Books

Alice Munro: A Finale?

Alice Munro has pleaded retirement a handful of times in recent years, and with her new short story collection Dear Life: Stories, she told The New Yorker she thinks it’s for real. At eighty-one years old, Canada’s most celebrated short story writer is probably entitled to consider some “me” time, a little respite after six decades of cranking out story after story, book after book. This one ends with a section called “Finale,” comprised of four pieces that Munro describes as “not quite stories,” but rather, “the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” Whether or not Dear Life proves a true finale, the book is classic Munro: fused with characters that are buoyant and real, woven with nuance and wit, soaked in so much detail that if any one of these stories was squeezed alongside a duly doused novel, they would wring forth a competitive bucketful.

Reading this latest—maybe last—collection is a bit like sorting through an attic, rediscovering moments, people, places, and things that came before, mattered before, had been, at one time or another, familiar and true. These are odes to nostalgia, nods to the permanent grip of the past. Whisked across time and place, the characters in Dear Life brush against their own pasts in unlikely moments and circumstance. And in some of these moments, where life just bumps into itself and spills over and throws years of compartmentalizing out the window, it is like these characters that Munro has created are finding the old diaries and photos that should have been destroyed a long, long time ago. You know, the kind of relics that make you cringe or fume or hum to cancel out the mortification or rage or disappointment, even years later. But the nice thing about Munro is that she tells the whole story. Life is teeming with cross-over logic that makes it possible to misread situations, to make spectacularly bad decisions, or to throw it all away on a lark. This kind of complexity is not easily replicated in writing, but Munro finds a way of telling you how things went down—the backstory, the gritty secrets, and the moment when it all came rushing back. And in Dear Life, at least for me, it’s this rushing back that makes the stories sing:

It finally happened. Crossing a crowded street where you could not even slow down. Going in opposite directions. Staring, at the same time, a bare shock on our time-damaged faces.

This line toward the end of “Amundsen,” a story about a young woman jilted by a quirky doctor at the remote sanatorium where she is a teacher, captures that thrilling, horrid incredulity of chance encounters. When this happens to me, I’m usually far from the places and rituals of my day-to-day life: in foreign cities, across the country, at remote rest stops. I double-take, spotting—so certainly, for a split second—the strikingly familiar profile of a long-forgotten classmate, or the unmistakable mannerisms of an old co-worker. And whether it’s imagined familiarity—a doppelganger gone as quickly as it appeared—or whether it’s a true crossing of paths—that exact person on the wrong side of the world—I feel, however fleetingly, astonished by random happenstance in a crazy big universe, and a bit uncertain about how my life landed me right there, right then.

Throughout Dear Life, these moments—both the deja vu and the one-in-a-million—occur again and again. In “Train,” a young man leaps from a slow-moving train and into a completely new era of his own identity. Years later, a doorbell rings in the office where he works. He moves to answer it, but someone else reaches the door first. From the hallway, he overhears the unmistakable voice of an old lover, Ileane (“Jackson knew her voice without a doubt. That woman was Ileane.”). This person, previously unmentioned in the story, has been absent from Jackson’s life for decades. As he hovers outside the room, listening as the woman Ileane asks after her daughter, a former tenant in the building, Munro takes us back in time with him, revealing, carefully bit by bit, the roots of Jackson’s untethered nature. When she returns the story to the present moment, Ileane has gone away. Jackson ponders the missed reunion, wondering what she looked like now and how she would have reacted if she’d seen him:

If she had seen him, would she have known him? He thought so. No matter what the changes. And she’d have forgiven him, yes, right on the spot. To keep up her notion of herself, always.

The next day whatever ease he had felt about Ileane passing from his life was gone. She knew this place, she might come back… It was possible he would run into her right outside this door. Surprised only for a moment, as if she had always expected him. Holding out the possibilities of life, the way she thought she could.

In his speculation there’s a splash of darkness, maybe fearfulness, that paints Jackson as a man who hides behind assumptions about the underbelly of other people’s character. And so he leaves that place, moving to another version of his life, just as he’d left behind Ileane when he jumped from the train as a young man.

Life does not pivot on these flukes, and Munro is true to that. Her characters do not melt down at the sight of their past, but rather the brush against it becomes part of their narrative, deftly wiggled in between the true ingredients for irrevocable change: realizations, announcements, decisions, deaths. In “Leaving Maverly,”a story where characters rove in and out of each other’s lives as years pass, a man encounters an old acquaintance just as his wife, suffering from a long, debilitating illness, passes away. As he goes through the motions of arrangements, he’s stymied by the weight of his grief, unexpected given the years she’d already been basically gone in a vegetative state. But the thought of this chance meeting lifts his spirit: “A relief all out of proportion, to remember her.”

