More than a dozen short-story collections since Canada's Alice Munro published her first book, and she now seems as much an institution as any living writer. We count on her for a particular variety of short story, the sort that gives us so much life within the bounds of a single tale that it nourishes us almost as much as a novel does.
The U.S. master of short fiction, Bernard Malamud, used to say that a short story predicates, that is, points us toward a life in all its fullness. Munro often does more than predicate; she delivers life, or, as she calls it in one of the quartet of autobiographical sketches included at the back of this new collection from which she takes her title, "dear life."
Dear indeed — as in precious or valuable — is our life as Munro sees it, whether the days and nights of childhood, midlife or those coming near the end. Munro focuses on every aspect of our ordinary existence and makes it seem as extraordinary as it actually is, as in the story "Gravel," where in the middle of a seemingly mundane family, a young child discovers an enormous and expensive complexity in the face of an accident that colors all of her remaining days; or in "To Reach Japan," a story that presents us with a turning point in the life of a young poet on the verge of marital betrayal and vast new knowledge of the world; or in "Train," which takes us along on one of the journeys Munro's characters often take — either by rail, auto or on foot — this one carrying us into the lives of two strangers who at first we think are so perfectly unsuited for each other that the life they make together becomes a miracle in itself, until death does them part.
Dear life. Dear also means expensive, as Munro lays out for us in a number of other stories, including "Amundsen," about a teacher who takes a job in a remote hospital for sickly children and discovers the costly nature of first love. In "Corrie," a small-town affair turns out costing literally much more than a duped partner might ever have imagined. "Leaving Maverley" gives us some unsuspected twists and turns that eventually transform deep grief on the part of a character whose role goes from minor to major over the course of about 20 pages.
Most of these stories take place in the small Ontario towns that serve as unpretentious settings for Munro's powerful propensity to reveal the profound in the everyday. And though we travel a lot, we settle in fully realized scenes and recollection, and in forceful exposition in these ordinary places where the extraordinary takes place, as when the main character in "Train," a young man just home from the war, jumps a train and, after riding for a while, jumps from it. Munro writes:
"Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by things you didn't know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn't see."
The ride, the jump, the surmise; it's that feeling of holding on for dear life and then letting go that these stories reward us with.