Reviewed by Farhad Mirza
Keeping a safe distance from the trappings of a flashy career, Alice Munro remains one of the foremost short-story writers today. Despite winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2009, she seems to ignore the gimmicks associated with most successful careers in modern publishing.
Her new collection, Dear Life, is the culmination of her phenomenon. Her narration is more candid and conversational than her previous works, despite being equally unsentimental. Even when she is talking about her absence at her own mother's funeral, she doesn't risk mawkishness; instead her justifications are brutally honest and nonchalant: “We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behaviour, but why blame it on him? I felt the same.”
It is obvious that her language is economical — her reclusive preferences seep in to her style. So much so, that the charge of indolence is never too far away when one encounters an exhausted phrase on the second page of the very first story ('To Reach Japan'): “She avoided anything useful like the plague.”
There is, however, a deceptive technique at work: Munro’s words do not impose themselves on her characters, they do not intrude in their lives. The lives of her characters seem to linger on in the reader's imagination, beyond the confines of language, and perhaps, there-in lies the secret of her trick: Munro can unlock her characters by subverting the physical laws of language. What she does is not so much sculpting her characters by exerting pressure on language, but chiselling them out from the stony mass of language.
Having said that, Munro's style often renders annoyances that disrupt the energy one needs to jump across the bottomless spaces between the pages. Though, she is not obliged to please everybody, Munro writes about rural life in Ontario, Canada, in a nondescript way, which makes one feel excluded from the nuances of the story. Perhaps Munro's linguistic choices reflect the monotony of rural life but they do not reflect the needs of a reader who is unfamiliar with Ontario's rural life.
Her stories operate like a Sinfonietta, running quicker than the pace they should be read at. Readers are left hanging in the middle of momentous moments; moments that resemble the beginning of an earthquake. This is exemplified in the opening of the second story 'Amundsen': “On the bench outside the station I sat and waited…”.
The story is about a young woman, Vivien, a teacher at a sanatorium for children with tuberculosis. She becomes romantically involved with a medic who works there. Though the scene is tailored for romance, things do not pan out as expected. The medic is an evidently unreliable candidate and when the wedding is inevitably aborted, Vivien is shocked.
The thematic stream of all these stories is the relationship between time and memory. Tangled in the faulty wiring of traumatic memories, Vivien is deprived of a profound recovery. Munro hints that Vivien is now married, though the indication is that it is not a happy one. For Vivien, meeting the man who had betrayed her “was the same as when I left Amundsen, the train dragging me still dazed and full of disbelief ... Nothing changes really about love.”
By sowing a guilty curiosity in us, Munro makes us notice the treacherous terrain of time and the rugged topography of memory. She garners sympathy for her doomed characters by making the reader privy to the knowledge of things to come and yet incapable of intervening. Just as casually as we had been dropped in, we are then extracted out of Vivien's life, and one could almost be angry at Munro for taking Vivien away before amends are made, and our guilt resolved.
Munro might be over-selling the rigidity of small-town life, but she depicts her characters — particularly the women — as unaware participants caught in the pivotal moments of a shared history. They are caught on the margins of changing cultural norms, and torn between freedom and domesticity, independence and the need to belong.
In 'Haven,' a young woman is forced to live with an overbearing uncle and his wife. Through her narration, we explore the uncle's inability to come to terms with his sister — a concert violinist determined to make it in the big city. Munro also does a wonderful job of portraying the unquestioning servitude of the uncle's wife, as the frail ghost of squandered desires. “There was a quantity of things that men hated,” the niece observes, “Or had no use for, as they said.”
These characters are scorched by the friction between desire and duty; some of them are driven by unhinged passions, tormented by unmerited expectations, others engaged in an unchallenged subservience to the sanctity of societal consensus, and depleted in the belly of historical transformations.
Munro never loses her balance and shows different facets of these cultural ligaments: how the shame of pursuing desires that history has no vocabulary for exhausts and kills us, and the bitterness of abandoning desires that society deems non-negotiable makes us hurt others who wish not to.
The four final entries make this volume a treat for Munro fans. The reader is introduced to these pieces as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact”. Munro writes, “I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”
Having reached the frail age of 81, it is no surprise that these pieces are bleak, dealing with — among other things — the recollections of a sibling's death, tinged with a sense of culpability.
Once again, Munro delves into the subject of time and memory, and the impression of their collusions upon reality. She seems perplexed by the inauthenticity of memory, by the careless inflections of fate, and the burden of responsibility. Her characters are outstretched, trying to map the coordinates of their reality as dictated by the maligned memories to carry around their shoulders.
However, as its title and the concluding tale suggests, this book is not meant to be cynical in its outlook. It is a bittersweet ode to life, encompassing a celebration of its quiet oddities as well as its boisterous regularities.
For Munro, memory is inconsistent and thus, malleable. Convinced that one must constantly negotiate the terms on which our histories are situated, Munro touches upon the heart of these stories: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.” We must remember to forgive ourselves, because there is no reliable reason for which History should be allowed to punish us.
Moreover, Munro insists these are “not quite stories”. Much like Munro's characters, they appear to be ideas caught in the margins of a process. It is liberating to read these “not quite stories” — these meditations on how time and memory discern our lives — for secretly, we all covet the courage to defend those bits of us that others have “no use for”.
These stories act as pillars of defiance, upholding the notion that civilisation needs the things it deems useless — be it an ambitious violin player in a small town, or an 81-year-old storyteller returning to her desk, for the simple delight of her fans.
By Alice Munro