Sometimes, I am reading a book and suddenly just mentally step back and admire the artistry of the author. It is a strange experience—the book has a plot, but I am not really noticing the plot but rather the amazing way the plot has been so deliberately constructed. It’s like watching a play from backstage; you notice how everything is done. I have this experience a lot when reading Wodehouse. And I just had that experience with Alice Munro.
Dear Life is her last volume of short stories, but it is the first of her work I have ever read. She won the Nobel prize, and I am quite happy to report, after reading just one book, I am certain she merited that award. As noted here before, I have been reading short stories on a regular basis for the last year or so as a means of overcoming my prior aversion to the form. Munro knocked the short story form into another realm. Short stories are, almost by definition, short. They are undeveloped relative to a novel. (That is, as I have figured out his last year, their virtue, not a flaw.) But, Munro writes novels which are the length of a short story. And it is that artistry which is stunning to observe.
I’ve never really had this sensation before. The story “Train,” for example, is 42 pages long, but finishing it, I felt like I just read a complete novel. The characters had depth and the plot was intricate and the story unfolded seemingly slowly with sudden reversals and revelations. Even now, I am a bit amazed that that story I just read was under 50 pages long. Then we have “Corrie” which was an even longer and fuller story than “Train,” but was actually only 20 pages long. I have that same wonder at many of the stories in this volume—the stories are longer than they actually are.
How does she do it? Well, obviously, there are no wasted words. Munro has mastered the art of compression, packing things which would take mere mortals pages to explain or show into a precisely crafted parenthetical aside. She is a master at creating the illusion that you have just read whole chapters of material between two connecting events in the story. After reading a volume like this, I am quite glad I do not fancy myself a writer of short stories—I would despair of ever being able to do so much in so few pages.
Another interesting feature of a book like this—it’s silly to even try to summarize the content of the volume. It would be like trying got write a quick summary of Faulkner or Dickens. In Munro, there is a longing for a better life, the illusion that if one just makes the right choices, all will be well. But, while I can write that, and while it is true of this book, what it leaves out makes a mockery of the statement.
Instead, far better to look at, say, “Pride,” which is (in a mere 21 pages) a brilliant examination of the absurd lengths to which pride will drive us; we often note that Pride gets in the way of forming genuine human relationships, but “Pride” (the story) shows that Pride (the Vice) can actually make life worse for the proud person. The story feels so natural, and when we see the proud making decisions which objectively make zero sense at all, it does not come across as a surprise, but rather as something that obviously a proud person would do. Pride is a tricky thing to manage, in other words. But why? Why should Pride result in self-destructive behavior? It does, but there is something odd about that fact. The way we normally think about Pride would suggest that the Proud should always be engaging in behavior which will benefit the Proud; to be filled with Pride seems to mean that one thinks of oneself as above all the lesser beings and that one who thought that way would act in a manner in which all actions are designed for self-benefit. Yet, it is true, as Munro’s story beautifully illustrates, that the Proud make decisions which will be harmful and they know they will be harmful, but somehow preserving Pride trumps objective self-interest. Quite honestly, I have a hard time understanding this; indeed, before seeing it so manifestly demonstrated in Munro’s story, I would have had a difficult time even articulating the problem.
Munro’s novels masquerading as short stories are like that—they grab a hold of an oddity of human behavior and throw it into marvelous relief by the act of compressing the story to its essence. As someone who is enamored with the Great Books, it is nice to read a brilliant contemporary writer. Given the choice between Munro and Chekhov, I’d now opt for Munro. That is high praise indeed.
Also high praise: this song and the story “Dolly” are each, in their own way, marvelous testaments to an enduring love.