Only So Many Words Remain: On Alice Munro’s Dear Life

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While reading Alice Munro’s new book, Dear Life, I kept finding myself thinking of something that had nothing to do with books, or with Canada, or with any of the dozen other things you might expect. What I thought of was a professional basketball game I went to 15 or so years ago. The Bulls were visiting the lowly Wizards (who were then still called the Bullets), and my friends and I had lucked our way into decent seats. It was the first and only time I’d seen Michael Jordan in person, and it was the strangest thing. You could feel a collective awareness in the building, like the smoke lingering after a fireworks show: he will outlive every one of us. Jordan’s name would appear the next day beside Calbert Cheaney and Bill Wennington’s in the box score, but years from now, when their names evoked nothing, his would be unfaded. He inhabited the court like a time traveler, visiting from a future in which he continued to exist while the rest of us — chewing our $7 hot dogs, taking his picture every time he touched the ball — did not.

Which is to say: contemporary greatness is a strange thing. Alice Munro’s books are reviewed right there beside Ann Patchett and Richard Russo’s; they’re set on the New Releases table between the latest from Jane Smiley and Dave Eggers. But they’re of a different order, they’re made of different stuff. The Mona Simpson quote that appears on many of Munro’s paperbacks (“The living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years,”) seems truer than ever, and it gives an air of preemptive nostalgia to the act of reading her. Soon enough it will seem very strange, almost miraculous, that we could go to the store to buy a new book by Alice Munro.

But for now, anyway, we can; the daily highlight reels must still be assembled. And so how does this latest collection of stories, her 14th, stack up? It is, I’m pleased to report, wonderful — even surprisingly so. Since 2001’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, published when she was 70, she had seemed to me to be in the cruising phase of her career. The three collections since then were full of good, solid, Munro-grade stuff, but with a couple of exceptions, there were no stories that I imagined would make it into her best-of collections. Her writing had simplified considerably, and she seemed, with her plots, to be retracing old ground. When she announced her retirement in 2006, I confess to feeling a certain relief; she was too proud and too self-aware to leave us remembering her like Jordan on the Wizards.

Well, she didn’t retire, and it’s a good thing she didn’t. Her writing continues in its understated mode, but the simplicity seems now to reflect an increased urgency, rather than a diminished capacity. There’s a kind of cut-the-crap quality to this latest batch of stories — material that might have once have taken up 20 pages she now deals with in a couple of sentences, unsentimentally, almost in passing. In “Gravel,” the news that the narrator’s sister has drowned arrives by implication, like the passings of the seasons. In “Train,” a man walks away from his life with as little fanfare as if he were walking out of a movie theater.

Here is how, in one of the collection’s best stories, “Leaving Maverley,” Munro describes a man whose wife has died after years of insentient dwindling in the hospital:
He’d thought that it had happened long before with Isabel, but it hadn’t. Not until now.

She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever. And people hurried around, as if this outrageous fact could be overcome by making sensible arrangements. He, too, obeyed the custom, signing where he was told to sign, arranging — as they said — for the remains.
“Not at all, as if not ever,” — these seven short, simple words give as clear an account of grief, of the infantilizing incomprehensibility of a loved one’s death, as anything I’ve ever read. The book is full of formulations like that — births and deaths, marriages and infidelities, rendered in unimprovable calligraphic strokes. Much of the material here will be familiar to anyone who has ever read her — the train trips and heartsick letters and unpaved roads — but the voice is newly sharpened, as if she were freshly aware of only having so many words remaining in her allotment.

And, in fact, such an awareness becomes explicit in places; growing old has, like a trip through a difficult country, endowed Munro with all manner of new information, and she has here begun to file her dispatches. “In Sight of the Lake,” about a woman’s increasingly baffled search for her doctor’s office, is as harrowing an account of old age as I’ve ever read. And “Dolly” makes the case, with worrisome authority, that jealousy and heartache are not occupations from which we may retire.

A surprise, then, is that the book ends with a sequence of stories that Munro could almost have written decades ago. “The final works in this book are not quite stories,” she writes in an author’s note (under the disconcerting heading “Finale”). “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” A certain prurient ear-pricking is natural, when an author promises to share the actual goods about herself, but what she has to say turns out to be not so different from what she’s said about her childhood in her earlier books. We get the failing fox farm, the humble father, the ambitious and ailing mother. We get the house set uneasily between town and country, the rickety bridges, the trees known by name. The difference, if there is one, is the frankness with which she sets aside the possibility of artifice. It’s as if, after decades of plot trickery and composite characters, she longs to remove all the filters from her light, to show us the bare bulb. Here, finally, is the intelligence itself, the compassionate but merciless awareness that she has shone through all her hundreds of stories.

