Alice Munro. Dear Life. Knopf, November 2012.
In “The Eye,” one in the discrete group of stories that concludes Alice Munro’s new collection, the author describes going as a child to view the open casket of the family’s “hired girl,” Sadie. Sadie — who once told the child narrator “there’s nothing in this world to be scared of”—has been hit by a car while walking home in the dark from a country dance hall. As she forces herself to look at the corpse, the child sees the eyelid move. She doesn’t share this extraordinary event with anyone, since she knows it’s “completely for her”:
Long, long afterwards, when I was not at all interested in any unnatural display, I still had it in my mind that such a thing had happened. I just believed it easily, the way you might believe and in fact remember that you once had another set of teeth, now vanished but real in spite of that. Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.
When I was a child, my mother told me that by the time I was old enough to die, a machine would have been developed to prevent it. Like the child in “The Eye,” I believed in this consolation until an inappropriate age, when its impossibility arrived all at once, with a similar hollowing force. The experience of recognizing a moment of your own emotional life in a piece of fiction — the reason, I think, that most of us read fiction — is especially characteristic of Munro’s work, and it’s part of the extreme devotion she has inspired in her readers in the more than sixty years since she began publishing stories. The four stories that conclude Dear Life are the peak of this extraordinary career.
What a phrase: Munro would hate it. But it’s hard to avoid big statements when a writer like Munro suggests that a book might be her last, as she did recently in an interview published on the New Yorker’s website. It happens that her contemporary Philip Roth has recently made the same announcement; according to many published reports, Roth is now sorting his papers for his biographer; he’s collaborating on a novel with an 8-year-old; he’s learning to use his new iPhone. Although it’s hard to picture Alice Munro doing any of these things, the two of them aren’t quite as odd a couple as it might seem. Both are intensely regional writers, who’ve created from their memories of the places where they grew up — Wingham, Ontario, and Newark, New Jersey — alternate fictional realities more vivid to many than the places themselves. Both have written explicitly and clarifyingly about sex; both are interested in transgressions of class and marital boundaries. Roth’s interviewers have noted that there’s a Post-it on his computer screen that reads, “The struggle with writing is over.” Munro’s preface to the last four stories in Dear Life, subtitled “Finale,” is just slightly wordier — perhaps the only time she’s gone on longer than he has:
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.
In the New Yorker interview, Munro acknowledges that The View from Castle Rock included similarly autobiographical stories, but characterizes these four as “simple truth.” The truth can sometimes be simple, but few writers know better than Munro what a difficult business it is to tell it. Over the course of her writing life — particularly in Lives of Girls and Women and The View from Castle Rock — she has returned to characters, situations, images and even word-for-word descriptions, arranging and rearranging these bits of personal history, as if to get them into their final form. The last four stories in Dear Life — lucid and deceptively simple — make a good case for being that “Finale,” an uncharacteristically grand title that hints at the amount of preparation it took to write them.
What makes it possible to have the events of one not especially unusual life resonate so powerfully for so many people? Although she began publishing stories when she was in college, from 1949 to ’51, Munro’s first book, The Dance of the Happy Shades, wasn’t published until 1968. By that time, the sexual revolution, increasing urban- and suburbanization, and the shift away from a world of very clear norms of marriage and child rearing were changing the world for women. Munro herself moved off a farm to go to college on a scholarship, married and had children in her twenties, then divorced and remarried, struggling to write through all of it. It’s no wonder that the results of that revolution for women, its successes and failures, are everywhere in her work. The title of her only novel, Lives of Girls and Women, published in 1971, suggests the splintering of one type of female life (with great socioeconomic variation) into shards of possibility that would have been unimaginable only a generation earlier. For a typical young woman in a Munro story, these potential lives are something distant but visible on the horizon, just beyond the farm where she lives.
Those farms are always transitional places, perched, in story after story, on the line between town and country: “The east side of our house and the west side looked on two different worlds, or so it seemed to me.” On one side lies poverty, emptiness, “nothing to do with people, in my mind,” and on the other is the route to another world that Munro glimpses first in books, especially her mother’s books — the Everyman Classics she had bought “just to see her maiden name written in graceful, conventional schoolteacher’s handwriting on the marbled endpaper.” But the outside world also appears in movie magazines and in the houses of rich people, where a Munro character might find herself employed for the summer as a maid, or visiting a surprisingly genteel old friend of her grandmother. Before the term “generation gap” has come into popular use, the narrator of Lives of Girls and Women, Del Jordan, recognizes the distance between her mother’s childhood — on a much more remote and miserable farm — and her own, as Munro does herself.
