It’s said that at least a third, and maybe half, of Americans never read a book after leaving high school. Of those who do, the most popular genres are mystery, thriller, history and biography, trailed by science fiction, romance, spirituality and vampires. This leaves approximately 12 adult Americans who are consuming books of short stories. Maybe 14, depending on the reliability of the poll data.
Somehow, however, a few writers are eking out an existence by penning short stories for popular consumption, and among them, Canadian Alice Munro leads the pack. Once hailed as our generation’s Chekov, Munro has published 14 books, all but one of which is volumes of short stories. Her latest is Dear Life, and it’s a continuation of her theme: plain words exquisitely strung into a finer, worthier thing, like a thin strand of Mikimoto pearls whose value is only revealed by its clasp.
For those who haven’t read much in the way of short stories since the tortured anthologies of college, Munro’s easy voice and plain-spoken style are inviting. No need for a dictionary here. Nor, for that matter, a great deal of thought, at least not as the stories unfold. The comparison to the Russian Anton Chekov came by virtue of Munro’s seeming aversion to plot. Not much happens in these stories, and in some, not much happens for a long time. A relationship unfolds between a doctor and a teacher. A mother takes her young daughter on a train. A woman scopes out the directions for a visit to an unfamiliar doctor the next day.
But the mundane must exist for the later chance to be startled. You must be used to seeing sparrows frolicking in a bird bath to be shocked when you come across one full of small skunks.
“Flashing and dancing and never getting in each other’s way, so you could not tell how many there were, where each body started or stopped.”
Just like this description from “Pride,” each story in Dear Life startles in its own way: sometimes from a blandly horrifying conclusion, other times from an unseen twist, sometimes from your own “What the heck just happened here?” response evocative of your high school English IV torment.
In all, the language is lovely. Now 81, Munro has been writing since high school, and her innate gifts, combined with decades of polishing her craft, make her a highly pleasurable read. A description of one character from the masterful “Amundsen:”
“Matron herself was short and stout, pink-faced, with rimless glasses and heavy breathing. Whatever you asked for seemed to astonish her, and cause difficulties, but eventually it was seen to, or provided. Sometimes she ate in the nurse’s dining room, where she was served a special junket, and cast a pall.”
Dear Life, too, benefits from the wisdom earned of eight decades’ living. From “Pride:”
“And I thought then, Just living long enough wipes out the problems. Puts you in a select club. No matter what your disabilities may have been, just living till now wipes them out, to a good measure. Everybody’s face will have suffered, never just yours.”
Everyone from Mark Twain to T.S. Eliot has been credited for the quip, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” For anyone putting words on paper, it’s easier to ramble and spew, to hope that somewhere in the great heaving of gravel someone encounters a jewel. Munro’s gift is to create a world we care about in 30 pages, while other writers demand 10 times that to make their points. If we occasionally don’t understand one — and what anthology doesn’t have at least one story that leaves us befuddled? — there’s another world waiting. Just turn the page. A — Jennifer Graham