Here, and in other places throughout Dear Life, Munro is sympathetic to the reality that honest emotion sometimes eclipses expected or appropriate response. In the “Finale” section, she recounts a phase of her own adolescence when she had trouble sleeping, plagued by “the thought that I could strangle my little sister, who was asleep in the bunk below me and whom I loved more than anybody in the world.” She reveals this disturbing idea to her father when they run into each other on the kitchen stoop early one sleepless morning. He tells her not to worry, that “people have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.” Those kinds of thoughts—and we’ve all had them—pop up again and again across Munro’s work, in varying degrees of darkness and light. People push away loved ones with hurtful lies, invented out of nowhere. In “Pride,” an aging man is unequivocally “angry, scared, appalled” when a platonic female friend suggests that she could move into his house for shared companionship and support as they grow older. Even though he sees the sense in her idea, in a heartbeat he tells her it’s impossible, he’s selling the house, and just like that, gives up the home he’s lived in all his life.They are struck, with unequivocal certainty, by ideas that unhinge their perception of reality.

In “Corrie,” a love affair between a wealthy disabled woman and a married man is discovered by a housekeeper, who blackmails the illicit couple for decades. When the woman hears that the housekeeper has died, she is suddenly relieved of the “queasy feeling, the never-quite-safeness of it, the burden on their long love, that had made her unhappy.” Lightened, she starts a letter to let her lover know, but wakes in the morning with a premonition—“A cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest”—that she’s spent her life loving a man who’s been pocketing the money all along.

They act on flashes of distrust and hints of attraction and are seized by unqualified doubt and sudden indifference. In “Dolly,”a seventy-one-year-old woman watches her “unofficial husband”—the eighty-three-year-old man she’s spent her life with—reunite with a long-ago lover: “And they stood halted in their tracks. How could they have missed it, they said. Realizing, I supposed, that it would not do to spread their arms and fall upon each other.” As she watches him drive this once-upon-a-time girlfriend to the service station to deal with her broken-down car, she is convinced that he’s falling for the muse of his youth all over again. She wants “to run after them, pound them to pieces,” but instead she packs her suitcase, drops her house-key through the mail slot, and decamps for a motel.

Ghosts of Munro’s earlier works graze the surface of stories in Dear Life, not quite lookalikes but close enough to consider the possibility that there’s no such thing as a final iteration of an idea. “Miles City, Montana,” from Selected Stories, contains a heart-stopping moment where a child almost drowns during a young family’s cross-country road trip. In “Gravel,” from Dear Life, Munro crafts a similarly eerie scene that evokes the same despairing fear and suspense as the adult narrator recalls her stalled response as child  to her sister’s flailing in a backyard gravel pit full of melted snow and rain. There’s an unpublished story described in Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro, a memoir by her daughter Sheila Munro, about a young man who repeatedly travels by train to his hometown but can’t bring himself to leave the station. Each time, he has a cup of coffee before boarding a train back to where he came from. Maybe when Munro wrote “Train”—“Then it came to him quite easily, that a person could just not be there”—she was exercising her right as a prolific, unquestionably great writer, who has the luxury of repeating herself, trying on another version of her own premise.

Memories are constantly reshaped by retelling, the details folding in and facts shifting, however slightly. We do this without even noticing—or we do it once to make ourselves feel better, and then quickly forget the story ever happened any other way. Robert Thacker’s biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, contains extensive examples of Munro’s life and family history resurfacing in her work, but Munro herself has long maintained that her stories are fictional and any autobiographical detail in them is simply a jumping off point.

In an interview at the 2005 Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival, Munro describes a transitional moment early in her career when she went home the summer after her mother’s death. She talks about how her relatives’ approach to cleaning out her mother’s things was practical and unsentimental, and how the experience evoked a new urgency in her writing. “I had to write it,” she said in the interview. “And I had to write it in a completely different way than I had written anything else—a way in which I wanted to not just make an effective story, but get as much human truth out of this event as I could.” She notes this as the point where her personal experience began to inform her stories.

The lines at the opening of Dear Life’s final section reinforce this point, and perhaps decades of insisting upon this distance from autobiography (while very successfully infusing a certain real­-ness and astute judgment of character and circumstance) have landed her in a unique position where everyone likes it and no one calls it redundant when she crafts new versions of old stories. Maybe that’s the privilege that comes from a very successful long game. Or maybe it’s because her stories are still damn good.

Alyssa Vine lives in New York.