Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Ships lost at sea and then, most dreadfully, a civilian boat, a ferry, sunk between Canada and Newfoundland, that close to our own shores.

That night I could not sleep and walked the streets of the town.  I had to think of the people gone to the bottom of the sea.  Old women, nearly old women like my mother, hanging on to their knitting.  Some kid bothered by a toothache.  Other people who had spent their last half hour before drowning complaining of seasickness.  I had a very strange feeling that was part horror and part--as near as I can describe it--a kind of chilly exhilaration.  The blowing away of everything, the equality--I have to say it--the equality, all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them.

If Alice Munro's Dear Life has a theme, it's the way that men oppress women.  Munro's touch is so light that you might not notice, and her love and respect of the minutiae of domestic life can look a lot like traditionalism.  But it's there in "Amundsen," a story about a woman who takes a job teaching children being treated for tuberculosis at a far outpost, only to be romanced, and then abandoned, by the town's haughty doctor.  It's there in "Gravel," about a mother who is too absorbed with the hippie lifestyle of her new beau that she fails to see her daughter's unhappiness, with tragic results.  It's there in "To Reach Japan," about a woman who lets herself have a shocking affair aboard a train, only to be racked with guilt about leaving her daughter alone in the cabin.  It's there in "Corrie," about a woman who realizes--after decades--that there was never really a blackmailer, and that her lover's been pocketing all the hush money.

Brent said this was his first introduction to Munro, and it took him a while to get into it.  I can see that--nothing here strikes me on the same level as the best parts of The Lives of Girls and Women or The Passage of LoveI mention those stories above because they stuck with me the most, but there's a lot I have already forgotten: weird little slice-of-life tales that don't quite seem more than a slice.  (What's "In Sight of the Lake" about?  I can't recall even a little.)  But when Munro is good, she really is the best.  "Gravel" especially is a masterpiece of short fiction.  Munro's choice not to follow the voice of the girl, or the mother, but the girl's younger sister, as mystified by the actions of her older sister as she is of her mother, is so simple, but the kind of authorial choice that reflects her brilliance.

The best part of the collection, though, is the "Finale": a quartet of semi-autobiographical tales that Munro calls "the first and last--and the closest--things I have to say about my own life."  (Can we talk about Munro's mastery of the em-dash?)  These stories have the ring of truth; they feel real in a way that the calculated packaging of most of the collection's stories do not.  I particularly loved a story about Munro, seized in the middle of the night by the fleeting thought that she might, if she wanted, strangle her sister in the bunk bed below.  She slips out of the house every night and wanders town, unable to deal with this thought, which surely makes her a freak, only to encounter her father, waiting up for her, who says, in effect, that everyone has thoughts like that.  Of course they do.  But it's the province of great writers to put into words the things we are unaware of, or too afraid to say, and I think I'd have been to afraid to put a thought like that, dredged up even from my childhood, to paper.  Instead of the O. Henry-esque turn of some of the fictional stories in the collection, Munro gives us a classic reflection on the intersection of family and private fear:

However, on that breaking morning he gave me just what I needed to hear and what I was even to forget about soon enough.

I have thought that he was maybe in his better work clothes because he had a morning appointment to go to the bank, to learn, not to his surprise, that there was no extension to his loan.  He had worked as hard as he could but the market was not going to turn around and he had to find an new way of supporting us and paying off what we owed at the same time.  Or he may have found out there was a name for my mother's shakiness and that it was not going to stop.  Or that he was in love with an impossible woman.

Never mind.  From then on I could sleep.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

I liked that strangling story too. Try as I might I can't get a grasp on what Gravel was about. I guess I'll reread it.