Through her mother, Munro is a bridge to generations of women who had it very hard. “Like any other woman with washtubs to haul into the kitchen and no running water and a need to spend most of the summer preparing food to be eaten in the winter, she was kept busy.” As far as she remembers, her parents never hired a babysitter. Where a contemporary memoirist might make much of this hardship, Munro understates it; it is a fact, but it isn’t the point. Rather, she shows us two types of women: those like her father’s mother and aunt, who embrace these banal responsibilities with a furious pride, and those who complete them halfheartedly, all the time thinking of themselves as meant for something else. Munro’s mother was the second type. There is a perfect, painful detail in “The Eye” of her mother changing into a more formal dress each day after attempting to nap with her two babies, “as if she expected a leisurely afternoon.”
As teenagers Munro and her friends understood that there was pleasure in sex, “though our mothers were not aware of it”—and that awareness makes mothers and daughters in many of her stories almost strangers to each other. In “Voices,” the third of the “Finale” stories in Dear Life, the narrator encounters a local prostitute at a party: she is being consoled for some injury by two young men in Air Force uniforms. The incident fires the narrator’s fantasy life for years, while for her mother — mortifyingly unconventional in other respects — the prostitute’s presence is reason enough to leave the much-anticipated party. In Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the Everyman collection of Munro’s stories, Carried Away (a publication that must have been bittersweet for Munro, coming much too late for her mother to add it to her collection), Atwood writes about this gap. She says that for the generation before Del Jordan and Rose, of The Beggar Maid,
to enjoy sex would have been a humiliating defeat. For women like Rose . . . it’s a matter for pride and celebration, a victory. For later generations of women — post Sexual Revolution — enjoying sex was to become simply a duty, the perfect orgasm yet another thing to add to the list of required accomplishments.
It seems to me that a woman of Rose and Del’s generation — or Munro’s — is uniquely capable of writing about sex. Her mother wouldn’t have dreamed of it, and her daughter takes it for granted (or is too anxious about her performance). Of Del Jordan’s purely physical relationship with her first boyfriend, Garnet French, Munro writes: “This was the knowledge that is spoken of as ‘only sex.’ . . . I was surprised, when I thought about it — am surprised still — at the light, even disparaging tone that is taken, as if this was something that could be found easily, every day.”
In many ways, Lives of Girls and Women is a direct ancestor of The View from Castle Rock — a book that is itself about ancestors, but like no other family history I know. In Lives, Del Jordan watches her maiden aunts tiptoe around her Uncle Craig as he struggles to produce a history of Wawanash County. “It was not the individual names that were important, but the whole solid, intricate structure of lives supporting us from the past.” Del isn’t impressed, least of all when her uncle dies and her aunts proudly present her with a thousand pages of manuscript—“More pages than Gone with the Wind!”—with instructions to finish and publish it. She takes the manuscript in its black tin box only reluctantly: “They were talking to someone who believed that the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece.” Later Del replaces her uncle’s work with her own, safeguarding her poems and attempts at a novel in the fireproof tin box and relegating her uncle’s manuscript to a cardboard box in the basement, where it is eventually destroyed in a flood.
By the end of the book, Del finds herself engaged in a version of Uncle Craig’s project. And in Dear Life Munro admits that “In my old age, I have become interested enough to bother with records, and the tedious business of looking things up,” an investigation that began in The View from Castle Rock. What she finds, going back to her 19th-century ancestors, shepherds in a remote region of the Scottish Borders called the Ettrick Valley, is that there was a storyteller in each generation of the family. There was even a well-known poet and novelist, James Hogg, a cousin of James Laidlaw, Munro’s direct ancestor six generations back. It was Hogg who originally wrote down the anecdote that inspired Munro’s title: James Laidlaw leads some men from a bar in Edinburgh up to the city’s celebrated castle, points across the water to Fife, and insists that what they all see there is America. Of his cousin, James Laidlaw only notes, “Hogg poor man has spent most of his life in conning lies.” And so, along with the family’s literary activity, Munro uncovers an equally powerful impulse toward restraint, the caution against “calling attention to yourself,” whether in actions, poetry, or prose.
