The Storyteller

Alice Munro announced, upon publication of Dear Life in 2012, that this would be her last collection of original short stories. She was, at the time, 81 years old so fair enough. In 2013, Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Not bad for a little old lady writing about other little old ladies in rural Ontario, Canada.

Like her US peers Wendell Berry and Edith Pearlman, Munro plants her stories deep into native soil. Tiny farming communities, the rivalry between Anglican and Methodist churches, the jealousies and intrigues of small town Canada, back in the 1940s and 1950s when such things still existed. Munro populates her stories with ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Her characters are neither wise nor especially gifted. They aspire to little more than indoor plumbing.

Therein lies Munro’s genius. Her stories catch light like newly washed jam jars. Her characters are human. Many of them are Munro herself, drawn from a slightly different angle. There is a distance and a diffidence to these characters that allows Munro to poke fun at topics that are not at all funny: death, divorce, disease.

I imagine Munro at a social get-together in 1950s Vancouver. She sits in a corner sipping a drink, slowly getting drunk on story ideas. Other than her husband and a few close friends, no one knows that Munro writes. See how Munro, the storyteller, transforms her lived experience into a portrait of a marriage.

Greta should have realized that [her husband’s] attitude—hands off, tolerant—was a blessing for her, because she was a poet, and there were things in her poems that were in no way cheerful or easy to explain.

(Peter’s mother and the people he worked with—those who knew about it—still said poetess. She had trained him not to. Otherwise, no training necessary. The relatives she had left behind in her life, and the people she knew now in her role as a housewife and mother, did not have to be trained because they knew nothing about this peculiarity.)

Alice Munro, “To Reach Japan” in Dear Life (Chatto & Windus 2012)

A Small Canvas

Munro once claimed to have “no talent for writing novels anyway.” By the time she won the Nobel Prize, she had published 14 original short story collections. The Swedish Academy called her “the master of the contemporary short story.” What does that require?

Each story in Dear Life is wonderfully designed. A detail that shows up on page 1 will surely prove to be critical by page 20. For example, the title “Gravel” tells us immediately that the proximity of a gravel pit to the family home is significant. We swiftly learn that this home is new for the children have recently moved with their mother in the aftermath of a divorce. By page 2, we hear that the dog Blitzee loves it at the gravel pit while the oldest child Caro does not. You just know that something bad is going to happen to one or both in that gravel pit. Yet you read on, hopelessly in thrall to Munro, the storyteller.

I didn’t ask her anything. What she had done did not seem strange to me. That is probably how it is with younger children—nothing that the strangely powerful older child does seems out of the ordinary.

“Gravel”

In “Train,” Jackson returns from the battlefields of WWII. You’d think his mind would be set on home. Instead, he’s diverted by the merest of coincidences: a slow bend in the tracks, a cow named Margaret Rose, a blocked road, a voice he has been trying to avoid for 20 years. Each obstacle seems random and yet nothing Munro does is accidental. Jackson doesn’t change over the course of his story, the reader does.

My favorite story turns out to be one I’ve read before, though I did not recognize it until the very end. It’s possible that I read “Corrie” when it was first published in The New Yorker in 2010. More likely is that I heard it on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast when Margaret Atwood read it in 2019. What I love about this story is how Munro spins out her reveal so that the reader sees the twist one paragraph before Corrie does. I can’t say any more about this story without spoiling it for you but I do agree with Atwood: Corrie lives on well past the end of this story.

The Voice

Munro uses very little dialogue in Dear Life. She privileges her narrators: the third person close and the first person older narrator looking back. Such a narrator can cover long periods of time, longer than is customary in short fiction. For example, in “Pride”, a sort of love story, Munro uses almost no dialogue. It is the storytelling narrator who guides us through a relationship that lasts decades.

Could it be a coincidence that Munro’s preferred narrators are also the ones used for memoir? The last four pieces are grouped under the section “Finale”.

The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.

Nowadays, we might call these works personal essay. They reveal the real Munro stripped of fictional adornment or guise. In “Night”, Munro recalls a period of childhood insomnia during which she would silently wander about the farm until dawn. In so doing, she learned to observe her home through new eyes. I remembered what I had completely forgotten.

These last four works also reveal Munro the storyteller at work. In “Voices”, Munro takes us to a country dance. The farmhouse is modest and the family known to be in financial straits. Munro the child did not wonder at the time whether admission was paid. She notes only a woman in a low-cut golden-orange taffeta dress circling the dance floor. Later, Munro learns that this is the local prostitute.

I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need.

Munro is apparently the kind of writer who likes to tinker with her stories. The version of “Corrie” that was originally published in The New Yorker is different from the version anthologized in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2012 which, in turn, differs still from the version published in Dear Life. Sadie became Lillian. Corrie got angry. The ending, however, remains as ambiguous as ever. Munro seems to ask the reader: well, what would you do?

We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.

“Dear Life”
29 Dec 2022 | Karen Kao