I spent most of December (and even a few days in January) taking my sweet time through Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, Dear Life. It’s a very rich book and, as always with short story collections of this quality, I look forward to revising its stories in the future. Short fiction, like poetry, demands rereading. In the meantime, I can still offer a few thoughts about what may very well turn out to be Munro’s last collection.
In fact, I was already familiar with two of the stories in Dear Life before I read the book. I try to get a copy of the New Yorker to read when I’m traveling, and I was lucky enough to fall upon Munro’s “Corrie” when I took the train in England in the fall of 2010 and then “Amundsen” when I first flew over to Vancouver last August. While both these stories are very different in tone, they are representative of Dear Life because of their focus on relationships and solitude. Charles May has offered a very thorough analysis of “Amundsen” on his blog, in which he suggests that the story illustrates the cultural and societal divides between the world of men and the world of women. “Corrie,” on the other hand, is the sparsely told story of a woman who’s life is made hollow by the man she loves.
Old age is a crushing presence in many of these stories. “Pride” explores companionship in old age and the things a person must leave as the surrounding world changes. “In Sight of the Lake” is a dizzying, closely narrated story about memory and confusion. While these two stories should resonate very strongly with the author’s own reality, they are in fact the least successful in the book because of their structure; their endings seem a little forced and artificial, which is unusual for Munro. But then, “Dolly,” about an ageing couple who get into an odd argument when they come in contact with the poet husband’s old lover, is a perfectly balanced piece of fiction, at once tragic and funny.
As usual, Munro excels at characters. A few light details or lines of dialogue are all we require from her as readers to recognize exactly what kind of people she is writing about. For instance, in “Train,” the collection’s longest story, Munro manages to stitch together several periods in a man’s life with a considerable number of coincidences by the sheer force of the fascinating, quirky, very real character she is exploring, while withholding the basic information that any other writer would give away immediately. Honestly, I wish I knew how she does it.
All in all, Dear Life didn’t quite move me as much as Munro’s 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. The stories here seem more varied in voice and content, which could be a good thing, except it makes the whole seem disparate—like a bunch of material was pulled together to make a final book. Like music albums, Munro’s other books tend to form coherent clusters of stories, even if these stories aren’t necessarily linked. Charles May has suggested that the first story in Dear Life, “To Reach Japan,” (which by the way is a brilliant piece of fiction as a stand-alone), might be an earlier story that Munro had never published. Another of the best stories in this collection, “Gravel,” with its revisiting of a childhood death through the lens of memory, seems to have been pulled right out of Too Much Happiness, in which death and violence feature prominently.
One of the most interesting features of Dear Life is that the four last stories are grouped together under the header “Finale.” Munro tells us that these stories, only one of which had been published before, in the New Yorker, are autobiographical in feeling more than in fact. Independently, these pieces are snapshots, moments in Munro’s childhood, half understood at the time and mostly focused around her mother. Read together, however, the pieces create an intriguing yet quiet effect; they circle the same facts and feelings, the same reality, in order to produce what is essentially the inception of everything Alice Munro has ever written. If Dear Life is indeed Munro’s last book, then we as readers couldn’t have asked for a more fitting ending.