Dear life. Dear God.
I have something kind of embarrassing to admit as a writer and as a woman and as a human being: this is the first Alice Munro I've ever read! I'm not sure why I've stayed away so long; I've heard of her for ages and always in the most respectful and awed ways. You know, like wow... Alice Munro is my favorite writer, Alice Munro understands the human condition better than anybody. That sort of talk. And now - I get it.
I tore through this one in a single solitary snow day (like two Saturdays ago at this point//scheduled post alert!). The thing I find so fascinating - and ultimately envy inducing - when I'm reading short stories is the way story tellers are able to slam you down into a world you know nothing about, amid characters you've never met, and within 20 pages or less, are able to make you care so deeply and feel so strongly about these strangers in this strange world (that's because, duh, they're no longer strangers to you now).
Munro is preoccupied with the themes of identity, chance, time and permanence -- she dwells in the tragic beauty of life's (hopefully) long and (almost always) surprising ways of changing course and how we, humans, react (or don't react) to these changes. Her characters flirt with fate and coincidence....random encounters becoming the impetus for entire identities shed and new ones put on, as easily as you might change clothes between work and dinner, discarding wool trousers for a silk skirt, something entirely new and fresh but seemingly meaningless. That's it, isn't it, with Munro - what makes her stories so compelling - is the casual way in which the narrator delivers the story. You get the impression that if these characters were telling you their stories in person - their crazy, twisted, life-changing stories, they'd be doing so with an offhand shrug of their shoulders rather than in wide eyed wonderment. Which -- isn't that kind of how life happens? It's subtle and sneaky and not grand and announcing.
I love nothing more than when an author is able to express so simply those vague, essentially human things we all struggle with and struggle to vocalize. What an extraordinary relief to read something and think "yes, exactly! THAT'S what I've meant to say this whole time!" In the autobiographical Night, a adolescent Munro faces for the first time those unexpected, often dangerous impulses we're all subject to - for her, it's the nightly visions of strangling her baby sister sleeping on the bottom bunk in their room. You know the thing - like you're driving down the interstate, passing the gated off HOV lanes and ramming your Civic headlong into them overwhelms your thoughts? When the guilt-ridden teenage Munro finally, anxiously, confesses her impulses to her father he says simply "People have those kind of thoughts sometimes." Yes, we do!
That's kind of the message behind all her stories here, I guess, though less murder-y. Most of her narrators are making rash, life altering decisions seemingly stuck permanently in their id, with no ego or subconscious to slow them down. Things we've probably all considered one or twice, in our more self-reflective moments - getting off the train one stop too soon to start all over, sharing a stolen afternoon with a stranger, defying parental warnings to indulge childish fantasies - you know, head-in-the-clouds kind of things you shake out of your brain once you float back down to earth and quickly forget about. Except Munro's characters actually do those things before they have a chance to forget them. And how cool is that, that we get to live out these everyman fantasies through her richly spun narratives? (p.s. after reading this, I'm pretty sure Munro is of the "the grass is always greener" mindset. These stories of chance and change don't often end so well). Munro's Dear Life is a Choose Your Own Adventure for the thinking adult set. #yolo