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Dear Life – Alice Munro

December 16, 2012


I’ve reviewed Dear Life, Alice Munro’s 14th collection of short fiction, over at Civilian. Here’s an extract from the review:

An intriguing insight into Munro’s working methods is gained by comparing a story which appears here, “In Sight of the Lake”, with an earlier iteration of the same story which appeared, some nine months before Dear Life’s publication, in the British literary magazine Granta (Issue 118). It’s instructive to read the two drafts in parallel: for the most part – despite the central character undergoing a name change from the terse Jean to the more resonant Nancy – the story unfolds more or less unchanged in both versions, right up to its final twist. We follow Jean/Nancy wandering an unfamiliar town in search of the doctor’s office where she has an appointment for tests of her mental acuity, the terrible irony being that she can’t remember the name or address of her doctor. Finally she becomes trapped in a surreal reception hall whose every doorway – including the one by which she’s entered – is locked. Here we have the change. In the Granta version, the final section, as Jean is rescued by a nurse named Sandy, we realise that she has all along been in a home of some sort, and has dreamed, hallucinated or fantasised all that’s come before. This version runs to an economical 200 words, in which we learn a little about Sandy which might be conjecture or facts Jean knows but her dementia makes her believe is conjecture. It ends with Jean’s lengthy, frantic attempt to explain herself, and a gut-punch of a final line from Sandy:

“… You see, I have an appointment to see a doctor whose name I can’t seem to get straight but I was supposed to find him here and I have followed some directions as well as I could but no luck. I felt that I’d got into some ridiculous sort of trap and I must have a tendency to be claustrophobic, it was alarming –”

“Oh, Jean, hurry up,” said Sandy. “I’m behind already and I have to get you into your nightie and all. That’s the same thing you tell me every time.”

By the time of Dear Life, more than 100 words have been cut from this final section; we don’t need to know anything more of Sandy than her name and that she’s a nurse, and that killer last line is oddly softened and muted by the revisions. “What did you dream about now?” she asks Nancy, and when placid Nancy’s able to recall the type of car she used to drive at the time she was dreaming of, the nurse replies: “See? You’re sharp as a tack,” says Sandy, and it’s ironic enough, capturing a sort of absent-minded bare minimum of care and kindness – but somehow not mean enough for Munro. In some ways, reading these two drafts in parallel is a kind of instructional masterclass, showing the kind of material a ruthless “compressor” will cut out of a story. On the other hand, to my mind the Granta version is unquestionably superior which, subjective though that assessment is, makes me wonder what prompted the revisions, the slackening of that final scene, and whether Munro’s famous gift for “compression” has sometimes made her stories suffer.

Previously in Books on The Fire Show:
‘How does Alice do it?’: A review of Too Much Happiness, Munro’s 13th book of stories, and an attempted investigation into how her best stories operate.
Two new books on alternative music: Richard King’s history of indie music record labels How Soon is Now and a magisterial oral history of grunge music in Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child: “The problem is that in the work of an author who really does not write comedy, this biscuit-tray portentousness, intended maybe as a bit of a lark, just looks foolish.”
David Mitchell’s first foray into historical fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: “It’s no insult to say I treated it as a (very superior) beach read – of the sort one simultaneously wants to guzzle in a few long sittings, and to prolong as long as possible its many pleasures.”

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