps her render her prose so simple, so direct, with lots of short paragraphs, and--tsk,tsk--incomplete sentences (no verbs!)
We can be sure that Munro, for all that she has published, has written a great deal that has never seen the light of day. What we have to hope is that no ill-advised scholar ever gets her hands on these remnants. The nature of true talent is that it's idiosyncratic down to the last beat, the last syllable, the last unexplained narrative leap. It takes Alice Munro to be Alice Munro, in other words. My criticisms notwithstanding, Dear Life is still Alice Munro.
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