Here Alice Munro provides readers with bitter insight into what a real life might become when it treads along a twisted road toward somewhere unknown, or, rather, unpredicted. Dear Life has fourteen short stories people might just expect from the Nobel laureate, but they will have to be ready for more than that. For they might encounter characters they will hate so much, or ones they will hate so much to love, and unsettling narratives they will want to scream at, but which they think possible and not gruelingly unusual.
Of all the short written accounts, the last four are said to be Munro’s fictionalized versions of her childhood memories. Despite this, the other ten are not necessarily deprived of the familiar setting I’m sure is Munro’s own surroundings through her lifetime. So however fictitious those ten stories are, there is still something personal about the writer in each of them, something that we can draw some conclusions from about what life she’s lived in some ways. There’s more to them, though, than merely personal hints on what actually formed her narratives. There is the characters, ones that are often sketches of infidel people as in To Reach Japan, Leaving Maverly, Gravel, and Carrie. But they are not such bad people, nor does Munro try to depict them so. They are people who cannot help what they do, or who just follow where the road takes them to. Sometimes it’s the road they wish to travel, sometimes it’s doubtfully not.
Speaking of taking the road in front, Train is the most gripping tale of all for its character’s indecisiveness—if it could even be called indecisiveness. Jackson, a young soldier coming back from the war, only goes with the flow, going where the wind and the railroad take him. He doesn’t plan his life, nor does he decide anything to do, he lets his path and any circumstance prevailing decide it for him. When he stops at a ranch on the way home, he never knows that being agitated by a restless cow will lead him to so many years of life there, at first doing some repair work for the ranch owner and then for her neighbors, and later living with and caring for her as her friend and family. He doesn’t intend to do so, nor does he intend to do so forever, for when there is a hint of it ending sooner rather than later, he takes a turn and nips it in the bud. Later on, he even takes a more twisted path as he almost encounters his past girlfriend, if we could call her so, for he doesn’t want to face his awkward past, or perhaps he just doesn’t want to face the fact that their relationship is more complicated than he wants it to be.
Pride is another compelling story, especially for its physically and psychologically imperfect character. “Imperfect” may be a simple, negative word, but it can always strike your pride and makes you want to cast out people around because their existence and help will only make you feel like an incapable person unfit for anything and even for being independent. It is, more or less, what Munro seems to project the main character to be, for it is what the reader gets from his nature, from the way he behaves and thinks. He lives alone with his mother, as Oneida, one of his townspeople he’s quite acquainted with, does with her father. When the man falls sick, Oneida takes care of him, whether he wants her to or not. As he gradually recovers, however, things get awkward for he doesn’t wish to get anymore of her helping hand, especially when she offers to live with him in his empty house now that his mother has passed away. He refuses it, he rejects it, for pride or anything else that prevents him from feeling pity for himself. But then he realizes that it is Oneida who deserves pity more.
Closely scrutinized, with Dear Life Alice Munro seems to want to hold a mild, subtle and yet firm rebellion against the society, religion, even against fate that has its title to mold and direct what lives people should live. The narratives she presents to readers suggest that they are somewhat stirred by characters unwilling to comply with any rules but their own, even creating no path but their own. They seem so unbounded, unrestrained like those in the last four stories (The Eye, Night, Voices, and Dear Life), where she, to some extent, describes herself as a rebellion who cannot just say yes to her mother’s orders. This notion seems affirmed when in the story Haven Munro ironically tells about a man called Uncle Jasper who cannot live without confirming to his religion’s strict rules and customs. He is so adamant that his own sister only gets his cold shoulder, even until to her grave, and his wife can only be the “yessir” robot for she fears he might treat her the same way or explode unreasonably. If this is not a criticism of common radical obedience, I don’t know what.
Alice Munro doesn’t try to be smart in her use of language or style, she appears to be modest at most: simple, humble, to the point, though she is at the same time not deterred from complicating the plots and/or obscuring the storylines, like those of Leaving Maverly, Train, and Pride. She cleverly manages to trick readers into believing in her simplicity and text readability while the context of each fictional narrative is so much more than that. Zooming them in, however, those stories are most likely not made up of events with any chronological orders, but rather of the complicatedness of the characters inhabiting their realms. It is those characters who drive the plot motors, it is them who create such complexity which leads to secret love affairs, troubled childhood, lost, suspicion that at the end the reader comes to a feeling of bitterness. Or probably they come to no end at all, for our dear life is so full of mystery.
Like it or not, Dear Life is a book that somehow, inexpicably, can make readers rather feel bad at the end, and yet it has the beauty that not many stories have. The impression it makes on the reader is then generally as complicated as its own contents.