The Riddle of Alice Munro

One riddle: as I sit down to write this review of her latest, Dear Life, why do I keep toggling back to read about Lena Dunham?!?!?!?

Why oh why?!

Another riddle: why is she so cryptic in this interview?

Ms. Munro, whom everyone nearly beatifies but no one puts on any glossy lit magazine covers, do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

I never think about being a feminist writer, but of course I wouldn’t know. I don’t see things all put together in that way. I do think it’s plenty hard to be a man. Think if I’d had to support a family, in those early years of failure?

MUNRO, JUST USE THE DAMN WORD. It won’t hurt anyone.

You write about the women’s movement changing culture. You write about women after it, and before it. Women who needed it and didn’t have it. Women who came up short against it, or who benefited from it and still lost some of themselves anyway.

Damn enigmatic genius

Nah, she can call herself whatever she wants. She has no obligation to all the women who work hard to bust out of our straightjackets, only to be shut back into them, more tightly than before. Except that’s the only woman she writes about. Ever.

But yes, Ms. Munro, men have their own straightjackets, too. And it’s interesting, sure. But I want to talk about Dear Life, where, in general, men do the tightening. Sympathetically, maybe, but.

One story about a man startled me. “Train.” This man, Jackson, leaps a train on his way home from the war—that’s WWII to you. And he ends up at a slightly older woman’s farm.

People he’d met in the last few year seemed to think that if you weren’t from a city, you were from the country. And that was not true. There were distinctions you could miss unless you lived there, between country and town. Jackson himself was the son of a plumber. He had never been in a stable in his life or herded cows or stooked grain. …And right now a garter snake slithering between the rails, perfectly confident he won’t be quick enough to tramp on and murder it. He does know enough to figure that it’s harmless, but the confidence riles him.


So here’s the thing about this collection: Every single sentence rings. I can’t explain why. Do you hear it ringing? The ominous ambiguity between city and town? Between train (human) and nature (snake)? Between Jackson himself and the snake? Which “he” is “he” talking about? The oblique reference to traumatized wartime bonhomie? The exoticization of rural life? The prim, cut-off reference to his father? The delightful “stooked grain”?

But maybe I’m just paying more attention because she’s old, 82, and may not write any more. Maybe I relished each sentence because it may be my last chance to read them for the first time. Even though I already read about half of these stories, or more, in The New Yorker over the past few years.

Or maybe each sentence, despite its plain language, really does ring. You have to read this book slowly, before you get sleepy. It may interfere with your daily life. It may prevent completion of certain important quotidian functions.

Here’s another rich ambiguity in “To Reach Japan,” mentioned in many reviews because it’s first in the collection. And awesome. Protagonist Greta is a poet who married a boring engineer and had a daughter, Katy, an older toddler, maybe around 3? Greta has a fling on a train and Katy gets lost looking for her mom. Later, Greta arrives at her destination. Trying not to give away the ending, but here, look how this story ends:

First a shock, then a tumbling in Greta’s insides, an immense settling.

She was trying to hang on to Katy but at this moment the child pulled away and got her hand free.

She didn’t try to escape. She just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.

Who didn’t try to escape? The daughter or the mother?

When, in fact, both have escaped a few times over during the course of the story?

And when, in fact, many stories in the book try to pin down ever-escaping relations between parents and children? When most stories end with an acceptance of what we’ll never know or understand about the past? The inevitability of “whatever had to come next.”

Reviews have described Munro’s trajectory from naturalism to expressionism, and perhaps “expressionism” is a good enough adjective for this ringing I hear in each sentence.

And yes, the more or less autobiographical sketches closing out the book are as formally sketchy as memories of life feel. I also found them a bit less fun to read, and a little more disturbing.

And I might, hesitantly call this collection more dark than others. The same subject matter—rural or marginalized women (and a few men) trying to find some kind of fulfillment that continually evades them—as other books, but a generally grimmer outlook.

On the other hand, maybe my outlook is grimmer? And all her later-career collections are just as grim?

This book traps us willingly in an impossibility: a present moment composed of partly recalled past moments, endless questions about those past moments, difficulty reshaping these fragments in a narrative that might cohere our present selves.

Her autobiographical sketches bring this most clearly to the fore, full of Munro’s attempts to puzzle out her parents’ motivations for this unexpected dressy outfit, that story that doesn’t make sense in retrospect. Questions she’d like to ask them and never will. And, in my favorite of that section, the shocking affrontery of someone else who lays claim to the same patch of western Ontario land young Alice believed was hers alone.

But every story presents the same impossibility. The same missed chance, the same dreamish dissolution of self.

I would like to resist the obvious generational contrasts between Munro and Dunham (did you think that was a throw-away quip? Aw, maybe you haven’t read enough round here) and assert that they are both mining the same vein: how women try to be extraordinary when their world would do just about anything to prevent it. With Dunham’s youthful optimism a more meaningful contrast, to me, than her smartphone contemporaneity.

And certainly Dunham’s characters have grown up after feminism did much of its most significant work. Munro’s characters, even the ones who grew through the women’s movement, are still wrestling with a profound lack of opportunity.

And Munro’s rare attention to men reveals them burdened by the same lack of opportunity. While Dunham’s characters and show are commonly reviled (unfairly, I obviously think) for finding ways to be unhappy despite all that opportunity.

But they’re all swimming in the same water.


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