Book World: ‘Dear Life,’ by Alice Munro
By Ron Hansen,
The eminent Canadian fiction writer Alice Munro has won just about every prize available to her, including three Governor General’s Literary Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story and the Man Booker International Prize.
With “Dear Life,” her engrossing new collection of stories, Munro can count on more critical acclaim and public appreciation, for there is no writer quite as good at illustrating the foibles of love, the confusions and frustrations of life or the inner cruelty and treachery that can be revealed in the slightest gestures and changes of tone.
Reckless passion and impulsiveness are as common in these stories as hopelessness or a vague discontent. In the first story, Greta, a wife and mother, is invited to a literary party in Vancouver to get acquainted with a journal editor who printed two of her poems. Instead, she gets drunk on “Pimm’s No. 1 and pink grapefruit juice,” for “here nobody was safe. Judgment might be passed behind backs, even on the known and published. An air of cleverness and nerves obtained, no matter who you were.” But there she meets Harris Bennett, a married Toronto newspaper columnist who flirts with her and gives her a ride home, but coldly announces that he’s decided not to kiss her.
Rather than being put off, she finds in the next months that she continually thinks and dreams of Harris. “The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather — a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart.”
Greta’s husband, an engineer, is put in charge of a job where there are no accommodations for his family, so his wife and their child, Katy, go by railway to Toronto to housesit for a friend. But on the eastbound train, Greta encounters an ingratiating young actor, and she fecklessly leaves little Katy napping in their compartment in order to join him in his. “At first no end of stifled laughter, then the great shocks of pleasure, with no place to look but into each other’s wide eyes. Biting each other to hold in some ferocious noise.”
Waking too soon from her nap, Katy gets lost on the train, and a disheveled and guilty Greta hunts for the girl, recognizing that she’d been a lackadaisical mother, that “her attention had been spasmodic, her tenderness often tactical.” And when mother and daughter arrive in Toronto, it will be Katy who watches in lost bewilderment as Harris is there to surprise Greta and kiss her “in a determined and celebratory way.”
Men are generally negative fields of force in these 14 rueful stories, with women seemingly only in their planetary orbit. Consider Miss Vivien Hyde, who in the last months of World War II goes to a remote northern sanitarium to teach children stricken with tuberculosis. In this Jane Eyre situation, she meets Dr. Fox, her “preoccupied future employer,” and finds that he is “the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into.” And though over the next few weeks Dr. Fox gives her signs that he thinks she is “a bother and a fool,” he invites her for dinner in his cold, book-strewn house and at the end of the evening kisses her forehead “with hasty authority.”
Invited again the next Saturday, she watches him “working at the stove. His easy concentration, economical movements, setting up in me a procession of sparks and chills.” She loses her virginity to Dr. Fox that night, and he abruptly vows he’ll marry her, but romantic expectations are seldom fulfilled in these stories, and toward the end he tells his disappointed fiancee, “Maybe someday you’ll count this one of the luckiest days of your life.” Indeed.
In “Haven,” a girl is sent to live with relatives because her parents have decided to teach school in Africa. Uncle Jasper is much like Dr. Fox, a brook-no-nonsense doctor who sees the unnamed narrator as “a person who needed straightening out on many matters, or who had to be urged, especially at the dinner table, to copy the behavior of my aunt Dawn. . . . The house was his, the choice of menus his, the radio and television programs his. Even if he was at his practice next door, or out on a call, things had to be ready for his approval at any moment.” Yet Aunt Dawn is devoted to him and tells her niece, “A woman’s most important job is making a haven for her man.” Jasper upsets that haven with a series of autocratic disruptions, and the rapidly maturing girl notes that peacemaking Aunt Dawn seems to have realized “that, for the first time, she didn’t care. For the life of her, couldn’t care.”
The lovely final four works in the collection are somewhat fictionalized memoirs of Munro’s childhood in Ontario and are, she writes, “the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” One hopes she is not true to her word.
Written in wry, limpid prose and constructed in a seemingly plotless, elliptical way, the stories of “Dear Life” violate a host of creative writing rules, but they establish yet again Munro’s psychological acuity, clear-eyed acceptance of frailties and mastery of the short story form.
Hansen’s new collection is “She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories.”