At the end of one of those stories, a dozen or so books ago, there’s a sentence that may be the best single thing she ever wrote, and it offers something like a key to her entire career: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” In Dear Life, Munro, equipped with a head-lamp the likes of which we may never see again, continues to explore.

A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro

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This November, Knopf recently announced, Alice Munro will publish Dear Life: Stories, her 13th book of shorts and second since her announced “retirement” in 2006. For Alice Munro fanatics — a group in which I proudly include myself — this is, of course, wonderful news. It’s also an excuse, as if we needed one, to revisit her previous work, and to push her books on the world’s non-Munroviacs.

Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances — and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache.

Herewith, a partial guide:

The Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one: Selected Stories

The Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album: The Beggar Maid. Published in 1977, The Beggar Maid is as close as Munro has ever come to writing a novel, but it actually does a better job than just about any novel I know of getting an entire, living human being onto the page. The book follows a woman named Rose all the way from her early childhood to her middle age, and never feels stretched. It’s an extraordinarily high-grade steak that just happens to be served in slices.

Best story, in the category of autobiographical-seeming stories about love: “Bardon Bus,” which contains some of the most convincingly rendered emotional agony I’ve ever read.

Best story, in the category of historical drama: “A Wilderness Station,” which should, with its many voices and bizarre, dramatic happenings, put to rest any notion of Munro as a predictable dispenser of affair/epiphany-type fiction.

Best story, all categories: “The Beggar Maid,” which showcases, among other things, her remarkable deftness in telling stories that leap around in time.

Story featuring most implausible twist: “Tricks.” A woman falls in love with a man, meets him again and is puzzled by his coldness. Turns out, the cold one was an identical twin. She acknowledges the silliness within the story, but still.

Stories featuring drownings or near-drownings: “Miles City, Montana,” “Changes and Ceremonies,” “Gravel,” “Walking on Water,” “Love of a Good Woman,” “Pictures of the Ice,” “Child’s Play.”

Stories featuring murders or near-murders: “Open Secrets,” “Fits,” “Dimension,” “Free Radicals.”

Story whose plot, after three or four readings, I’m still not sure I understand: “Open Secrets.”

Most depressing story that will somehow leave you uplifted: “Dulse,” in which a woman spends a few days thinking gloomy thoughts in New Brunswick in the wake of a devastating breakup. The brilliant little breakfast scene with the Willa-Cather-obsessed man is a joy.

Most uplifting story that will somehow leave you depressed: “The Turkey Season,” in which the narrator cheerfully remembers the winter she spent working in a turkey barn. A sense of never-quite-resolved unease hovers over this story like a snowstorm.

Authors to read once you’ve finally gotten your fill of Munro: William Maxwell (who’s Munro’s favorite writer), Eudora Welty (whose story, “A Worn Path,” Munro has called the most perfect story ever written), and George Saunders (whose stories, despite very much not being set in rural Canada, are as moving and smart and humane as Munro’s).


Lives of Girls and Women: “Changes and Ceremonies”

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: “Walking on Water”

The Progress of Love: “Miles City, Montana,” “Fits”

Friend of My Youth: “Pictures of the Ice”

Open Secrets: “A Wilderness Station,” “Open Secrets”

Love of a Good Woman: “Love of a Good Woman”

The Moons of Jupiter: “Turkey Season,” “Bardon Bus”

Runaway: “Tricks”

Too Much Happiness: “Free Radicals,” “Dimension,” “Child’s Play”

A Year in Reading: Ben Dolnick

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Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology. He lives in Brooklyn with his fiancee and their dog, and is currently at work on a second book.This has been the year of short books for me. I’ve found my concentration running aground on long ones – even great long ones (Independent People, War and Peace, The Man Who Loved Children) – and so I’ve gravitated toward books of two-hundred or even fewer pages. The best have been the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. In the past few months I’ve read The Gate of Angels, The Bookshop, Innocence and The Beginning of Spring, and each one is a ruthlessly efficient little miracle. Her books are full of characters who reliably say the wrong thing at precisely the wrong moment, who think only of themselves, who fail and fail again – and yet they’re warm, funny, and somehow even cheering. I’ve got the rest of her novels stacked up on my bedside table.More from A Year in Reading 2007