A friend emailed me the other day to say she’d read Richard Russo’s memoir Elsewhere, and in it he raves about Alice Munro. (I don’t know what sort of emails you get.)
Of course he raves about Alice Munro. It should be a misdemeanor, perhaps even a felony, to fail to rave about Alice Munro.
The problem for the reviewer is to find a new way to rave about Alice Munro. Year after year she belts out these walk-off home runs. And each time a new story collection is published, those of us who read her are tempted to go back and reread her earlier works. Sometimes we are tempted to reread her even in the absence of a new collection. Her stories are concerned with the layering of memory, and often they span large hunks of a lifetime. Compressed.
Many are set in the so-called hardscrabble towns of Ontario near Lake Huron, or at least they start out there and often, when the characters escape to Toronto or Vancouver, are no less isolated. The stories have to do with girls growing up, parents with arbitrary attitudes, friends with an overly heightened awareness of class, men who are frequently not to be trusted. Affairs, divorces, second marriages, recalcitrant children, all the domestic warp and weave.
Yet they can be read over and over, dependably revealing more with each reading. Ten stories comprise Dear Life and an additional four that Munro describes as “not quite stories. . . . autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” This is a distinction for graduate students working on theses about Munro.
One story, Night, has to do with an older sister, 14, who realizes she could strangle her younger sister, 9, who sleeps beneath her in a bunk bed. The story isn’t about the impulse, rather what prompted it and how it is resolved. And the narrator’s fierce honesty. She can’t sleep, and one night finds her similarly insomniac father sitting on the porch and confesses her fear. “He said, ‘People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.’ He said this quite seriously and without any sort of alarm or jumpy surprise. . . . People have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life.”
Train has to do with a man returning from the war who jumps off the train before reaching the stop where his fiance waits for him. He builds a life, leaves it, creates another, leaves it and gradually we realize something happened to him long before he went to war, requiring him to find ways to live asexually.
Dolly begins: “That fall there had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Franklin being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time. . . .” But the unnatural intrusion of a previous lover reawakens thoughts not of death but of jealousy, sexual jealousy.
Life abounds, in contrast to the illness, repression, religiosity. In so many of these stories, somebody is missing something. A man with a hare-lip, a woman with a polio-shrunken leg, a lover with a dying wife, a one-armed war veteran, a young girl whose appendix is removed.
In Haven, a 13-year-old girl who is missing her parents — they’ve gone to Africa for a year — is required to live with an aunt and uncle. “All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it, the seventies were not as we picture them now. . . . there didn’t seem to be an unusual amount of liberation or defiance in the air.” Certainly not on the part of the deferential aunt. Like so many of Munro’s elliptical stories this one concludes with a surprise. A rite of passage, described with sly humor. “People were always saying that this town was like a funeral but in fact when there was a real funeral it put on its best show of liveliness.”
Readers and critics commonly describe Munro as Chekhovian. They could also say she is Faulknerian. She is, however, herself, and if it hasn’t happened yet, soon other writers will be described as Munrovian.
No matter. Munro is who she is, and we are fortunate to have her. No other author can contain so much life, and so many lives, in such few pages.
Betsy Willeford is a writer in Miami.