Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates – those doyennes of the North American short story – both have striking new story collections, Munro’s 14th and Oates’ 25th.
But it is the older Munro’s “Dear Life” that transcends the genre, with four of its 14 stories being, in her own words, “the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”
Munro has ventured this way before, but never so deeply as in this extraordinary quartet, comprising the collection’s (and perhaps Munro’s?) “finale” – which she begins, gently, with “The Eye.”
Layered, like all of Munro’s seemingly simple yet profound stories, “The Eye” finds Munro questioning authority from an early age: “When I was five my parents all of a sudden produced a baby boy, which my mother said was what I always wanted. Where she got this idea I did not know. She did quite a bit of elaborating on it, all fictitious but hard to counter … It was with my brother’s coming, though … that I began to accept how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own.”
A simple thought with lifelong repercussions – one that set Munro early on a quest for “what was true and what wasn’t” and how she “knew enough not to talk to anybody about this.”
With “Night,” the finale’s second story, we learn that Munro, as a girl, had an emergency appendectomy, which, she was not told till much later, also revealed a growth “the size of a turkey’s egg” – another early untruth, or half truth, this time of omission. (And we have the selfish thought: How close we came to not having Alice Munro!)
What was certainly true, however, was Munro’s “unsettled” relationship with her sister Catherine, five years her junior, and how, in adolescence, Munro harbored an unspeakable thought for no other reason than that she had thought it:
“I must not even think of it but I did think of it. The thought was there and hanging in my mind. The thought that I could strangle my little sister, who was asleep in the bunk below me and whom I loved more than anybody in the world …”
For countless nights, Munro takes walks in the dark, to keep herself – and Catherine – from the thought. In time, Munro tells her father of it – and the way this hard-working, thoughtful man handles the situation is packed in so tender a set of paragraphs that we can only read and reread and wonder and somehow sense, as if it were today, Munro’s father, just outside, smoking a cigarette and tempering his words to a troubled teenage Munro.
We know the sequence of events here is told in works that, as Munro explains, “are not quite stories” but are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” Yet we feel honored by their intimacy, as if we have been singled out to share in these beautifully rendered confidences.
“Voices,” third in the quartet, speaks to Munro’s relationship with a mother not liked much by others who would begin suffering from a rare form of Parkinson’s in her 40s.
Here, Munro continues to let us in on her process – describing a party she attends with her mother where she sees a woman (obviously a prostitute) flamboyantly dressed in low-cut “golden-orange taffeta” for the dignified event.
“I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened,” Munro interjects, “I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need.”
The Canada of Munro’s rural Ontario childhood comes through loud and clear here, and perhaps particularly so in the title story, “Dear Life,” one of six stories in this new collection previously published in The New Yorker.
Munro’s childhood home, she recalls, “turned its back on the village; it faced west across slightly downsloping fields to the hidden curve where the river (the Maitland) made what was called the Big Bend … And even farther away, on another hillside, was another house, quite small at that distance, facing ours, that we would never visit or know … But we knew the name of the man who lived there … Roly Grain, his name was, and he doesn’t have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.” Yes, “only life.”
Here, Munro recounts an incident her mother told her of many times, concerning “a crazy old woman Mrs. Netterfield” – known for threatening a grocery boy with a hatchet. When Munro – her parents’ firstborn, after two miscarriages – was left outside napping as an infant, her mother spied Mrs. Netterfield coming toward the baby carriage, and raced to retrieve Munro, running with her “for dear life.”
It is only after her mother’s death that Munro comes to know the truth about Mrs. Netterfield and why she was probably approaching their home. An ordinary truth, but breathtaking all the same, as is the way with Munro’s work.
And this is perhaps never more so than in the final stories of “Dear Life,” a quartet so simple yet profound it is as if there is no more of the Munro onion to peel.
Other of her stories here, most also previously published, deal just as baldly with the human condition, doubt and discomfort and, in two cases, physical disability.
Joyce Carol Oates, mistress of anguish and the macabre, does all of that as well – in her latest story collection, “Black Dahlia & White Rose” – while remaining on her signature dark side.
Unlike Munro, who completes her new collection with her title story, Oates chooses to begin with hers.
Marilyn Monroe, the protagonist of Oates’ celebrated 2000 novel “Blonde,” is the roommate here of another aspiring actress Elizabeth “Betty” Short – known as the Black Dahlia after her lurid murder in Los Angeles at the age of 22.
“It is too terrible for me to say,” Monroe (still Norma Jeane Baker) mulls. “It is too terrible to think of Betty Short in this way, who was my friend and my s-sister … Oh Betty what has happened to you! Who would do such a thing & why – why to you?”
Oates uses the ampersand in lieu of the word “and” throughout this story – which also highlights Monroe’s penchant for stuttering.
Whether or not Monroe actually roomed with Short is of course moot here: “Black Dahlia & White Rose” is unsettling on many levels, and we mourn the disillusion of both young women, lost to the worlds they sought so eagerly.
Deceit, abuse, indifference – and full-blown violence – reign, in varying degrees, in this and the 10 other stories in the collection, most of them published initially in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Ellery Queen, Playboy and other venues.
In one, called “Roma!,” a wife ponders “the particular beauty of another’s decay – not our own.” And we know all over again why it is we cannot turn away from the deep recesses of Oates’ mind.
Dear Life: Stories By Alice Munro
Knopf; 319 pages, $26.95
Black Dahlia & White Rose: Stories By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco; 274 pages, $24.99
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.