Dear Life. Munro, Alice.

Munro, Alice. Dear Life. McClelland and Stewart Toronto 2012. F;3/13.

I calculate Ms. Munro is over 80, and she looks it in the very nice picture on the dust jacket. My impression of these stories is different from the one I had of her last collection, Too Much Happiness. These stories seem to emphasize what I would call off-center relationships. Non-sexual intimate male-female ones, casually sexual ones where you wouldn’t expect them, and deeply ambiguous ones where you think somebody is really good or bad but you can’t be sure. I don’t feel the same superficial jauntiness upset by sudden hairpin turns.

The collection ends with some autobiographical narrative, which the author hints might be last thing she writes, or publishes. There I imagine I can see where the mid-20th-century, rural-based, deeply conservative tone I tried to characterize in my review of Happiness comes from. I mean by conservative conserving like my mother-in-law keeping tinfoil and plastic containers. Habits which my own mother struggled to break, formed from poverty. I identify this with Saskatchewan prairie, but of course it also exists or existed in small-town Ontario, and no doubt everywhere else in Canada in the 30s. Sinclair Lewis does the flat statement of emotional and mental life through mundane narrative events perfectly, and so does Alice Monroe. Life’s right there, plain for anyone to see. And she lived it, she now as much as tells us.

I watched my patients get frail and die, and know that the texture and intent of that 1930-1950 life is disappearing with them, as surely as will whatever we baby boomers end up amounting to. It’s sinking already. The kindergartens are full of people who may never write with a pen. My brother reflected that in three generations what you were has completely disappeared and nobody even knows who you were. Your great-great-grandchildren don’t know your name let alone the influences you contended with and what it felt like to be, and see, you at your best and worst.

I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives…

says Annie Dillard. It’s no help (as somebody said about Alice Munro) to be the living writer most likely still being read a hundred years from now. With each century, even decade, the words on the page assume the new truth the new ones are telling.  The old story is really gone. 8.9/9.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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