Poor Rose. Review of Dear Life by Alice Munro. By Christian Lorentzen
There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she’s never sentimental. She writes about and redeems ordinary life, ordinary people – ‘people people people’, as Jonathan Franzen puts it.
Ordinary people turn out to live in a rural corner of Ontario between Toronto and Lake Huron, and to be white, Christian, prudish and dangling on a class rung somewhere between genteel poverty and middle-class comfort. Occasionally they move to the vicinity of Vancouver, only to go back to Ontario again. If this patch of the North Country sounds like a provincial cage, just think of it as a Canadian Yoknapatawpha County, and ignore the ways the plainspoken Munro is otherwise anti-Faulknerian. (‘I didn’t really like Faulkner that much,’ she has said.) It might be too much to call her an anti-modernist, rather than someone on whom modernism didn’t leave much of an impression, but her conventionality – a writer ‘of the old school’ in Anne Tyler’s phrase – won’t quite do. For her admirers it needs to be offset by some kind of innovation. They usually point to her manipulation of time – her tic of adding a coda to a story, marked usually by the words ‘years later’ – as if she were the Doctor Who of upmarket short story writing. Her great theme is said to be memory, and there’s certainly something universal about remembering. ‘That Alice Munro, now 81,’ Charles McGrath, her first editor at the New Yorker, wrote recently in the New York Times, ‘is one of the great short story writers not just of our time but of any time ought to go without saying by now.’ ‘Alice Munro,’ James Wood wrote in the LRB in 1997 on the publication of her Selected Stories, ‘is such a good writer that nobody bothers anymore to judge her goodness … her reputation is like a good address.’
It’s an address I wouldn’t want to move to, and I didn’t enjoy my recent visit. But the impulse to say that makes me wonder whether I’m some sort of big city chauvinist, or a misogynist, or autistic, or a decadent reader deaf to the charms of simple sentences, perfectly polished (‘Alice Munro excites the writer in me,’ A.S. Byatt says, ‘there is something new to learn from her in every sentence’) and perfectly humourless. Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder. I grew attuned to the ways life is shabby or grubby, words that come up all the time in her stories, as well as to people’s residential and familial histories, details she never leaves out. How many rooms are in the house, and what sort of furniture and who used to own it and what is everybody wearing? To ask these questions is to live your life like a work of realism. I saw everyone heading towards cancer, or a case of dementia that would rob them of the memories of the little adulteries they’d probably committed and must have spent their whole lives thinking about. ‘You’re reading them the wrong way,’ someone told me. This too ought to go without saying. Munro’s stories suffer when they’re collected because the right way to read them is in a magazine, where they can be tucked between, say, a report on the war in Syria and a reconsideration of Stefan Zweig to provide a rural interlude between current atrocities and past masterpieces, or profiles of celebrities or sophisticated entrepreneurs. A slice of sad life in the sticks, filtered through an enlightened eye and most likely set ‘in the old days’, as the first line of one of the stories in her new collection, Dear Life, puts it. It’s perhaps her consistency that her admirers cherish: ‘like butterscotch pudding on the boil’.