By Alice Munro
John Cheever once said “a collection of short stories is generally thought to be a horrendous clinker; an enforced courtesy for the elderly writer who wants to display the trophies of his youth.” At 81, Alice Munro chides such a notion with this, her latest collection. These 14 stories are so good, unpredictable and full of mayhem before they zip the reader to safety. Munro, of course, has been doing this for decades, in 12 previous collections and her novel-in-stories, The Lives of Girls and Women. What separates Dear Life from that work is how Munro has cheerfully turned away from the submissive and self-denigrating women who suffered under male callousness in, say, 2001’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Her heroines are now free, at the reins of their extravagant curiosities.
In “To Reach Japan,” a married woman, Greta, indulges in a romp with a much younger stranger on a train while her toddler sleeps in a nearby compartment: “At first no end of stifled laughter, then the great shocks of pleasure, with no place to look but into each other’s wide eyes.” Here is a quintessential Munro sex scene—somewhat awkward and enticing in an animalistic way, but with the details that would merit an R rating withheld. When Greta gets off the train, she’s presented with another male object of desire… who is also not her husband.
The short-story form seems to present different possibilities for Munro than it does for other writers. Short fiction is often compared to film, and indeed a Hateship, Loveship film is being shot in New Orleans right now. But because of Munro’s acute economy of language, her 20-page tales feel more like super-condensed novels. Character histories are established with one or two well-chosen turns of phrase. From “Voices”: “There she was, calling my name through the music in the tone I particularly disliked, the tone that seemed to especially remind me that it was thanks to her I was on this earth at all.” Voyeuristic glimpses follow, and soon you’re hoping for the best outcome in a train wreck. It’s not for nothing that Munro has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy and Flaubert.
Dear Life’s last four stories form a semi-autobiographical cycle that Munro introduces as “the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” They are about her strained relationship with her mother and growing up in places in Ontario that the sidewalks have yet to reach. They feel like a literal bookend to her legacy of storytelling.
It’s worth noting that the blighted minority of male protagonists in Dear Life endure their share of catastrophes: one is a transient with a history of family abuse; another has a genital abnormality. The female advantage is clear. The notion that this book is feminist, however, doesn’t go far enough. Dear Life is full of casual misandry, which could repel men who lack an empathic connection with the opposite sex. But for those who don’t, Munro’s lessons about humanity are available to all.