Alice Munro ©Derek Shapman

Alice Munro: reality hunger

Does the Nobel Prize-winning author mistrust the power of fiction?
December 12, 2012
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Chatto & Windus, £18.99)

A diligent literary novelist might be counted on to write between one and two dozen books over the course of a career. Along the way, most authors will develop a template, consciously or not, and the more times it is returned to, the less vivid the work that results.

A continued willingness to start from scratch, to discard old ideas about how a story works, is the common trait that binds those masters still able to cast a spell into their 70s or 80s. Here (the recently retired) Philip Roth comes to mind. James Wood once called Roth a “stealth postmodernist,” because he is “intensely interested in fabrication, in the performance of the self, in the reality we make up in order to live.” But his fiction expresses this interest, as Roth himself writes, “without sacrificing the factuality of time and place to surreal fakery or magic-realist gimmickry.” Despite an apparent commitment to realism, this attention to fabrication is the reason Roth’s work continued to remain fresh after more than half a century, though he returned obsessively to the same subject matter—“Family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew,” as he has put it.

Much the same could be said for Alice Munro. Sixty years ago, a 21-year-old Munro wrote “The Day of the Butterfly,” the earliest of the stories included in her first collection, The Dance of the Happy Shades. Since then she has published more than 100 stories. Fifteen years have passed since the publication of her selected stories solidified her standing among the finest writers in the English language, and the collections she has published since then—particularly The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway—contain work with more vitality than anything else she has written.

Most of these stories are set in Toronto or the rural areas of Ontario surrounding Lake Huron. They share an unruffled elegance and wise generosity that feels hard earned, although it has been present from the very beginning. For all that, Munro’s stories are remarkable in their formal diversity. Considered carefully, they don’t look much alike.

Some of Munro’s work relies on the subtle, life-altering epiphany that is the standard engine of the post-Chekhov literary story, but often her stories are driven by events that border on the melodramatic. There are moments of sudden violence—anyone who thinks of Munro as the author of well-made but quiet domestic tales should count the number of murders in her work—and then stretches of pages in which years and disappointments accrue so unobtrusively that their cumulative power is equally shocking. And then there is something else.

Beginning perhaps in the mid-1980s, with the collection The Progress of Love, Munro’s writing has been coloured by doubts about the process of storytelling itself. Here are the first lines of “Differently,” published by the New Yorker in 1989:

“Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.

Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it. Georgia herself thought that it was fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story. The instructor said that she expected too much, of herself and of the project, and that she was wearing him out.”

Munro’s earliest stories were exemplary entries in the “grandfather killing chickens” genre, but with each passing collection she seems more haunted by what must be left out to achieve elegance. One result of 60 years spent composing hundreds of stories seems to be a nagging suspicion that most storytelling is a form of evasion, a means of escaping the truth rather than confronting or capturing it. It is an odd mark of Munro’s mastery that she is often seen as the standard-bearer of an imperilled brand of subtle realism while her stories have proven increasingly sceptical of realism’s power to contain the mess of life.

This tendency has reached a kind of culmination in her latest collection, Dear Life. The first story, “To Reach Japan,” focuses on an engineer named Peter and his wife, Greta, a poet.

To Peter, stories are meant to be entertainment—it would be pointless to analyse them. He believes that “the people who put them together were probably doing the best they could.” In response, “Greta used to argue, rashly asking whether he would say the same thing about a bridge. The people who did it did their best but their best was not good enough so it fell down.”

Munro examines this clash of beliefs—on the one hand, that stories are harmless diversion; on the other, that a badly made story, like a badly made bridge, might destroy lives—throughout Dear Life, returning to it compulsively.

In “Leaving Maverley,” a girl named Leah takes a job collecting tickets at the local cinema, although her family’s religion forbids her from watching the movies played there. When she asks Ray, the night patrolman who walks her home each night, why she heard people in the theatre laughing, he explains “that there were stories being told… that the stories were often about crooks and innocent people... Dressed up actors making a big show of killing each other... People getting up from being murdered in various ways the moment the camera was off them. Alive and well, though you had just seen them shot or on the executioner’s block with their heads rolling in a basket.”

When Leah begins to rebel from her strict upbringing in a way that suggests she has taken these stories too much to heart, she is punished by life—not in the melodramatic fashion of popular movies, but in the all too real ways from which victims can’t simply get back up when the camera turns off. Except, of course, that Leah and Ray and all of Munro’s other characters are themselves just words on a page, no more real than the characters on the movie screen.

This is the question that animates many of the stories in Dear Life: how can fiction—with its made-up characters, its artificial narrative conventions, its omissions—ever really capture reality? Throughout these stories, Munro reminds us of this dilemma in subtle but unmistakeable ways. This insistent note builds until we reach the last four works in the collection, which are separated into a section headed “Finale.” This section comes with a curious author’s note: “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and closest—things I have to say about my own life.”

Like so much of Munro’s writing, this statement is deceptive in its simplicity. What does it mean to say these works are autobiographical in “feeling” but not in “fact”? For that matter, even if they were works of stringent non-fiction, why would that make them “not quite stories”? Munro has often drawn from her own life for her fiction. What makes these “works” so different? Munro’s distinction echoes a similar note at the beginning of her collection The View From Castle Rock, in which she describes the process by which works based on her research into her family history evolved from “something like stories” into stories, full stop. Here it would seem the usual process has not been applied. It’s tempting to find in this a caveat lector: what follows will not offer the typical satisfactions of a story. But given Munro’s increasing worry with the evasion or manipulation that come as the price of such satisfactions, I think she means to pay the works in this last section a compliment when she says they aren’t “quite stories.”

When using personal material in the past, Munro’s aim was not to say something about her life, but to make of it something other than life—namely, stories. Here, she emphasizes that such a transformation is not taking place. In so doing, she shows us what gets lost in the way of honesty when life is turned into stories. “I think if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress,” she writes. Or, in another of these final pieces, “You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health failing. It wouldn’t do in fiction.”

The first of these stories, “The Eye,” about Munro’s early family life, goes further, highlighting the way fiction can be used to assert power over others. “When I was five years old my parents all of a sudden produced a baby boy, which my mother said was what I had always wanted,” writes Munro. “Where she got this idea I did not know. She did quite a bit of elaborating on it, all fictitious but hard to counter… Up until the time of the first baby I had never been aware of ever feeling different from the way my mother said I felt.”

Yet for all her anxiety about the coercive power of fiction, Munro is among the least manipulative fiction writers imaginable. As Hegel said of Shakespeare, she writes characters that are free artists of themselves, liable to shoot off in directions inconvenient to the author. This is what gives Munro’s stories their odd shape—their feeling of too many things going on, and too many people—as well as their vitality. If these last not-quite-stories are not among Munro’s best, it is precisely because they feel too restricted, too beholden to the truth. It is the stories in this collection that are about Munro’s life that seem least to live themselves.

In contrast, “Leaving Maverley” and several others here—stories that do rank among Munro’s best, which is to say, among the best by any writer alive—remind us of the paradox of great fiction: it depends precisely on the illusion of vitality. The old postmodern trick of exposing the artificiality of fiction is too often used by writers simply to remind us that stories are cheap. At its best, Munro’s fiction manages to remind us instead that life is dear.