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.