Summing up an entire lifetime in a book seems either impossible or depressing. We hope that our lives cannot be compressed into a single volume. With her new collection of stories, “Dear Life,” Alice Munro attempts to do this, but she ultimately fails in offering more than flat emotion and damp desolation.
The stories read as though she asked people who survived traumatic experiences about the moment that ended their happiness in life. Accidents, deaths, divorces, affairs and departures form the common thread of the stories as adverse phenomena that we humans cannot predict or prevent. The highlights of the collection, “In Sight of the Lake,” “Gravel” and “Eye,” respectively tell of dementia, a frozen pond accident and a babysitter’s death.
As modern readers, we don’t want to be coddled with happy endings, but we still search for variety in thought.
The individual is both sacrificed and nurtured in her stories, with a push and pull between isolation and universality of man. Even a common observation can turn into a manifestation of this idea, such as when a character reads the sign of a town she is driving through: “Population 1,553. Why do they bother to put the three on? Every soul counts.”
Existential snippets like these can be insightful, but their excessive repetition just weighs down the stories. That is not to say that stories need to be lighthearted, but they perhaps need to be more diverse. Each character is an individual, but while reading, it is difficult to distinguish one story from the next because the voice never changes beyond a switch from third-person to first-person.
Munro’s writing style, of course, helped make her famous. But her fragmented sentences don’t give off the air of a “great” writer such as Hemingway’s could. The bleak, short sentences are bare bones, without the rosy flesh that Munro is capable of yet underutilizes. The pacing of the sentences is uniform, describing a man getting run over by a train in the same calm rhythm as a man giving directions. Perhaps Munro’s hand is too visible in the stories as a writer and a person, making them irregular and unlike the smoother writing of her final four accounts.
The last four chapters are prefaced as “autobiographical in feeling” and “the first and last things” Munro has to say about her life. When reaching this page, the reader, after slugging through the first eight stories, perks up and automatically is more interested in a real person. These are the stories that the reader wishes would stand alone as their own book. They are the same style as the short fictional chapters preceding them, but because they are based on real experiences, one is able to relate with more ease.
The most interesting insight, which becomes especially noticeable in the last four chapters, is Munro’s tendency to point out memories of a younger age and interpret them with present-day knowledge. It isn’t simply nostalgia but a realization that the gaudy woman at a holiday party was really a prostitute, and that was why Mother made you leave early. Or that the thoughts about killing your sister that swarmed you as a child on ether after a surgery were not normal, despite Father’s reassurances.
Munro says that “people have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life.” However, the reader hopes that Munro would have more thoughts about life besides the ones she fixates on in the book. The reader questions whether life can properly be shrunk into four stories, or even an entire book, in “Dear Life” but receives no answers.
A.J. Kiyoizumi is the lead literature critic. Contact A.J. at [email protected].