This kind of warning must have struck Munro with great force when she discovered it among her ancestors. Any reader of her work is familiar with the young female character who’s “too smart,” who “thinks she’s smart,” or whose inclination to “talk back” needs to be corrected. In Dear Life, Munro is explicit about how this historical pattern — half the family chastising the other half for overreaching themselves — played out in the house where she grew up. Munro’s mother was the storyteller, the striver, while her father adopted the correct local posture of “refusal.” “He understood that the thing to do was never to say anything special. My mother was just the opposite. With her everything was clear and ringing and served to call attention.” The child who appears in the four stories of the “Finale” understands that she must be like her father in order to survive her childhood, and like her mother in order to transcend it. Once she has left home, it is Munro’s great achievement to say something clear and ringing without appearing to say anything special.
Along with the sexual revolution, Munro’s stories chronicle the assimilation of popular psychology into ordinary middle- and working-class homes, a cultural change almost as profound. In the story “The Ticket,” Munro writes about how her parents referred to each other as “Mother and Daddy” even when they weren’t talking to, or even about, their children: “They seemed to have forgotten each other’s first names.” This is not the kind of marriage she wants. In “Fathers,” however, there is a suggestion of how a new fluidity in family roles might be equally pernicious. The story presents three fathers, two who beat their children (Munro’s included), and one who at first seems to the reader to be an improvement on the older model. The narrator visits a friend’s house and is amazed at the behavior of the girl’s parents, who have decorated the house, cooked a meal, and even arranged a charade in which the father serves his daughter and her friend as if he were a waiter in a restaurant. Whatever they’re doing, the narrator doesn’t like it: “Such slopping-over of attention made me feel cornered and humiliated, almost as if somebody had taken a peep into my pants.” That “peep into my pants,” the way the sentence devolves into scatological baby talk, gets at precisely what is disturbing about this intimacy: the erasing of boundaries between adults and children. The language of childhood sexual abuse — the mainstay of contemporary memoir — is appropriate here, but a Munro story could never turn on such an event. Anything so determined would upset the radical ambivalence that characterizes Munro’s fiction, and gives even her completely invented characters their vivid humanity.
The explosion of memoir in our time must have something to do with our relatively recent familiarity with the language of psychology. Munro is deeply skeptical of this trend, even as her characters exemplify it (a typically Munrovian trick). In The Beggar Maid, Rose remembers going through “a period, like most people nowadays, of talking freely about her most private decisions, to friends and lovers and party acquaintances whom she might never see again.” She resists the term “memoir,” even for the personal stories in The View from Castle Rock — those that deal with her own life rather than the lives of her forebears — writing in the foreword: “They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person.” The stories at the end of Dear Life move even closer. In “Night,” the second of them, a young teenager suffers from insomnia — and something worse. Each night, lying on the top bunk of her bed, she imagines herself climbing down and strangling her little sister. The thought is so powerful, so compelling, that her only recourse is to sneak outside, carefully removing a chair wedged under the door — a detail that appears elsewhere in Munro’s work, evoking a precarious sense of security — and walk around the house until the feeling subsides. On one of these night walks she meets her father and impulsively confesses her fantasy. To her surprise, he isn’t shocked; he says only that these are thoughts people have sometimes, but that they aren’t real or worrisome:
If this were happening today, he might have made an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist. (I think that is what I might have done for a child, a generation and an income further on.)
The fact is, what he did worked as well. It set me down, but without either mockery or alarm, in the world we were living in.
The beatings have not been forgotten: Munro reminds us of them in the next paragraph. They exist alongside this wise advice, as effective as (and much more efficient than) a visit to a psychiatrist. Even if the events she describes happened just as they happen here — and Munro suggests that they did — it’s her fictional method rather than verisimilitude that makes these stories feel so true. Munro’s powerful sympathy, her long view, and in particular her powers of emotional observation, unrivaled among her contemporaries, give readers a window into a time period that has otherwise suffered from being overrepresented in sloppy and stereotypical ways.
Anyone who reads American newspapers and glossy magazines today will be familiar with the type of short memoir that tells the story of unusual or especially significant events in the author’s life. At the end of such a piece of writing, the reader often has an empty, unsatisfied feeling, as if the characters and situations so faithfully described don’t correspond to any recognizable version of reality. Dramatic occurrences — illness and death, betrayal and divorce — have been vigorously milked for some revelation or meaning, and in the process drained of their lifelikeness. “If it’s not one thing it will be another,” Munro writes in The View from Castle Rock: “At least that was a saying of my elders in those days. Mysterious, uncomforting, unaccusing.” Those characteristics are what make Munro’s stories almost the inverse of today’s memoirs, which tend to be explanatory, comforting, and eager to assign blame, especially to parents. What is it that makes Munro’s stories feel so much more true than writing that purports to be entirely so?
