In the mystery that is Alice Munro’s writing, there is no straight road to a person’s fate. Reading a story from her latest collection “Dear Life” involves being rapturously subjected to a rapid-fire succession of often unplanned encounters between unfailingly recognizable small-town figures. For any two people, a certain climax may arrive on the horizon, but then the story slyly shifts to a new arrangement of characters. Minor figures re-emerge to assert unexpectedly significant roles, and relationships bloom overnight where others have run their course. Yet there is nothing cheesy about her moves. The surprises always retain the uncanny quality of our own experiences. In Munro’s clear, unvarnished words, “Dear Life” catalogues life’s bizarre, unanticipated results and sets them brimming with a poignant human appeal that for the most part makes up for the overly orchestrated direction of the stories.
The characters of “Dear Life” are continuously confronted with the unexpected. In “Haven,” a man who has kept tight-fisted control over his marriage finds himself losing control of his wife for the first time at a public funeral he has arranged himself. The young girl of “Night,” afraid of falling asleep and having evil dreams, begins sneaking out of the house to take long walks and one night runs into her father, who tells her unpleasant truths that, bizarrely enough, cure her of her bad feelings. And in “Amundsen,” a young teacher in a school for children dying of tuberculosis is surprised to find herself eloping with a man at least 10 years her senior, an old-fashioned doctor who in his stiffness is anything but a fairy-tale prince. But at the last minute, his overriding doubts and reservations prevent the couple from deciding to share happiness together.
“Amundsen” in particular, with all its heart-raking twists, may prompt the reader to wonder how people’s life plans are so easily discomposed. It is vain, Munro suggests, to expect someone to follow through on all their pledged allegiances. But on the other hand, life can be filled with the thrill and horror of unexpected change. Munro is equally skilled at surprising her characters—and her audience—with the ability of things to survive or retain part of their earlier identities. In “Dolly,” which makes a good bid for being the best story in the book, a 71-year-old woman breaks down in jealousy when her longtime 83-year-old lover pretends to be interested in another woman. He then embraces her and explains, “We can’t afford rows,” reminding her that their frail age prevents either of them from hurting the other any more than will the difficulties of life.
While Munro has marked off the last four stories in particular as part of a “Finale” section that is especially “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact,” the truth is that in their common treatment of life’s capriciousness, all of her stories appear equally personal. They are uniformly imbued with Munro’s consummate control of plot development and her refusal to simplify relationships. In the introduction to this section, she calls the “Finale” stories “the first and the last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life,” which seems tantamount to a literary deathbed statement. Her decision to label some stories as more autobiographical than others, though, threatens to interfere with the reader’s relationship with the fundamental unity of this collection.
Munro has her uncommonly dull spots, unfortunately most often in those works she has proposed to be “the closest” to autobiographical reality. Near the end of “Night,” a bit of weak writing shows up in the supposedly epiphanic discoveries of the precocious narrator: “People have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life…, ” says the narrator matter-of-factly, disappointed to learn that she is not the only one who thinks dirty thoughts at night. Munro tries here as usual to fashion a phrase containing great ironic profundity, but the fact that she leans on a trite expression like “it happens in life” undermines the originality of her claim. She ends up just creating an uninspired piece of writing.
Considering how many of these occurences there are in the final stories, it is regrettable that Munro has made the unnecessary gesture of setting aside some stories to be considered more relevant and possibly more important than others; none of the “Finale” pieces even rank as the best in the book. Perhaps it would have been best for her to recognize that all her stories equally express her own experiences and not let herself be weighed down with the pressure to declare their relevance to her personal past.
Despite this small shortcoming, the collection absolutely succeeds through Munro’s signature simplicity and surety. Munro has never been what one could call profuse or even overwrought in her alternately sidesplitting and heart-raking writing, and time has not dulled the intensity of her quiet observations. She writes salty prose with a hard grace. It isn’t sweet, but the irony is well controlled; it flows with a welcome generosity in dignified bumps, disfigurations, and homely awkwardness. In “Voices,” she describes with a refreshingly appreciative defamiliarization the town prostitute who shows off her arms so people can see that “the flesh on them was heavy and smooth and white, like lard.... I would not have thought it possible that somebody could look both old and polished, both heavy and graceful, bold as brass and yet mightily dignified.” Munro identifies and praises with ease the beauty of even the coarsest human subjects. No fireworks, no fancy language or neologisms—and yet she manages to articulate a voice that is unforgettably resonant and uniquely human.