A few weeks ago I finally managed to pick up a short story collection by Alice Munro, this year’s Nobel laureate, and since then I’ve been slowly working my way through it. The collection, titled Dear Life, stays largely within the confines of Munro’s native Canada, right around Lake Huron, chronicling the everyday worlds of a broad cast of characters ranging from a frustrated housewife to a soldier not quite returning home to a teacher beginning her work in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Each of the first ten stories story deals with some moment that becomes pivotal for her characters, some action or inaction that will, if not define each life, certainly alter its course considerably. Munro’s style is fairly simple and straightforward, opting more for depth of character and clarity rather than linguistic pyrotechnics. But she doesn’t let a single ounce of meaning slip away through her sparse words. Munro consistently lays out complex, beautiful lives in the elegant simplicity of everyday language.
What really strikes me about these pieces is how much she draws out of such a simple style. Her stories all feel guarded, like lives. Pivotal moments are always touched upon gently, as if still painful, or with the reluctant yearning we feel when discussing with ourselves the dreams we have or once had. But that hesitance is almost deeper than any image or description you would expect. Her characters retreat into themselves the way we do, and we watch them do so like we watch each other. It’s subtle, but it’s human, and it’s very moving when done correctly. Munro does it correctly. It was odd for me reading these, being someone who is more prone to like more acrobatic stylists like Rushdie or Joyce, but there’s a power to the way she puts her characters together out of simple words and images, out of the everyday and ordinary.
The last four stories of Dear Life (rounding out the total count to fourteen) are autobiographical in nature, a departure for Munro who hasn’t written about her own life before, and I haven’t yet gotten through all of them (I’m about half way). As Munro says in the short opening to this segment of the collection, these stories are not necessarily entirely factual. They are her own life made into her stories, melding her fiction and her history into works that serve to describe her childhood in those moments she felt shaped her. They make perfect sense following the other ten stories in Dear Life, coloring her own life in much the same tones she uses for her characters. The collection as a whole draws its beauty from the lives it traces, from their quiet, restrained nature, and the way in which Munro deftly draws meaning and power from their jagged, often short but always wonderful, arcs. Few writers can inlay so much depth into so few words.