In The View from Castle Rock, Munro describes the talent she had for entertaining her family with accounts of life in town: “I had mastered a deadpan, even demure style that could make people laugh even when they thought they shouldn’t and that made it hard to tell whether I was innocent or malicious.” That’s still a very good description of Munro’s tone, which conceals a great deal of complexity under an apparently straightforward surface. Maybe that’s why her type of realism is sometimes confused with traditionalism, when what she does, on the levels of structure and of sentences, is frequently radical. Her endings are famously unpredictable, and often involve shifts of sympathy among her characters, allowing a story that seems to be moving in one direction suddenly to snap into place a different way. In “Voices,” the story about seeing the prostitute at the dance, we suspect that the Air Force men comforting the girl on the stairs are the ones who caused her injury in the first place — a suspicion that never occurs to the child narrator. She hears only their gentle voices, made even more appealing by an English or Scottish lilt: “Such kindness. That anybody could be so kind.” The reader expects her, looking back, to see this incident for what it probably was — some sort of sexual violation, now being carefully hushed — but the story ends on a wholly different note, imagining the futures of these men “all bound up with disaster.” Munro doesn’t forgive them so much as pin them, insect-like, in time, throwing the relationship between sex and mortality into suggestive relief. The experience of reading a Munro story is something like hearing an anecdote that you knew as a child — dulled by repetition — and recognizing another interpretation, one that alters all the memories around it. Munro seems to build this temporal leap into her fiction, so that her readers have the benefit of immersion in the moment and of hindsight all at once.
The ending of Lives of Girls and Women has the same effect. Munro skips forward and backward in time, so Del Jordan in one scene has failed to win the scholarship that was going to change her life, and then, a few pages later, is still waiting for her exam results. It’s a rare fiction writer who never plays with time, but what Munro does here is more unusual; it made me go back in order to be sure I didn’t misread the earlier section. She replaces the anticipated ending — either success or failure on the exam — with a different one, a visit to an eccentric town character who unwittingly teaches her a lesson about the difficulty of turning real people into characters. Munro’s endings often create suspense in the most ordinary situations — a woman approaching a house where a baby sleeps outside in a carriage — only to defuse it in a way that confounds the reader’s expectations. Somehow the result of this trick is not bathos but profundity; we see that the story means something more than we thought it might. In “Night,” the story about the girl walking outside so that she isn’t tempted to strangle her sister, she suddenly becomes aware that “there was somebody around the corner. There was somebody waiting there and I could do nothing but walk right on.” Of course it is her father, and the relief in that discovery leads to the wholly unexpected relief he gives her for her anxiety.
Munro is, of course, exclusively a story writer; of Lives of Girls and Women, she has said that she couldn’t finish it until she decided to reimagine it as a set of linked stories. She isn’t afraid of repetition, from one book to another or even inside a single book; she will reintroduce a character we already know well from another story or another chapter. She has a habit of beginning sentences with “So,” as if she were in the midst of an ongoing argument with the reader, or with herself: “So part of the accumulation was that of fifty years or so of family life.” Most writers will admit to an anxiety about where the next book will come from; with Munro, the question is more likely to be whether she can possibly get through all the stories she has to tell. That’s even more remarkable, given the relatively narrow scope of her subject matter. Narrow, but deep — with few writers does the reader get a sense of so little reaching for “material,” that the foundational matter of her fiction was already solidly beneath her long before she began to write.
In both The View from Castle Rock and Dear Life, Munro calls into question the verisimilitude of her descriptions, comparing the act of remembering to that of writing fiction. An astonishing, golden-orange taffeta dress on the madam who brings the prostitute to the party leads Munro to observe: “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.” She calls her family’s hardship, once her mother gets sick and her father’s fox-farming business begins to fail, “just too much. . . . It wouldn’t do in fiction.” And so Munro’s real-life stories are less memoir as we know it than a kind of professional remembering, altogether different from the haphazard storytelling we all do about our pasts. The four stories of the “Finale” are not new, and they are short compared with almost all of Munro’s other work. This is because they have been told and retold in different forms, until what is left is a distillation of a real experience — not a mixture of fact and fiction, but something that is true only because it has been modified and shaped in this way. The fact that she marks them as a “Finale” is fitting, since Munro’s work has always found its greatest resonance in what lies closest to home. As Del Jordan discovers in Lives of Girls and Women, “People’s lives . . . were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”
The title story in this collection recalls a short paragraph in Lives, almost a note for a future story, about a woman who is called, in that book, Mrs. Sherriff. “Another story: once the Red Front Grocery had forgotten to put a pound of butter in her order, and she had come after the grocery boy with a hatchet.” This is a story Munro’s mother told her, and from an adult vantage point, Munro notes that “Some things about this story were puzzling, though I didn’t think about them at the time and neither did my mother. How could the old woman have been sure already that the butter was missing in the load of groceries? And why would she have come equipped with a hatchet before she knew there was any fault to find?” This story returns in “Dear Life”; the woman’s real name is Netterfield. As a child Munro preferred another story about Mrs. Netterfield, not least because she is a character in it. Long after the incident with the hatchet, her mother is washing baby clothes in the sink when she sees Mrs. Netterfield coming toward the house, “not making a friendly approach.” Munro is an infant, napping outside in the carriage, and her mother hurriedly snatches her up. The “crazy old woman” rifles through the blankets in the carriage, throwing one on the ground, and proceeds to move around the house, systematically pressing her face against the windows. Munro’s mother remembers the most dramatic details of the story; she is thrilled, as we all are, when an event in her life falls into a narrative pattern, complete with danger and suspense. She tells that story immediately and haphazardly, without concern for inconsistency, and given that, it isn’t bad.
What her daughter does with it is entirely different. Even a basic familiarity with Munro’s life allows a reader to know that the Netterfield story isn’t the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to her. It comes at the end of what might be her final collection because it’s the real-life story that happens to yield a truth at the center of her fiction — a truth that could not be had without considering its details in a fictional way over a lifetime. Readers might recognize the evocative name “Netterfield”—at once prickly, entrapping, and bucolic — from “The Progress of Love,” published in 1985, in which the first-person narrator’s father dies in the “Netterfield County Home.” In “Dear Life,” twenty-seven years later, Munro describes how she found out, through an accidental discovery in her hometown newspaper, that the house she grew up in was also Mrs. Netterfield’s childhood home. Suddenly a motivation, poignant as any fictional character’s, presents itself. An old woman going senile might come to peer into the windows of her own home, and even search for a long-since-grown child in a carriage. But where many writers would leave a story, moving and full of meaning, Munro continues, turning it into something personally uncomfortable, and finally uncomfortable for us all. When Munro heard the story as a child, she asked her mother what happened to Mrs. Netterfield; her mother apparently said, “They took her away.” Whether to the county home or not, we aren’t sure; the point is, “She wasn’t left to die alone.” At the end of the story, in a single paragraph, Munro explains that she didn’t go home the last time her mother got sick (with Parkinson’s disease) and died. “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.”
It would be stupid to spend one’s time parsing these stories for bits that could be invented, trying to prove that the stories themselves might be one thing or another. Munro has allowed that she has an especially good memory, and it may be that she knows exactly what her mother said when asked about Mrs. Netterfield more than half a century ago. What’s important is the way that line of dialogue brings the whole extraordinary story — a story which has only an accidental connection with the writer and her mother — around to that central relationship, the bedrock of Munro’s fiction. That sudden and surprising move allows the reader a third perspective: one that leaves Netterfield, and even Munro’s mother, behind. It connects the cultural shift of the 1960s and ’70s (when Munro was publishing her first books) with our contemporary habits of self-congratulatory confession and absolution — or in other words, uncovers something nasty beneath the kitchen linoleum.
“When you write about real people,” Munro notes in The View from Castle Rock, “you are always up against contradictions.” Del Jordan finds the same thing at the end of Lives of Girls and Women when she tries to write a novel of her own: “the main thing was that it seemed true to me, not real but true, as if I had discovered, not made up, such people and such a story, as if that town was lying close behind the one I walked through every day.” The problem comes when Bobby Sherriff, son of hatchet-wielding Mrs. Sherriff — Netterfield’s fictional incarnation — invites her into his house for a piece of cake. He and his family are the inspiration for Del’s novel, but as she sits on the porch with him, his real and particular strangeness easily collapses the shaky fictional structure she has built around him. All at once, the invented town that appeared to lie “close” behind the actual town moves tantalizingly out of reach. Del and her author will spend their lives getting closer.